Former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan's longest-serving senator, dead at 87

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Carl Levin, the longest-serving U.S. senator in Michigan history and former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has died at age 87.

The death was announced late Thursday by his namesake, the Levin Center at Wayne State University Law School, where he was chairman and a distinguished legislator in residence. 

The cause of death was not immediately known, but Levin had been receiving treatment for lung cancer.

Levin, Michigan's first Jewish senator, served 36 years in the upper chamber starting in 1979 as a supporter of Detroit's automakers, defender of the Great Lakes, and a champion of tax fairness and ethics reform.  

Never tainted by scandal, the Detroit Democrat was called "Mr. Integrity" by now-Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, when he retired in 2015. 

He is survived by his wife, Barbara Halpern-Levin, three daughters and six grandchildren. 

"He was a tireless advocate for the positive role that government can play in the lives of the American people and a relentless watchdog ensuring that government programs meet their commitments," the Levin Center said in a statement.

"He stood up for American workers and families and against powerful institutions that put profit over people."

As a member and longtime chairman of the high-profile Armed Service Committee, Levin earned a reputation for targeting Defense Department waste and cost overruns, while advocating for Michigan's military families and bases.

As chairman, he ordered the 2007-08 investigation by the committee into the abuse of detainees in U.S. military custody that found officials at the top of the Bush administration bore blame for the use of harsh interrogation techniques.

Levin also chaired the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the premiere investigative body in Congress, where his team's probes — burnished by original research — probed offshore tax havens, money laundering, abusive credit card practices and multinational corporations gaming the tax system.

"One of the adages is PSI goes after lions, not fleas," said Elise Bean, who worked for Levin on three subcommittees including as staff director and chief counsel of PSI. 

"He took on the tough guys. That was one of his principles. The big guys that no one else would go after."

Colleagues and staff said Levin insisted on knowing the details of an investigation himself. A Harvard-trained attorney, he was known for his tough, prosecutorial-style questioning of witnesses.

From left, Gov. James Blanchard, Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca, Detroit Mayor Coleman Young and U.S. Sen. Carl Levin break ground for the new Chrysler Jefferson North Assembly Plant at Kercheval and Conner on May 31, 1989.

'It was never about Carl'

Former Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who served with Levin on both the Armed Services and Investigations panels, said he stood out in the Senate because "it was never about Carl."

"He never played to the cheap seats. ... He basically was respectful and always listened to what they had to say," McCaskill said.

"He was never playing for the camera, which is extraordinarily unusual in the United States Senate. I really admire Michigan because, even though Carl was no grand stander and was not constantly figuring out a way to get his mug on TV, they had sense enough to elect him over and over and over again. It was one smart state to hold onto a guy like that." 

U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, his nephew, said throughout his adult life, wherever he went in Michigan, he'd run into people who told him, "I don’t always agree with Senator Levin, but I support him anyway because he is so genuine, he tells it straight and he follows through."

“Carl Levin personified integrity and the notion of putting the public good above self-interest," Andy Levin said in a statement issued Thursday.

"Uncle Carl met with more presidents, kings, queens and other important people than all but a few of us ever will. But he treated them all the same as he did a Detroit autoworker or a beet farmer in Michigan’s Thumb — with a full measure of dignity but no airs, ever ready to puncture self-importance, posturing, mendacity and avarice." 

Levin's subcommittee pushed for policy reforms as it examined Wall Street banks' role in the financial crisis, problems with the United Nations Development Program and questioned the practices of powerful companies including Goldman Sachs, Apple, Citibank and Enron after its collapse.

"As wonderful as Carl was to work with, I would not want to be a witness in front of him when he was grilling people on abusive practices in the industry," said U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, who served with Levin for 14 years. 

"Carl Levin was never about being rude, or calling people names. ... But he was tough and informed and on point, and really showed how it’s possible to maintain respect and integrity and be very tough in protecting consumers and taxpayers."

Sen. Carl Levin listening to witnesses at hearings of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, from his book, "Getting to the Heart of the Matter."

He wrote the Whistleblower Protection Act that protects federal employees who expose waste, and the Competition in Contracting Act, leading to reductions in federal procurement costs. 

Levin also helped pen the Ethics Reform Act in 1989, which bolstered ethics requirements for the legislative and executive branches, as well as the Taxpayers' Bill of Rights in the 1980s to curb abuses by the Internal Revenue Service, and pressed for strict disclosure requirements for lobbyists in the Lobbying Disclosure Act in 1995.

"For me, it’s an important part of our duties as public officials to really be understanding of our people, what their values are, and what they’re willing to pay taxes for, what they're not willing to pay taxes for," Levin said in a May interview. "So, we went after a lot of wasteful stuff."

