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Carl Levin not coasting through his last few months in office

I didn’t stay on Mackinac Island during the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce’s conference last week.

For a number of reasons, I’m glad about that. One of which is that I took the ferry over one morning with Sen. Carl Levin and his wife, Barbara. There was a reason he didn’t stay on Mackinac, and it had nothing to do with not finding a room.

There was another conference about the Mackinac Conference 55 miles away in Charlevoix.

This was a gathering of about fifty young people, an event called Assemble@Mackinac(ish), where they watched the conference via Internet streaming, and then discussed it.

Though they called themselves the “alternative Mackinac conference," these weren’t a group of protestors. They were mainly teenagers from the Detroit area, rallied by a group called the Urban Social Assembly; kids who wanted to know how things work.

Originally, they wanted to go to the conference itself, but that would have cost more than $2,000 each. So instead, they paid $80 to come to a barn up north.

And Sen. Levin, one of the most powerful figures in Washington, thought it was important to go and watch some of the conference with these kids and then talk with them about it.

He told me that was well worth it. He left them the next day for the real conference, where he was being honored.

Levin is retiring at the end of this term, as most people know. Had he chosen to run, he would have won easily. Last time, he won by 1.4 million votes, an all-time state record. Yet he chose to retire.

The senator, who looks about 68, turns 80 this month, and he had the self-discipline and the wisdom not to sign on for six more years. But that doesn’t mean he is coasting through his last few months in office, or limiting himself to military concerns, as you might expect of the Senate Armed Forces Committee chair.

No, what was on his mind last week was heroin addiction, and a forum he’s putting together about it. Carl Levin has lived his entire life in Detroit, one of many places ravaged by drugs.  For years, he has championed a medication called buprenorphine, which helps block the craving for heroin without serious side effects.

Levin and Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah sponsored legislation to make it legal years ago. Now Levin is frustrated that the drug isn’t better known and more widely used. So, as usual, he’s made himself an expert on the subject, and is doing something about it.

A few hours later, he was being honored at Mackinac. He knew perfectly well that most of the business community there seldom voted for him. But he was gracious, warm, and funny. 

He’s been a watchdog in Washington since Jimmy Carter was president, staying there longer than anyone in our state’s history. Seven months from now, he’ll be gone.

Other senators have left office and stayed in Washington as highly paid lobbyists. Levin laughed when I asked if he was going to do that. Not on your life; he is coming back to Detroit.

Let’s hope that we can coax him partly out of retirement.   

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