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Sandy Levin exits Congress after 36 years of good-hearted service

Jack Lessenberry

Congressman Sandy Levin announced his retirement over the weekend, ending a political career that lasted more than half a century and was utterly free of any taint of scandal.

By the time his term ends, he will have served 36 years in the House of Representatives, matching the 36 years his younger brother, Carl Levin, served in the Senate.

But Sandy Levin was a player in state politics for two decades before he ever went to Congress. In November 1964, Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater in a national election that would have consequences for Michigan for more than half a century.

On that Election Day, voters also sent John Conyers to Washington for the first time, and a 33-year-old Jewish lawyer became the first Democrat in ages to be elected to the state senate from what had been solidly Republican Oakland County. His name was Sandy Levin.

Six years later, he was the Democratic nominee for governor in a race that was an eerie forerunner of the Bush vs Gore election thirty years later. The race was close, and the city of Detroit had switched that year to punch card voting.

Well, on Election Night, the famous hanging chads clogged the machine that was supposed to count the votes. It broke down, nobody could fix it, and it was three days before we knew that Sandy Levin had lost narrowly to a Republican named Bill Milliken.

Levin’s running mate always maintained that they really won that election, that in the chaos people took boxes of ballots home and never brought them back.

We’ll never know, but Levin took his loss with good grace. He ran and lost a second time, and then went to work in Washington until a Congressional seat opened up in 1982.

Credit U.S. House of Representatives
Rep. Sander Levin

He’s been there ever since, working to protect the auto industry and the unions, fighting for fairer trade policies and environmental protections for the Great Lakes. He did chair the powerful Ways and Means committee for nine months in 2010, where he played a crucial, if non-flamboyant role in passing the Affordable Care Act.

Democrats lost control of the House that fall, and that was the end of his committee chairmanship, but Levin soldiered on. He was mainly a work horse, not a show horse, who hated the nastiness of today’s politics and the loss of any bipartisan spirit.

State Senator Steve Bieda of Warren, a likely candidate to replace Levin, told me the congressman tried to help fight the passage of right to work legislation in Lansing five years ago, “but it was clear that these weren’t the kind of reasonable Republicans Sandy had worked with.”

Sandy Levin belonged to a different, and more gentlemanly, era. In his later years, he became close to the man who defeated him twice for governor, and he and Bill Milliken were among the first to call each other when their wives died.

Hard to imagine, but there’s been at least one Levin in government service since 1946, when President Harry Truman made Sandy’s uncle Theodore Levin a federal judge.

But that tradition won’t end; Sandy Levin plans to teach at the Gerald Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan when his term ends.

Let’s hope he inspires a new generation of leaders and lucky students.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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