WASHINGTON — Carl Levin, who rose from one of the most prominent families in Michigan to become one of the most respected members of the U.S. Senate, sent political shock waves through the state when he announced Thursday that he would not run for a seventh term.
Levin, 78, is an iconic figure in Michigan politics and a legislator Time magazine once called one of the best 10 senators in the chamber. But, he said, after long talks with his wife, Barbara, they decided the next 21 months are better spent fighting for passage of policy priorities than raising money and running a campaign.
"I love representing the people of Michigan in the U.S. Senate and fighting for the things that I believe are important to them," he said in a statement.
But, he added, "(Our) country is at a crossroads that will determine our economic health and security for decades to come. ... I can best serve my state and my nation by concentrating in the next two years on the challenging issues before us that I am in a position to address."
President Barack Obama praised Levin's service, saying: "If you've ever worn the uniform, worked a shift on an assembly line or sacrificed to make ends meet, then you've had a voice and a vote in Sen. Carl Levin. No one has worked harder to bring manufacturing jobs back to our shores, close unfair tax loopholes and ensure that everyone plays by the same set of rules."
First winning election to the Senate in 1978, Levin not only became a force in Michigan politics, but in the Democratic Party nationally, relentlessly pushing for states other than Iowa and New Hampshire to take a place earlier in the presidential primary calendar. He chairs the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee. Through the years, he has steered billions of dollars in funding to Michigan projects and priorities.
"It's too bad for the Senate, and it's too bad for Michigan, because I don't think you have anyone in the Senate who generates more respect than Carl," said Norm Ornstein, a congressional researcher and expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.
Ornstein said he was "surprised, but not stunned" that Levin would decide not to run for re-election. Even as fellow Democrats have argued vociferously for rules to limit the use of the filibuster, Levin has tried to chart a middle ground, knowing that the Senate rules are there to protect whichever party finds itself in the minority. Still, the constant gridlock has been politically wearing.
Levin's departure is certain to set off an avalanche of political activity in Michigan.
Even with the suggestion weeks ago that Levin might not run, U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, a Cascade Township Republican, had floated the idea of running to supporters. Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Levin leaving "offers us a real pickup opportunity."
Democrats might be quick to point out, though, that though Republicans have won statewide in other seats, including governor and attorney general, a Republican hasn't won a U.S. Senate seat in Michigan since 1994, when Spencer Abraham was elected to a single term. The woman who beat him, Democrat Debbie Stabenow, is now poised to become the state's senior senator.
But there will be no replacing Levin, who with his rumpled suits, combed-over hair and glasses perched at the tip of his nose, sticks out as a prototypical senator. To that, he brings a fierce belief in liberalism, a love of his state — he is a lifelong Tigers fan — and an incisive debating style that allows him to disagree without being disagreeable.
He can find common ground with the opposition party, too, and counts Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona as a close colleague, if not always an ally, on the Armed Services Committee.
Stabenow said she would miss him, but "before he can be missed, we still have two more years to work together for Michigan."
Levin came up through political connections. His father, Saul, served on the Michigan Corrections Commission; one uncle, Theodore Levin, was chief judge of the U.S. District Court for Eastern Michigan. He grew up in Detroit, graduated from Swathmore and Harvard Law School and worked for Detroit's public defender's office before being elected to the City Council.
In 1978, he ran for the U.S. Senate and won, in part, because incumbent Robert Griffin jumped out of the race, only to try to re-enter — unsuccessfully — later.
Levin's older brother, Sander Levin, 81, represents the 9th Congressional District and lives in Royal Oak. He is the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.
Throughout his career, Carl Levin has been a staunch defender of the auto industry — fighting to ensure that fuel standards didn't overly burden domestic carmakers — while also helping to fund support for Great Lakes restoration projects. He helped found the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Keweenaw National Historic Park.
Levin, who is Jewish, was described as a "true friend" by the National Jewish Democratic Council, one who "worked to deepen the U.S.-Israel relationship and bolster the armed forces."
He opposed giving congressional authorization to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, arguing unsuccessfully for an alternative that would have given inspectors more time to determine whether there were weapons of mass destruction in that country. And while supporting the action to remove al-Qaida from Afghanistan, he has supported polices to force Afghan leaders to take responsibility for their own country.
On the domestic front, he has long pushed for policies that would limit offshore tax havens. In his statement Thursday, Levin said he would spend the next two years concentrating on passing laws to restrict offshore accounts, continue Michigan's economic comeback and look into the failure of the Internal Revenue Service to enforce laws that "are supposed to prevent secret contributions to tax-exempt organizations for political purposes."
He said he would also continue to fight to ensure military readiness, despite the fiscal pressures being felt by the Pentagon.
Speculation had been running high that Levin might decide not to run for re-election, but Levin had repeatedly said he hadn't made up his mind. Last month, his office staff knocked down speculation that he might not seek a seventh 6-year term in 2014 after filing a small fund-raising report for the last quarter of 2012.
Levin told the Free Press a few weeks ago that he would make up his mind soon. Whatever his decision, he wasn't expected to have a hard time winning if he did decide to run. Levin hasn't had a close election in decades. In 2008, he beat former state House Rep. Jack Hoogendyk by nearly 30 percentage points.
Now, he becomes the sixth member of the Senate to announce he will not run for re-election next year, joining Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Mike Johanns, R-Neb., Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Jay Rockefeller, D-W. Va. At present, Democrats hold 53 seats in the chamber, with two Independents caucusing with them, to 45 Republicans. In 2014, 20 seats currently held by Democrats will be open and 13 seats held by Republicans will be.
Lansing political consultant Robert Kolt said a lot of people likely will be interested in running for the seat, "but not having Carl Levin at the top of the ticket is going to be devastating for a lot of Democrats. He's a great campaigner and debater. It's going to be a big loss for the party."
"It's a huge loss," said former Gov. Jim Blanchard, a former Democratic colleague of Levin and a lobbyist in Washington. "He's just been a fabulous public servant. His whole life has been public service."
Michigan still has the longest-serving member of the House ever, U.S. Rep. John Dingell, a Dearborn Democrat, and U.S. Rep. John Conyers, a Detroit Democrat, is the second-longest serving active member of the House.
But Levin's departure will certainly cost the state some clout.
"In a lot of ways, it's intangible because he has such influence," Blanchard said. "When Carl talks, people listen. His colleagues listen. And they want to be helpful to him."
"The retirement of my good friend Carl Levin is a terrible loss to our state," Dingell said in a statement Thursday. "Carl is a giant, and he and his service have been of enormous value to the people of Michigan and this nation.
"I wish this giant a long retirement, full of well-earned joy and contentment with his wonderful wife, Barbara, and family."