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Commentary: How much political fight left for Sander Levin


If you watched anything other than football on New Year’s Day, and turned to CNN or C-Span, you probably saw a soft-spoken, older man speaking on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. With his shock of white hair sometimes askew, he was urging his colleagues not to take us over the fiscal cliff.

He is, of course, Congressman Sander Levin, from Royal Oak, who has represented a group of mainly working-class suburbs in the House for 30 years. To us old-timers, however, that’s just his latest venture.

Sandy Levin was first elected to the state senate when his party’s current leader, President Obama was three years old. Rick Snyder was in grade school when Levin lost a race for governor in this state that was so close and so controversial there are still people today who feel he was robbed.

Sandy’s political success may in part have motivated his little brother to get into politics, first by being elected to Detroit City Council. Today, Carl Levin is the longest-serving U.S. Senator in state history. 

Sandy Levin turned 81 last September. The last few years haven’t been easy. His beloved wife Vicky died after a long struggle with cancer four years ago.

Three years ago, Levin became at last chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, but lost that job when Democrats lost control of the house eight months later. A year ago, when Michigan had to give up a seat in Congress, there were those who wondered if he should stay on, whether he had the drive and desire anymore.

But the battles over health care and the fiscal cliff seemed to reenergize him. He told me over breakfast this week “Do I have fire in my belly?  In a sense, more than ever. Because I think that everything is at stake. I’ve been fighting this battle over health care by entire adult life,” he said. “Now we have it.

“And I am determined, as ranking member of Ways and Means, to make it work,” he told me. “Do I have fire in my belly when 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 the Republicans,  “but they are so blinded by ideology they won’t even do that,” he shook his head. 

Politics weren’t always like that, he remembered. Nearly half a century ago, he remembers huddling with a Republican state senator and hashing out the details of a bill. Later, he ran twice against his colleague, Bill Milliken, for governor. They were hard, close and bitter campaigns, and Sandy Levin lost them both.

“We were broken-hearted,” he said. But today the men are friends. Milliken congratulated Levin the day he became chair. Levin consoled Milliken the day his wife Helen died last November.

Last year, Sandy Levin got remarried to a longtime family friend. That and current events seem to have given him new energy to fight. My guess is that he isn’t giving up the struggle any time soon.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.