Carl Levin, Intellectual Giant Of Michigan Politics, Has Died

Carl Levin, whose intelligence, trustworthiness, ferocious investigative skills, elite constituent service and common touch earned him a Michigan-record 36 years as U.S. senator, died Thursday. He was 87 and undergoing treatment for lung cancer.

He was a giant in Michigan politics, virtually untouchable, a liberal Jew from Detroit who would regularly crush Republicans in deeply Republican areas of the state to roll up big wins. He was a force in Congress who never lost his connection to his constituents, thanks to his unassuming manner, relatability, accessibility and a constituent service operation that was the stuff of legend. Residents of the state knew that if they had a problem that involved the government, they could call Mr. Levin’s office and his team would fix it.

So feared and talented was he as an investigator that The New York Times headline on his obituary published Thursday night memorialized him as the "scourge of corporate America."

It is impossible to overstate Mr. Levin’s status in the state’s Jewish community. The first Jew to win a U.S. Senate seat and perhaps the first Jew to win a major Michigan statewide election when he won his first of six terms in 1978, Mr. Levin helped pave the way for a generation of Jews, Democratic and Republican, to win office.

Mr. Levin’s look became legendary, punctuated by his ever-present combover and penchant for wearing his eyeglasses on the bottom of his nose so that he could peer over them.

Born in Detroit on June 28, 1934, Mr. Levin graduated from Detroit Central High School in 1952 and graduated with a bachelor’s in political science from Swarthmore College in 1956. Following that, he attended Harvard Law School and earned a juris doctor in 1959 where, shortly after, he was admitted to the State Bar of Michigan.

Mr. Levin would go on to use his knowledge of the law to serve as general counsel for the state’s Civil Rights Commission from 1964 to 1967, using that role to help form the Detroit Public Defender’s Office – now known as the State Appellate Defender’s Office. Eventually, he would serve as special assistant attorney general, as well as chief appellate defender for Detroit, shortly after his tenure with the commission.

It would still be some time yet before Mr. Levin would enter the career that would garner him the title longest serving U.S. senator in Michigan’s history, holding that position for 36 years. After his time with the commission and Department of Attorney General, Mr. Levin would turn his sights to the Detroit City Council, where he was elected to the body in 1969.

Serving two four-year terms, which concluded in 1977, Mr. Levin was a formidable force for the council. As president – a title he held during his last four years in office – he would go on to be dubbed then-Mayor Coleman Young’s (the city’s first Black mayor) right hand man by Forbes magazine, due to their close relationship.

His 1978 U.S. Senate victory was remarkable.

As the former president of the Detroit City Council, it seemed improbable that he could topple U.S. Sen. Robert Griffin, appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1966 after the death of U.S. Sen. Patrick McNamara. Mr. Griffin then won two terms, beating a pair of Democratic legends, former Governor G. Mennen "Soapy" Williams in 1966 and then-Attorney General Frank Kelley in 1972.

While the Levin name had become a presence on the statewide scene thanks to cousin Charles Levin, a Michigan Supreme Court justice, and brother Sander, a two-time Democratic nominee for governor in 1970 and 1974, Carl Levin did not seem to pose a major threat at first, particularly considering the unpopularity of Democratic President Jimmy Carter. He also had to get through a crowded Democratic primary that included three state legislators, a former member of Congress and newspaper publisher Phil Power.

He won that primary decisively and then took on Mr. Griffin, who had made himself vulnerable in 1977 when he declared he would not seek reelection. He had just lost his position as Senate minority whip. He would eventually change his mind and decide to run.

Mr. Levin would put together a winning coalition that geographically looks utterly bizarre compared to the state’s current political map. Unsurprisingly, he ran up a huge margin in Wayne County. He also carried union-heavy working class counties like Macomb, Monroe, Genesee and Bay as well as the northeast Lower Peninsula and most of the Upper Peninsula. He won 52.1 percent to 47.9 percent.

Mr. Levin pushed for new blood in Congress (Mr. Griffin had served since 1957, including his time in the U.S. House) though he would eventually set the longevity record in passing Arthur Vandenberg as the state’s longest-serving senator. Mr. Levin had been prompted to run after his anger at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development while he was a member of the city council and HUD would not demolish blighted homes in the city they controlled.

