U.S. Rep. Sander Levin will retire from Congress when term ends next year

Rep. Sander Levin retiring

After 35 years in Congress, U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, has decided it’s time for a different adventure.

The 86-year-old Democrat will not run for reelection in 2018, but will instead join the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, where he will continue to work on issues that have engrossed him in Congress, such as health care and trade issues.

“And I want to spend a lot of time talking to the next, next generation and trying to both instill a strong interest on their part in public service and I hope to participate in the effort to create more public trust in government overall,” Levin said in an interview with the Detroit Free Press.

The public trust is in jeopardy, he said, especially since the election of Republican Donald Trump as president last year. That was one of the worst moments of his lengthy congressional career, he said.

“I understood why some people voted for him, but I was worried about where he would take the country,” Levin said. “And, yes, those fears are being realized.”

Levin is leaving after three decades of doing everything from fighting to make sure Social Security isn't privatized to securing a bailout for the domestic auto industry and overseeing the passage of the Affordable Care Act as the chairman of the powerful tax-writing Ways and Means committee.

His departure from Congress at the end of 2018 is just the latest departure of veteran Michigan representatives, many of whom held powerful positions as the chairs of key committees, including U.S. Reps. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, Dave Camp, R-Midland, Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, Dale Kildee, D-Flint and Mike Rogers, R-Brighton. When they left Congress over the last six years, they had a combined length of service of 141 years and significant clout in the halls of the nation's Capitol.

In the last three election cycles, eight of Michigan’s 14 members of Congress have retired. If U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, resigns from office or decides not to run for reelection in 2018 because of a sexual harassment scandal, only U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, would remain from Michigan's stable of veterans with more than 10 years of experience in Congress.

U.S. Rep. David Trott, R-Birmingham, who was first elected in 2014, also has announced that he won’t run for reelection in 2018.

“As I look back at what we accomplished, I think of John Dingell’s career. I think of when Bob Traxler and Bill Ford were here and the amount that we got to save the Rouge River,” Levin said of his former colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives. “The challenge now is to elect members who will try to really provide major strength for Michigan.”

Levin decried the lack of bipartisanship currently on Capitol Hill and fondly recalled the times when he would go on trade trips with members from both sides of the aisle.

“The fellow I beat, when I first ran for Congress, was Jerry Rosen. I played squash with him afterwards and he beat me,” Levin said. “And I’ve had a warm relationship with the person who beat me for governor, Bill Milliken. I’ve been blessed with that kind of feeling and environment and I’d like to help to renew that when I leave Congress.”

He also misses his younger brother — former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, the Detroit Democrat who retired in 2015.

“I miss him. It took me a long time not to push the button on my phone to call Carl. I had to learn his cell phone number,” Levin said. “He left with a sense of joy and so do I, with no regrets.”

Levin's history of public service started early. He was president of his class at Central High School in Detroit and student body president at the University of Chicago, where he got a bachelor's degree followed by a master's degree at Columbia University and a law degree from Harvard University. In 1952, he was elected national chairman of the Students for Democratic Action and participated in civil rights marches and voting registration drives in the south.

The activism led to campaigns, which led to his first electoral success in 1965 when he won a seat in the state Senate, where he served until 1970 when he ran, and lost, a race for governor against Milliken, losing to him again in 1974.

He won a seat in Congress in 1982 and won reelection 17 more times. He has been a member of the influential, tax-writing Ways and Means committee, serving as chairman of the body for six months in 2010 at a time when the Affordable Care Act was winning approval in Congress.

There have been many victories for him to savor, Levin said, leading the effort to defeat a privatization of Social Security, the passage of Obamacare, his work on trade issues and the concerted efforts of the Michigan delegation to ensure that the domestic auto industry survived with the help of a federal bailout during the last recession.

"And that saving of the auto industry, economically, if we hadn’t been able to do that, Michigan would have been in desperate, desperate state," he said. "Every time I look at a picture of Carl and me at one of those meetings, it reminds me how close the Big 3 came to falling apart." 

But now, it's time to turn the reins over to the next generation. Names that have popped up as possible successors to Levin include his son Andy Levin, a Bloomfield Township Democrat and president of Levin Energy, which deals with clean energy initiatives, and state Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Warren.

Rumors of Levin's retirement have been swirling for a couple of months. He stepped aside as the ranking Democrat of the House Ways and Means Committee last year, his longtime chief of staff, Hilarie Chambers, stepped down from that role, and Levin didn't hold his traditional birthday fundraiser this year.

But he still believes there is much work to do in his final year, including fighting continuing efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and the current battles over tax reform as well as working on the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Act, adding. "We’ve got a major schedule ahead of us in the next year."

"Everybody has to judge their time and I just think it wise to step down as ranking member on Ways and Means to give others a chance," Levin said. "I’m going into my 36th year. It's time for me to keep working, but just not in Congress."

Sander Levin

Residence: born and raised in Detroit, lives in Royal Oak

Politics: state Senate 1965-70. Ran for governor, but lost in 1970 and 1974; won a seat in Congress 1982, elected 17 more times. Served on the House Banking and Ways and Means committees.

Education: bachelor's degree University of Chicago, masters from Columbia University, law degree from Harvard University.

Personal: Married to Vickie Schlafer in 1957, four children. Vickie Levin died in 2008. Levin remarried in 2012 to Pamela Cole.

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© 2017 Detroit Free Press


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