Carl Levin remembered as tenacious advocate who stood for what was right

Friends and colleagues of Sen. Carl Levin, the longest-serving U.S. senator in Michigan history who died Thursday at age 87, remembered him as a tenacious advocate, kind colleague and devoted family man who deeply loved his home state. 

A lifelong public servant and proud Detroiter, Levin began his career as a defense attorney, joined the Detroit City Council, and later served in the U.S. Senate for 36 years and chaired the Armed Services Committee.

Colleagues appreciated his willingness to listen and work across the aisle, noting his humility and respect for everyone. They said he always stood up for what was right and fought on behalf of the "little guy." 

Sen. Carl Levin

Levin's nephew, U.S. Rep. Andy Levin of Bloomfield Township, recalled his uncle walking about the U.S. Capitol in a rumpled suit, often in a plain white shirt and "pedestrian" tie, "carrying bulging files with the occasional paper flying away."

"Carl was the very picture of sober purpose and rectitude. In truth, he wasn’t unfun. In fact, he often pierced tense situations with self-deprecating humor, and he privately shared incisive observations about others with staff and colleagues," Andy Levin said. 

He added that his uncle was so well-prepared for every meeting and hearing that he challenged "conventional boundaries" between lawmaker and staff.

"He was one of the most challenging senators to work for and one of the most rewarding," he said. "Challenging, because you had better know your business in detail, since he surely did. Rewarding, because he had authentic relationships with staff, treated them with deep respect and was loyal to them." 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement that Levin was “revered” in Congress and the nation for his commitment to the public good. 

“He was a leader committed to justice and accountability at every step, from the campus to the courtroom, the city council to the Congress,” Pelosi said.

“As Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he brought principle and patriotism to his work, understanding that America’s strength is found not only in our military might, but in our faithfulness to our values. His respect for the dignity of all people embodied the best of America.”

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan described Levin was "first and foremost a dedicated family man."

"He will be remembered as a champion for civil rights, for his protection of the U.S. auto industry and for securing critical funding to begin the redevelopment of our internationally acclaimed riverfront," Duggan said. "His legacy will live on forever in the hearts of Detroiters."

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, who served with Levin in the upper chamber for 14 years, said he was a mentor and role model. 

"Watching him up close in the Senate was really extraordinary," she said. 

She recalled his passion for Michigan's "beautiful landscapes" and their efforts to expand the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which was formed through a bill that Levin sponsored.

"He respected people and was able to work with people on both sides of the aisle, even when he disagreed with people," she said. "He reflected the way the Senate should work, not the obstructionism and divisiveness we see today."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said that Levin's tenure in the Senate was marked by a "tireless commitment to our auto industry, Great Lakes and men and women in uniform."

He "paved the way for a safer planet," passed nuclear weapons and missile treaties, spoke out against entering the War in Iraq and secured funding for the Detroit Riverwalk. 

"Carl would often wear his glasses on the tip of his nose, but he saw the best in us," Whitmer said. "He saw what we were capable of when we came to the table as Michiganders, as Americans, to get things done. Carl devoted his life to public service, and it us up to us to follow his example."

Former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard hailed Levin as a role model for those who seek to serve the public, noting he was often called "the conscience of the Senate."

"His work in Michigan on civil rights, his advocacy in Washington for peace in the world and jobs here at home was tireless. There is hardly an issue we face that Carl Levin hasn’t tried to master and solve," said Blanchard, who knew the senator for 50 years.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Dearborn Democrat, said Carl Levin was her late husband John Dingell Jr.'s best friend and partner in Congress.

The Dingell and Levin families have been "a strong force for over 70 years," she said. Indeed, Levin's father, Saul, was involved in the political campaign of U.S. Rep. John Dingell Sr.

"I will always remember his words, ‘If you don’t come to elected office willing to compromise, you don’t come wanting to govern.’ That’s the kind of elected official he was — respectful, willing to listen, and ready to get to work," Dingell said. 

"I know John is welcoming Carl with open arms and a twinkle in his eye and that they are both watching over us all."

Many politicians on Thursday recalled their first meeting with him and his earnest encouragement for them to consider public life. 

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, had briefed Levin as a young CIA officer, and he later chaired her confirmation hearing for her post at the Pentagon during the Obama administration. His love for Michigan and national security was "a rare combination," she said.

"I would find him nearly buried among stacks of papers and with his glasses on the end of his nose, and he would provide wise counsel without pretension," Slotkin said. 

"The juxtaposition of Carl Levin and many of the elected leaders in Washington today could not be more stark, and it makes his passing even more mournful. He was whip-smart, thoughtful, decent and, despite his long career, deeply humble."

Angie Povilaitis, an attorney who was the lead prosecutor in former Michigan State University sports doctor Larry Nassar's case, said she spent a summer in college interning for Levin on Capitol Hill and that he had led her into public service. 

"It was one of the most impactful experiences of my life. His example — the hardest working senator, leading with integrity — inspired me to go into public service," she tweeted. 

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, a Flint Township Democrat, said Carl Levin was a "master legislator and giant" in the Senate and was his political idol as a young man. Kildee remembered that he wrote to Levin and that he responded by setting a meeting with him.

"I have vivid memories volunteering on Carl’s first campaign for Senate in 1978," Kildee said. "I looked up to Carl then the same way I do today. Never did I imagine years later I would get the privilege of serving with Carl in the United States Congress."

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson is former dean of the Wayne State University Law School, where she co-taught a class on legislation and leadership with Levin and launched his namesake Levin Center.

When she decided to run for office in 2018, she recalled Levin was "unhesitatingly all in," hosting events, calling supporters and nominating her at the Michigan Democratic Party Convention.

"He was a constant source of wisdom and support, always encouraging me to lead courageously and always having my back," Benson said. 

"In our last conversation I thanked him for writing his memoirs at a time when we all desperately need to learn more of how he served 36 years in the U.S. Senate and a lifetime in politics while remaining steadfastly humble, loyal, devoted and kind." 

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, remembered seeking Levin's advice when he first came to Washington in 2009. 

"Senator Levin would always extend his hand to get things done for the betterment of our country — and today’s Congress would do well to follow his example of commonsense problem-solving," he said.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy called Levin an icon and an innovator.

"No matter how busy he was, he was engaged and attentive," she said. "Whenever I contacted him for help and assistance, he met with me, not his staffers, whether it was in D.C. or Detroit. There was no one like him."

Michigan Republicans also praised the former senator Thursday night. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Holland, called him "a strong voice not only for Michigan but for the standing of Congress as an institution."

Former Attorney General Bill Schuette said Levin "made a huge impact" on the state and country. "He was a gentleman, a fighter for Michigan and a wise voice in the Senate."