His second-term victory in 1984 would be his last close race. He faced astronaut Jack Lousma and an impending Republican landslide led by President Ronald Reagan, who would carry the state with 59.2 percent of the vote. Mr. Levin, however, hung on, winning 51 to 47 percent.

From there, Mr. Levin would win increasingly easy victories. He won comfortably over then-U.S. Rep. Bill Schuette in 1990, Ronna Romney in 1996, state Rep. Rocky Raczkowski in 2002 and state Rep. Jack Hoogendyk in 2008. It was not until 1996 that Mr. Levin finally got the benefit of a Democratic wave at the top of the ticket. In 1978, 1984 and 1990, the Republican at the top of the ticket (Bill Milliken, Mr. Reagan and John Engler) all won.

In his 2008 victory, when he finally had a major national Democratic wave at his back, Mr. Levin won 63 percent of the vote and an astonishing 77 counties.

Mr. Levin managed to thread the difficult needle of retaining deep roots in his state and becoming a powerhouse in Washington. He spent many years as the Senate Armed Services Committee chair. It was there he brought to bear his investigative skills and brought heavy focus on the Department of Defense’s purchase of routine items like a hammer for exorbitant prices. He was the sponsor of the Competition in Contracting Act to reduce federal procurement costs.

During his time in Congress, Mr. Levin would serve on a number of committees including the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, the Committee on Small Business Entrepreneurship and chairing the Committee on Armed Services. Yet, even though he twice chaired Armed Services, Mr. Levin had never served – a fact that he admitted, telling CQ Roll Call that he joined the committee as he was interested in learning more and felt it was his own way of "providing service."

With that said, Mr. Levin would go on to become one of the most powerful members of the Armed Services Committee, pushing for more transparency in government especially in regard to the Iraq War and on the subject of al-Qaeda. Mr. Levin opposed then-President George W. Bush’s push into Iraq post-9/11, and later said the administration handled the situation poorly.

Mr. Levin would eventually lead the Senate into probing the conditions of prisoners at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, which eventually resulted in the Detainee Treatment Act that prohibited the use of torture on U.S.-captured detainees.

He would become instrumental, too, in weakening laws which prevented LGBT Americans from serving in the military, passing the 2009 Hate Crimes Prevention Act which would ensure an end to the legislation which propagated the U.S. Army’s "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy.

Armed services, however, was not the only topic Mr. Levin was well-versed in (or became well-versed in) during his more than three decades in the Senate. He was a strong supporter of the U.S. Department of Education (and its creation), was responsible for promoting energy policies which were beneficial for the environment and pushed for the first effective disclosure requirements for federal lobbyists.

Fitting with his efforts on ethics, he authored the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 and the Ethics Reform Act of 1989.

Beyond the Armed Services Committee, Mr. Levin was a feared investigator. He became chair of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, digging into the 2008 financial crisis and much more.

Politically, Mr. Levin was a champion of ending Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s status as the first presidential caucus and first presidential primary. He never could succeed in dislodging them from their perches.

There were disappointments, of course. In his memoir, Mr. Levin noted he sought to be named the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan while he was on the city council. He did not receive the appointment.

And while Mr. Levin persuaded a lot of Republicans to vote for him, he could definitely get under the GOP’s skin. Some would mock him as the "self-proclaimed conscience of the Senate."

He did all of this while looking as, inevitably, what would become his near-trademarked style: perpetually frumpy. So known for this look he was that comedian Jon Stewart occasionally referred to him as Grandpa Munster.

Brother Sander joined Mr. Levin in Congress in 1983 after winning a U.S. House seat in 1982, and they would serve together, perhaps Michigan’s most famous family political dynasty, for 32 years.

During Mr. Levin’s early years as senator, Michigan regularly voted Republican for president. But his accessibility and constituent operation meant voters trusted him and he became unbeatable.

In a 2013 interview with Gongwer News Service, Mr. Levin said the key to having a strong constituent service operation is "you really have to care about your constituents. It’s got to be kind of a genuine caring of people dealing with their problems in the federal bureaucracy." Members of Congress cannot be cowed or intimidated by a federal department or agency, he said.

Mr. Levin’s nephew, Andy, is now a U.S. House member. In a statement on his uncle’s death, he summed up well the appeal he held with voters everywhere.

"Throughout my adult life, wherever I went in Michigan, from Copper Harbor to Monroe, I would run into people who would say, ‘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,’" he said.

