Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, whose service from 1979 to 2015 made him the Wolverine State’s longest-serving senator, died Thursday at the age of 87. Levin, who twice led the Armed Services Committee, was an influential figure during his time on Capitol Hill, and he played an integral role in passing the 2010 bill that ended the military’s discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. The senator was also known for his investigations into corporate wrongdoing, including his 2002 probe of Enron.
Levin, who was the nephew of a federal judge, got his start in public life in 1964 as general counsel for the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, and then went on to help create the Detroit Public Defender’s Office. Levin’s older brother, Sandy Levin, was the more famous of the two at the time, as he was elected to the state Senate in 1964 before serving as state party chair and as minority leader. Carl Levin soon joined him in elected office when he won the 1968 race for a seat on the Detroit City Council, and he later rose to become council president; during this stint, Levin became well-known at home for protecting the city’s interests from the federal government.
Sandy Levin lost close races for governor in 1970 and 1974 to Republican William Milliken, but his brother had much more success when he ran statewide in 1978. Carl Levin campaigned for the Senate seat held by Republican incumbent Robert Griffin, who had announced his retirement the previous year, saying, “Twenty-two years is long enough.” National Republicans, though, successfully pressured Griffin to reverse course and seek re-election after all, a development that seemed like a huge blow to Democratic hopes for a pickup.
Before he could focus on Griffin, though, Levin had to get through a primary that included wealthy newspaper owner Phil Power; former Rep. Richard Vander Veen, who became nationally famous by winning the 1974 special election for Gerald Ford’s former House seat; and three state legislators. Levin’s strong base in Detroit helped establish him as the frontrunner, and he beat Power 39-20.
Levin spent the general election arguing that “new blood” was needed to replace Griffin, who had missed numerous votes in the Senate. The senator fought back by unconvincingly trying to distance himself from “that Washington crowd” and attacking Levin as “a free‐spending liberal,” but it wasn’t enough. Levin prevailed 52-48, a victory that made him Michigan’s first Jewish senator.
Levin was joined in Congress after the 1982 election by Sandy Levin, who would ultimately retire from the House in the 2018 cycle. (The two kept a “confusion file” listing people who mixed them up.) Two years later, the senator found himself locked in a tough battle to maintain his seat; Levin’s 1984 opponent was retired astronaut Jack Lousma, a Republican who unsubtly touted his good looks in what Levin would describe as a contrast to his own “plump, balding, and disheveled look.” The incumbent, though, decided to play up the physical difference himself, joking, “Our pollsters tell us that it’s a winner because there are more of us than there are of them.”
Lousma stood a good chance in a year when President Ronald Reagan was poised to sweep 49 states, and the Republican made sure to tie himself to his party’s standard-bearer. Lousma, though, made some serious mistakes, especially when he claimed “An average high school boy could sit down and with three hours of briefings could know all you’d want him to know about issues in Michigan.”
Lousma’s biggest gaffe, though, came when he revealed that he owned a Toyota, a remark that went over especially badly in the state that was home to the American automotive industry. Then-Gov. Jim Blanchard would later recount that he had to convince Levin to use this material against his opponent, as the senator initially believed that Lousma’s honesty was hardly damaging. Blanchard was right, though: Reagan ended up carrying Michigan by a wide 59-40 margin, but Levin prevailed 52-47.
Levin would face a few other notable Republican opponents during his long career, but he was never truly close to losing any of them. In 1990, Levin turned back GOP Rep. Bill Schuette 57-41; Schuette would go on to revive his career in Michigan politics, which culminated in his 2018 defeat in the gubernatorial race. Levin’s opponent in 1996 was Ronna Romney, daughter-in-law of former Gov. George Romney and mother of current RNC chair Ronna McDaniel. Romney’s brother-in-law, Mitt Romney, had lost the Massachusetts Senate race two years before, and she fell to Levin 58-40.
The senator would win his final two races with more than 60% of the vote before retiring in the 2014 cycle.
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