Sen. Carl Levin, conferring with Michigan Congressman John Dingell before testifying together, from his book, "Getting to the Heart of the Matter."

Work since retirement

Since retiring, Levin had returned to Michigan and joined the firm of Honigman as senior counsel in 2015. 

Through the Levin Center at Wayne State, Levin worked in recent years to promote fact-based, bipartisan oversight by Congress through training workshops for hundreds of Capitol Hill staffers, said Bean, director of the center's Washington office. 

In 2018, a federal judge appointed Levin as a mediator in a class-action lawsuit against Flint and state officials including former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder over the city’s lead-contaminated water — a role that continued into this year with judges considering a proposed $641 million settlement.

Earlier this year, Levin published a memoir, "Getting to the Heart of the Matter," covering his family roots, childhood in Detroit and his decades in public life.

In it, Levin said he didn't leave the Senate over its partisan gridlock, though he did grow weary of the time required to raise increasingly higher levels of money for reelection. Instead, his age was the "major" factor.

"I had seen too many colleagues who had stayed too long and observed the decline in their intellectual stamina and their health," he wrote. That was "somewhat prescient," he added, noting his diagnosis with lung cancer at 83. 

Levin said he didn't miss the Senate, but he missed the people — staff and friends on both sides of the aisle. 

"I was here long enough, and I was happy every day I was here," he said outside a reception for his nephew, Andy, on the day of his 2019 swearing-in.

Brothers Sandy and Carl Levin in 1945, from Carl's book, "Getting to the Heart of the Matter."

Part of political dynasty

Carl Levin was part of political dynasty that included a tight kinship with his older brother by two and a half years, Sander Levin of Royal Oak, who served in the U.S. House for 36 years.

The brothers were the longest-serving siblings in the history of Congress, always sitting together for the annual State of the Union address and regularly sparring on the squash court on Capitol Hill. 

Carl Levin joked about how often people on Capitol Hill would mix him up with Sandy during the 32 years they overlapped in Congress. The brothers kept a "confusion file" that they enjoyed reviewing about people writing to the wrong office or mistaking them on the street.

The pair worked on trade issues together, including their opposition to the former North American Free Trade Agreement and pushing to open Chinese markets closed to U.S. exports.

In 2002, The Detroit News described Carl Levin as the "antithesis of the stereotypical well-dressed, well-coiffed politician," noting his often rumpled suits, balding pate and glasses perched low on his nose. 

His demeanor was often more professorial than fiery, with his arguments "scholarly and softly stated," The News wrote in 2003. 

"He was just sweet. I mean, how many senators can you say were sweet?" McCaskill said. 

"He was also tough, obviously. Especially those investigations we did after the financial crisis. That took some serious guts because he was not afraid of anyone or anything."

Levin was a key figure in the financial rescue of General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Group LLC in 2008 and 2009.

"What folks might not know is his great passion for our natural resources and our parks in Michigan," Stabenow said. "He was a lifelong passionate citizen of Michigan and loved to be in the outdoors."

He helped to create the Thunder Bay Marine Sanctuary, protecting shipwrecks in Lake Huron and Keweenaw National Historical Park, also adding various areas of Michigan to wilderness protection laws including Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Working with the late Rep. John Dingell, a Dearborn Democrat, Levin championed the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge and the River Raisin National Battlefield Park.

When the Senate wasn't in session, Levin could often be found at the cottage he and his brother had "out in the woods," Stabenow said.

Levin wrote the Great Lakes Critical Programs Act, which birthed new standards of environmental protection for the lakes, and later measures to clean up contaminated waters and sediments. 

Levin's clout also helped the state and Detroit win federal funding to support dozens of major projects, including persuading the government to award the QLine rail car line in Detroit $12 million to complete the project.

Turning arcane issues into gains

Much of Levin's legacy involved working on often arcane issues — sometimes for many years — to notch legislative gains.

He once gave the example of allowing property owners along a Michigan wilderness trail to donate land to the federal government without specific approval from Congress.

"I'm proud of being willing to get into technical issues," Levin told The News in 2014. "I have tended to play the long game."

Levin cast more than 12,000 votes while in office, putting him among the top 12 in U.S. Senate history at the time of his retirement.

The Navy in 2016 named a ship in his honor — the USS Carl M. Levin, which launched in May at the Bath Iron Works in Maine and was set to be christened this month. The Arleigh Burke-class destroyer is 500 feet long, weighs 7,500 tons and will go as fast as 31 knots, or 35 miles an hour, when it enters the Navy fleet.