Near the end of his Senate career, Mr. Levin took a swing at loopholes in federal campaign finance laws, or what he called the "failure of the IRS to enforce our tax laws and stem the flood of hundreds of millions of secret dollars flowing into our elections, eroding public confidence in our democracy."

In 2013, at the age of 80, Mr. Levin decided not to seek a seventh term. He felt well then but worried about his fitness when his term would be over. And in fact, in 2017, he would be diagnosed with lung cancer. He also wanted to spend more time with his wife, Barbara, back in Michigan.

In his post-Senate years, Mr. Levin went on to join the Detroit-based law firm Honigman LLP and found the Levin Center at Wayne State University’s Law School. While working at the firm, Mr. Levin would also chair the WSU center and co-teach courses. His goal was to pass on what he had learned about how government bodies can investigate. He also helped mediate the Flint water lawsuits.

In an interview with Gongwer, Mr. Levin said the retirement decision was maybe hardest on his older brother, Sander.

"It’s very hard on my brother," he said. "It’s maybe harder on him because we’re very close. Kind of life-long best buddies. We were together in law school. We were together as kids. Slept in the same room. We’ve played probably 15,000 games of squash together in Washington."

Andy Levin recalled the connection between his father, Sander, and uncle, Carl.

"From my earliest memory to this moment, perhaps above all, he has defined with my dad how close two brothers, two siblings, two people can be. In the end, these two Jewish boys from Detroit, these grandsons of immigrants each served 36 years in Congress, 32 of them together, becoming by far the longest co-serving siblings in the 232-year history of this place," he said. "As heartbroken as we are in this moment, I feel so grateful to have experienced this love and legacy."

In the 2013 interview, Mr. Levin was asked where he and his wife, Barbara, would live. He had lived in Detroit virtually his entire life other than when he attended Swarthmore for his undergraduate education and Harvard for law school.

"It won’t be Washington," he said. "It’s hard to imagine I’ll live anywhere other than Michigan. We’re very rooted in Michigan, very rooted in Detroit."

Gov. Extends Driver’s License, Registration Validation From 2020 Expirations

The Governor signed into law legislation extending the renewal date for Michigan driver’s licenses and personal ID cards 120 days from its expiration — its tie-bar to mandating Secretary of State branches open themselves back up for in-person services no longer seeming so controversial.

"These bills put Michigan drivers first by giving Michiganders the flexibility they need to renew their driver’s license and IDs," said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in today’s press release. "It is crucial that we continue to offer services at our Secretary of State that fit the needs of all residents as we move forward."

SB 0507 from Sen. Kevin Daley (R-Lum), SB 0508 from Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Holly) and SB 0509 from Sen. Curtis Vanderwall (R-Ludington) allows driver’s licenses and vehicle tabs that expired between March 31 and Aug. 1 to remain valid for 120 days after their expiration date.

Initially, the legislation locked the Secretary of State into resuming in-person services by restraining the department from assessing any late renewal fees — which account for an estimated $965,000 average collected by the department per month — until nonappointment in-person services and same-day transactions were provided at each branch office.

"You need options for people," said Johnson — who served as Secretary of State for eight years before Jocelyn Benson — in May. "They can’t transfer a title when they buy or sell a vehicle. People are driving on expired licenses. They can’t get in for certification exams they need to do their jobs, such as mechanics."

Earlier, Daley also made the argument that residents shouldn’t have to wait multiple months for "what should be a 30-minute appointment."

"People should not be getting tickets from the same government that is preventing them from completing the process to avoid the ticket," Daley said.

However, now the department believes it has fulfilled the ambitions of the GOP-charged SB 507, SB 508 and SB 0509 by opening itself up to walk-up traffic, but not entirely to walk-in services.

"All of our offices are open to any residents who need in-person services, which they can access by walking up or scheduling their visits online or by phone," Benson said.

While visiting branch sites in Novi and Livonia on July 29, Benson said the department’s "efficiency levels are through the roof" after kicking off a new service-driven operating model, explaining "we’re seeing people complete 10 transactions per hour per person, which is significantly higher than in the past."

In June, the office added 350,000 appointments by reducing the appointment time slot from 20 to 10 minutes. At the time, Benson explained the modification would authorize branch offices to serve 25% more customers than anticipated.

"Right now, anyone can access in-person services at our 130 branch offices by walking up, calling ahead or going online to schedule a visit, and no matter what they choose every Michigander is now provided accurate information on when they will be served and the certainty that their office visit will take on average just 20 minutes," Benson later expressed on July 7.

