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ROYAL OAK, Mich. — Sander Levin, like a million other white-haired grandfathers in their 80s, might have watched football on New Year’s Day. But for him, there was no time. The longtime congressman was on the floor of the U.S. House, trying to persuade his colleagues not to take the nation over the fiscal cliff.
In his soft-spoken voice, hair askew, he pleaded with his colleagues to show the world that “this institution can govern.”
“This bill is vital for our nation’s economic well-being,“ he argued, gently but forcefully. In the end, his side won.
For at least the next couple of months, that is. “Of course, now we’re facing fights over Medicaid and the debt ceiling,” he said over breakfast last week in his new district. You might think all this could be getting a little old. Mr. Levin has been at this for a long time.
President Obama, the leader whose interests Mr. Levin has been fighting for on the floor of the House, was 3 years old when a young Sander Levin was first elected to the Michigan Senate.
Gov. Rick Snyder was in elementary school when Mr. Levin lost a race for governor that was so close and so controversial — one of the nation’s first punch-card messes — that some still feel he was robbed.
Four years later, he lost another close race to the same man, incumbent Republican Gov. Bill Milliken. Mr. Levin’s career in elected politics appeared to be over. Thirty-one years ago, however, his hometown congressman suddenly decided to retire.
Mr. Levin beat the field and went to Washington. He has been there ever since, rising gradually through the ranks, fighting for fairness and trade and worker protection. His career reached its zenith three years ago, when he became chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
But he held that post for less than a year. Republicans captured the House that fall. Democrats’ failure to take it back last year may mean it will be a long time before GOP control is broken. Mr. Levin knows all that.
Yet he seems anything but worn down or worn out. “Do I have fire in my belly? In a sense, more than ever,” he said, “because I think that everything is at stake.”
He is proud that he took the lead on the successful battle to get unemployment insurance extended. He is proud of his continuing efforts to pressure China to stop undervaluing its currency.
He is sad, however, at the polarization that has crippled the collegiality that used to exist in both Lansing and Washington.
He recalls an era when, as a Democratic legislator, he could go talk to then-Republican Gov. George Romney, reach agreement on a bill, shake hands, and know that was that.
He remembers fondly a bus trip through Eastern Europe with a bipartisan bunch of his colleagues in the early 1980s.
“We’d take turns being the leaders and being first to shake hands with the next horrible dictator,” he said, chuckling. “I forget who got stuck with [Nicolae] Ceausescu.”
He finds it sad that he can’t imagine that happening today.
“You have an actual majority in the Legislature of this state that won’t even agree to have a state health-care exchange? They are supposed to be in favor of local control,” he said of GOP lawmakers.“But they are so blinded by ideology they won’t even do that,” even though the President’s health care plan is now settled law.
“I‘ve been fighting this battle over health care my entire adult life,” he said. “Now we have it. And I am determined, as ranking [Democratic] member of Ways and Means, to make it work,” he said.
He remembers growing up in Detroit in the 1930s and 1940s. “We had dinner together every night,” he said, “and my father would talk to us about current events.”
That led to a passion for public service that was shared by his younger brother, who won a seat on Detroit City Council when he was getting ready to run for governor. Today, his brother Carl is the longest-serving U.S. senator in Michigan history.
The past few years have been tough in some respects. Mr. Levin’s wife, Vicky, died in 2008 after a long struggle with cancer. But last year, he got married again, to a longtime friend.
And oddly, perhaps, he has become fast friends with the man who defeated him twice for governor, Mr. Milliken.
“We were brokenhearted over losing,” Mr. Levin said. “But that’s been tempered by the relationship we’ve developed since.”
Mr. Milliken, who is far more moderate than most others in his party today, was one of the first to congratulate Mr. Levin when he became head of Ways and Means. The Democrat attempted to console the Republican when his wife, Helen, died last November.
As for Congress, “there’s still a lot left to be done,” Mr. Levin said.
Don’t bet on his fading away anytime soon.
Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org