Sander Levin and a family’s good name

Rep. Sander Levin retires with a record of bipartisan respect and nary a scandal after decades in office.

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.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Kevin Grand
Tue, 12/12/2017 - 7:47am

"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."

Considering the massive damage that Obamacare is causing to America with rising premiums and deductibles, along with insurers bailing out of the marketplace (and this is just scratching the surface of its numerous faults), I fail to see why that can be considered in any rational way as an accomplishment?

And NAFTA? Levin and his fellow democrats (including one sitting in the White House at the time) literally threw American Workers under the bus in order to pass that abomination.

If he really was so concerned about the details, then NAFTA should never have been approved in the first place..

If there is any real good new here, it is that Sander Levin is leaving Congress and he cannot damage America any further once his term is out.

Tue, 12/12/2017 - 6:57pm

I'm sorry but you have your facts bolluxed. The ACA saved lives and provided healthcare to millions who did not have access to healthcare before. Was it perfect? No. Was it far better than what came before? Absolutely by every.single.measure.

But you want to believe. Here's reality:

The GOP sabotaged the ACA in order to destroy their opponents' legacy. Even then, they are failing to kill it, but not before they cost us all double digit increases and return us to the horrors of lifetime caps and ever increassing costs. Your employer paid insurance is about to costs your double digits more, and if you're in Medicare, the tax reform will cause cuts you can't afford.

Goebbels said it well: accuse your enemy of that which you are guilty. The propoganda you swallowed about the ACA is a perfect example.

I sure miss democracy. This kleptocracy is killing us.

Kevin Grand
Wed, 12/13/2017 - 7:40pm

A plastic card ( paid for by the labor stolen from others) does not equal health care.

Obamacare will collapse regardless of anything the republicans do and then everything will be back to square one, save a massively devastated American health care system because of ill conceived and executed social engineering.

Tue, 12/12/2017 - 8:42am

Eighty six years old and still in Congress. A perfect example for term limits if their ever was one.

Tue, 12/12/2017 - 1:21pm

NO that position is solidly held by John Conyers!

Tue, 12/12/2017 - 6:59pm

Let's see what you say when you're healthy and well at 86, ageist.

Wed, 12/13/2017 - 1:18pm

When I am healthy and well at 86, I will say that I have thoroughly enjoyed my retirement for 26 years. I have and will have traveled and seen things that I never could have done while I was working. I have and will have learned new things that were not in my field when working. I will have volunteered in ways I never could when I was working. And I will have opened up a spot for someone of the younger generation to enjoy the career that I so enjoyed for almost 40 years. Now if only I can make the next 15 years, I will be able to say that I have enjoyed 26 years of retirement.

Kevin Grand
Wed, 12/13/2017 - 7:43pm

If you're referring to his libido, obviously that isn't in any doubt.

His judgement?

Well that another story

Bob Maxfield
Tue, 12/12/2017 - 11:26am

Bravo, Phil!
This is a great profile of a congressman who has served us well. I am proud that he is my representative in Congress.
I know folks who may disagree with him on certain issues but respect his integrity and willingness to listen to the concerns of his constituents.
You're right; he will be missed.

Wed, 12/13/2017 - 2:19pm

A couple of career politicians, owned lock stock and barrel by the UAW and no where near the non ideological/partisan sages you present (maybe you jest?). When enough time passes and some historian looks at the long ago gone USA, I seriously doubt Levins will be considered our answer to Cato.

Thu, 12/14/2017 - 6:23am

Accomplishments??? You might want to list the continuing socialist agenda and their slow methodical grinding away of the USA Constitution, national debt debacle and destruction of the economy among their greatest accomplishments. With this article the Bridge has become nothing more than another media lackey for the swamp in DC.

Bob Mc
Thu, 12/14/2017 - 12:17pm

Phil, it was a pleasure to read your article on the Levins, who are two of Michigan's finest as was Gov. Milliken.

Mike D
Sun, 12/17/2017 - 3:36pm

Amen, Bob Mc!
These guys are amongst many fine public servants - male and female - who give so much and contribute to our well being. Yes, there are plenty who do not, but they are rare.
We are also blessed to have many more philanthropic families like Bernstein, DeVos, Ford, Fry, Ilich, Johnston, Secchia, Stryker, Van Andel, Van Elslander, and dozens more who give their money, their time, and sage advice that adds to our quality of life.

Lynn Brown
Sun, 12/17/2017 - 1:25am

Kevin Grand, you've got your ACA facts a bit twisted there!!

Mike Staebler
Sun, 12/17/2017 - 10:36am

Phil. What a fine piece about such a fine man who by his decades of intelligent, thoughtful and personal conduct truly exemplifies the best of public service. This was widely recognized even in the early days of his public life. A poll was taken by one of his opponents a year before his second gubernatorial race. It included the question “would you be surprised if this person was associated with scandal”. I recall that 88% said they would be surprised if Sandy’s name became associated with scandal. Milliken scored 92%. A race between two highly respected men of integrity. The guy who commissioned the poll rated 13%. I don’t believe Sandy was aware of this. I think Sandy would score even higher today. He would get 100% by all who know him— on both sides of the aisle. Something to be proud about. Thanks

Sun, 12/17/2017 - 12:11pm

You forget another talented member of the family, sister Barbara Levin Bergman who served for many years on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, and helped make this County a perennial "best place" for people of all ages.

Marty Reisig
Sun, 12/17/2017 - 1:20pm

Wonderful tribute to a true public servant. I would hope that some of the more conservative commentators on this page could at least recognize a man who was always prepared, treated others with respect, and did not look to benefit himself. I will so miss the decency of political public men like Sandy, Carl and Bill Milliken. Good people who did their best.

Wed, 04/10/2019 - 10:26pm

I am having joints pain in both hands inside and outside and muscle weakness due to multiple sclerosis (MS). I am falling a lot, I have headaches and lightheadedness. I cannot keep myself balanced, and walk with a tremor like I cannot control my steps. I had taken avonex for two years. Presently I am taking BEST HEALTH HERBAL CENTRE MS HERBAL FORMULA TREATMENT (ww w .besthealthherbalcentre .c om). I take it twice daily morning and evening. I have experience a continual diminution of symptoms. it's a powerful herbal formula, 10 out of 10 from me!