However, this week Benson reminded the public that the department is experiencing 80 vacancies throughout Michigan. She is also continuing to advocate for legislators to approve $5 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds for enlarging office efforts — a financial hand that Benson said could allow Secretary of State branches to be open beyond 5 p.m.

At the start of June, Benson described the "take a number and wait" system as one that was failed, inefficient and broken.

"Michiganders were regularly forced to wait half a day or more in our offices with no clarity as to when their names would be called for service. Even at offices that offered appointments, forcing a ‘take a number’ system on those who couldn’t make one only led to frustration, inequity and hours-long wait times that often stretched long into the evenings," Benson said. "It was a mess."

The Governor also signed into law today:

– SB 0060 sponsored by Sen. Roger Victory (R-Hudsonville), allows someone to be licensed as a heating and cooling worker after three years or 6,000 hours in the field, among other requirements.

– SB 0372 sponsored by Sen. Ken Horn (R-Frankenmuth), ends the printing and distributing of traditional phone books 

– SB 0459 sponsored by Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield), allows an individual to apply for a neighborhood enterprise zone certificate after a building permit has already been issued for a project.

– HB 4735 sponsored by Rep. Graham Filler (R-DeWitt), renames a section of Highway U.S. 127 after Private Ronald James Fitch and a portion of Highway 50 in Eaton County after Ensign Francis Flaherty.

– HB 4656 sponsored by Rep. Sarah Cambensy (D-Marquette) allows the Marquette Circuit Court to bring on another judge 

– HB 4980, sponsored by Rep. Scott Vansingler (R-Grant) allows drag racing at Silver Lake State Park’s scramble area 

Runestad Drafting Bill In Response To Whitmer Campaign Windfall

A Senate Republican announced Friday he is crafting legislation to rein in candidate donations for officials facing recall following the posting of Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s latest campaign finance report showing significant fundraising due to her use of an exemption in law on donor limits for officer-holders facing an active recall campaign.

Conservative groups cried foul Monday after Ms. Whitmer reported raising $2.88 million using a 36-year-old declaratory ruling from the secretary of state regarding recall elections. The funds, in response to longshot recall efforts against her launched last year, provided a way for her to raise money beyond the current $7,150 limit on contributions to statewide candidates.

Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake) in a Friday release was the first Republican lawmaker to take a step seeking to address the exemption Ms. Whitmer used to enhance her reelection campaign haul. Ms. Whitmer raised a reported record $8.65 million during the most recent campaign finance reporting period.

The bill is being drafted and has not yet been introduced. Mr. Runestad said his proposal would require any contributions to an anti-recall effort above the current contribution limits for candidates to be placed into a separate account. Those funds would have to be refunded to the individual donors if a recall effort is not conducted.

"It has recently come to light that Michigan’s governor has misused a nearly 40-year-old declaratory ruling to receive millions in out-of-state campaign contributions for her reelection campaign," Mr. Runestad said in a statement. "This unorthodox flood of funds into one candidate’s campaign is a direct attack on measures set forth to ensure fair elections in this state."

Under the declaratory ruling, officeholders can exceed contributions limits so long as a committee has been organized to gather petition signatures and to promote a specific officeholder’s recall.

The source of the move by the Whitmer campaign is a 1984 declaratory ruling from then-Secretary of State Richard Austin. During 1983 Senate recall efforts it was concluded that in the recall format at that time, a yes or no decision to recall an elected official, there were no campaign contribution limits on either side.

In 2012, changes to the state’s recall system were made for nearly every elected official to become an election against another candidate or candidates instead of a yes to recall, no to stop the recall decision. The governor was an exception, meaning contribution limits are in place for all recalls except for the governor.

Mr. Runestad questioned the Whitmer campaign’s interpretation of the former secretary of state’s declaratory ruling.

"This disingenuous interpretation of these declaratory rulings is (a) slap in the face to campaign finance law, misleading to donors and, ultimately, is harmful to voters, who should be able to trust that their candidates are playing by the same rules and are competing fairly," Mr. Runestad said. "Any funds raised to combat a recall effort should be accounted for separately from general campaign funds and returned to donors if a recall effort never materializes."

A request for comment Friday to a spokesperson for Ms. Whitmer was not immediately returned.


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