Levin sometimes opposed the use of military force — in particular the congressional authorization for the 2003 invasion of Iraq without United Nations support. 

As Armed Services chairman, he also fought efforts from within his party to take away from military commanders' decisions on whether to prosecute sexual assaults in the armed forces, siding with the military brass on the issue. 

Levin wrote fondly of his Armed Services panel working relationships with Republican Sens. John Warner of Virginia and John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island, who currently chairs the panel. 

McCain's floor tribute to Levin upon his retirement is "one of the things I treasure most," Levin said in a May interview.

McCain at the time said Levin — who was never part of the military — had served the Armed Forces in an "exemplary manner," always kept his word and managed to keep members focused on committee business, despite sometimes heated disputes.

Levin's calm demeanor and thoughtful mien amid partisan acrimony or campaign attacks were a theme throughout his political life, with opponents attempting to provoke but rarely ruffling Levin.

His memoir recounts an instance during a debate when Detroit City Council member Jack Kelley yelled at Levin, "You're a whore, Levin! All you lawyers are whores!" 

Levin wrote, "All I could do was shake my head and say, 'Aw, come on, Jack.'"

Early life 

Carl Levin was born in 1934 in Detroit, the youngest of three siblings. His father, Saul, an attorney, served on the Michigan Corrections Commission and represented migrant farmworkers. An uncle, Theodore Levin, and cousin Avern Cohn served as federal judges.

His parents stressed the importance of family and community to Carl, Sander and sister Hannah, as reflected in the heroes in the household as they grew up — Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Joe Louis, and Hank Greenberg, Sander said.

Each Sunday, they sat at the dinner table listening to two radio broadcasts about public affairs by Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson.

"We grew up with parents who combined great love, deep love really, with discipline, and with caring for us but also promoting independence," Sander said.

The brothers drove taxi cabs one summer to make money for college and had a "friendly" contest going. Sandy made more on the fares because he drove faster and completed more trips, but Carl got more in tips, surmising that was probably because he was younger, and people "wanted to help this young guy."

The Levin brothers first came to Washington in the 1940s on a cross-country road trip in the family car. Sandy was about 17 and Carl 15, Sandy said.

Carl graduated from Central High School, Swarthmore College and Harvard Law School. 

He worked summers for the since-closed DeSoto unit of Chrysler, Ford Tractor and a Detroit-based wheel cover firm called Lyon Corp. His job at DeSoto was to tighten three screws on the right door. 

"If I saw a problem with any other part, it wasn't my responsibility to report it or fix it, even if it made good sense," Levin wrote in his memoir. "That culture would come back to haunt the auto industry when Detroit started to face global competition."

He practiced law in Michigan until his appointment as an assistant attorney general of Michigan and the first general counsel for the Michigan Civil Rights Commission in 1964.

He helped establish the Detroit Public Defender's Office and led the appellate division of that office, which later became the State Appellate Defender's Office.

Political career launched

He ran for the Detroit City Council, serving for eight years from 1969-77 — the last four as council president, with the aim of improving the city in the aftermath of the 1967 uprising. 

With the support of Mayor Coleman Young, Levin and the council took on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which owned thousands of abandoned, dilapidated homes in Detroit.

The council passed an ordinance allowing the city to tear down the HUD-owned homes, despite a claim from the agency that doing so would get them indicted. 

"I said, are you kidding? What jury is going to convict me?" he recalled. "We went out there with a bulldozer."

Those days on the council prompted Levin to run for the Senate, and he made going after wasteful federal programs and spending the theme of his campaign.

In 1978, Levin then scored a narrow upset over the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, incumbent Robert Griffin, to win his seat. The first piece of legislation he introduced was a bill to end discrimination by credit card companies.

Levin had a tough re-election bid in 1984 against former astronaut Jack Lousma, but after that won re-election by comfortable margins.

He was known for establishing personal relationships and working behind the scenes and across the aisle. Levin created a legacy of "congeniality, consensus-building" by working with GOP lawmakers on bipartisan legislation, McCain told The News in 2014, making him "part of an endangered species."

Many PSI staffers recognized his intellect and work ethic and stayed on for years, even decades working for Levin. 

"Once you worked for him, you don’t want to work for anyone else," Bean said. "And you knew if you got the facts, he could pack a punch."

"No leader alone, no single senator, neither party by itself, can determine the Senate's course," Levin said in his farewell speech on the Senate floor. 

"But together, the members of this body can move the Senate forward and, in doing so, help move forward the nation we all love."

Former Staff Writers David Shepardson and Richard A. Ryan contributed.