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Sander Levin and a family’s good name

Families matter, particularly those whose members add distinction over the generations.

I've been thinking about this in recent days, brought to mind by the decision of U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, to retire from Congress, where he has served since first elected in 1982.

Sandy's decision brings to a possible close the current public career of a remarkable Michigan family. I say "possible close" because his son, Andy, is one of a number of candidates in the Ninth district (Southern Macomb and a chunk of South Oakland County) to succeed his father.

The Levin family's public distinction in Michigan goes back to Theodore Levin, who was a prominent immigration lawyer before serving as a federal judge in U.S. District Court from 1946 to 1970.

Ted's nephew (and Sandy's brother) Carl Levin served on the Detroit City Council from 1969-1977 and was council president from 1973-1977, when he was elected to the first of an amazing six terms in the U.S. Senate, a Michigan record.

Sandy, who at 86 is three years older than Carl, has had an equally distinguished career. He was elected to the state senate in 1964 and lost two close elections for governor in 1970 and 1974.

He went on to a career in Congress, where he became part of the Democratic leadership in the House and was for a short time the chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

The Levin brothers' service in the Congress comes to 72 years, the longest of any sibling pair in congressional history.

I've known Sandy pretty well, going way back to the days he was a state senator, when at one time he and his supporters could metaphorically see all the way from his front porch in Oak Park to the state capitol in Lansing ... and maybe beyond.

Sandy's two campaigns against popular Gov. William Milliken were difficult from the start, but Sandy fought hard, and was terribly disappointed, especially in his narrow defeat in 1970.

Yet even after those bruising battles, Levin and Milliken subsequently forged a close friendship. That’s unimaginable in these days of partisanship-above-all. But that friendship really isn’t all that surprising – given that there never was a whiff of scandal in either Sandy Levin or Bill Milliken’s long records in public life.

Recently, I spoke at length with Sandy about the high points in his career. They represent the core of America's ‒ and Michigan's ‒ interests for nearly two decades.

Perhaps the most important was his growing leadership role in Congress, where his high intelligence and deep sense of honor earned enormous respect on both sides of the aisle.

That he was elected chair of Ways and Means suggests how highly he was regarded by his colleagues, who kept him on as ranking minority member for years after Republicans captured control of the House in 2010.

But while his tenure as chair was short, it was significant: He was a major advocate for the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare"), which finally passed through committee with his help. (Many years ago, I ran a congressional office, and I can tell you how difficult it is to wrangle a complex matter through a big and important committee. Sandy did it, and he did it with skill and class.)

Naturally, as a representative of Michigan's interests, he took enormous effort in working to save the American auto industry at the time of the Great Recession. And Sandy got involved in international negotiations over trade, in particular NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement). He spent months trying to insert into the act a set of standards dealing with wages and protections for workers.

Blocked on this, he still points crossly to the skimpy wages ("a buck and a half,” he grumbles) for Mexican workers assembling very high-priced BMW cars.

Despite today's politics of partisan cut and thrust, Sandy always moved above the standard nonsense. I remember so clearly that when Sandy would be presented with a new idea or a problem-filled old idea, he would brush back his bright white hair, slightly narrow his eyes, and say in his soft voice, "Well, let's think this through."

Now that both Levin brothers have retired, Michigan's clout in the Congress is considerably lessened. Equally, America's reserve of thoughtful, decent and able politicians continues its seemingly remorseless decline. At a time when far too many politicians are too motivated by ideology and the struggle up the slippery pole of advancement, losing people like the Levins is a real blow.

After he leaves Washington, Sandy will take up teaching at the University of Michigan's Ford School of Public Policy. Not only the kids but also the entire state would be wise to find ways to take advantage of Sandy's increased time back home.

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