Hang around with Rep. Sander Levin long enough and the Democrat from Michigan might show you an odd piece of political memorabilia: a universal joint, used to link a car's driveshaft to its transmission, mounted on a plaque.
Levin bought it at Joe's Auto Parts in Royal Oak, Mich., in the 1990s for $11.46. The same part retailed in Japan for $105 at the time, and he carried it around during a trade fight with Japan to make his point.
He flashed the U-joint so often that Andy Card, then the CEO of the American Automobile Manufacturers Association (and later President George W. Bush's chief of staff), stole it from Levin's pocket and had it mounted.
Levin got the plaque, but not the trade concessions—and it says something about the man that he's still quick to talk about that fight.
"The conditions vis-à-vis Japan are essentially the same as they were 30 years ago," Levin said. "They keep out our products, both vehicles and parts, while they've had completely open access to our market. And they've had all the benefits of a sheltered market."
Trade policy is both a passion and a hallmark for Levin. And the auto industry is in his blood. As the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, he has influence in both arenas.
"The Ways and Means Committee for me has this opportunity to work with programs where I can take my parents' sense of community and make it work," he said.
Growing up in Michigan, Levin worked in automotive factories in the northern suburbs of Detroit to save up for college and later drove a cab, competing for fares with his younger brother, Sen. Carl Levin. (Carl said that Sander drove faster and so won more business, but that he earned larger tips.)
Levin wound up at the University of Chicago after his high school principal told Columbia and the other colleges where he had applied not to accept him because he had gone against the administration one too many times. In college, Levin sat at the lunch counter in protest with black students and they were denied service together. Studying village democracy in India inspired him.
"I was essentially trained by World War II vets who combined a progressive view of life with a deep distrust of anything authoritarian," Levin said.
After graduating from law school, he worked as a labor lawyer and later served as the Michigan Senate minority leader. He ran unsuccessfully for governor twice before being elected to Congress in 1982. In his work since then, Levin's tough efforts in support of his worldview—belief in unions, support for the auto industry, and a sense of duty to protect the social safety net—have come through.
When President Bush waged a campaign to privatize Social Security in 2005, for example, Levin found himself as the lead Democrat fighting the effort. Levin believed that putting up alternatives to the Republican proposal was dangerous. Instead, he shot them down and was instrumental in holding Democrats firmly against engaging in the debate.
"He led us in the winning strategy, which was an inside-outside strategy, that we would mobilize people around the country, and two, that we would not offer an alternative—that was absolutely key," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.
"Sandy was regularly at the caucus meetings, at the whip meetings, explaining to members in his soft but persistent and very persuasive voice that that was not the way we were going to win this battle. It was not obvious to everyone and so Sandy was very firm."
Said Levin: "It was a tough battle, but you have to have a clear strategy and implement it and I believe in that. Get a strategy and implement it vigorously, and that's what we did and it speaks for itself. Obviously. That issue is gone."
Levin has played offense, too. Perhaps his biggest achievement is his insertion of labor, environmental, and prescription-drug provisions into trade negotiations known as the May 10, 2007 Agreement, reached between the Bush administration and Congress.
It is an unenforceable, nonbinding agreement that bans child or forced labor, guarantees workers the right to organize, requires adherence to environmental agreements, and allows access to American prescription drugs. The agreement is still considered a watershed development in trade talks and has embedded conditions on these topics into the framework of all trade discussions since. It reset the standards for trade negotiations with Colombia, Panama, Peru, and South Korea, which helped ease their path to passage, particularly among Democrats.
Levin has also had his share of setbacks. When China was entering the World Trade Organization during the Clinton administration, Levin decided he wanted to support the agreement and managed to include provisions to review China's WTO compliance and its human-rights actions. But the effort cost Levin the longtime support of the United Auto Workers in his 2000 election. The UAW went so far as to back his Republican opponent, Bart Baron, and persuaded the Michigan AFL-CIO not to support him.
On the committee, Levin is willing to throw punches at Chairman Dave Camp, R‑Mich., but Camp often refuses to swing back. Levin argues that the parameters Camp has set for revenue-neutral tax reform are totally "unsatisfactory" and have therefore shut Democrats out. He says Camp has allowed conservatives to inject the agenda with partisan politics, pointing to the rhetoric surrounding the Internal Revenue Service investigation as an example.
"We started on a bipartisan basis but it went downhill," Levin said. "Dave Camp has been very much influenced by, and often guided by, the radicalization of the Republican Party … and too often failed to speak out."
Camp, who is focused on trying to preserve his ability to work with Levin on tax reform, is very careful not to take shots at him. "I understand his role," he said diplomatically. "My role is to try to identify issues and bring them forward in the committee, and his role is to certainly challenge that at times, but we have a good working relationship and that is going to continue."
Other Republicans complain that Levin is a hypocrite, arguing that he was dismissive of Republican views when he stepped in as acting chairman in 2010.
"You know what? You can just kind of keep your mouth shut because everyone knows what your style was and it wasn't an inclusive style," said committee member Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio, referring to Levin. "It wasn't a bipartisan style. It was very dictatorial. You just call it for what it is. I don't think it is helpful to the institution when you want to criticize, but when you led the place you were worse."
In Michigan, Levin developed a good working relationship with some Republicans, including former Gov. George Romney. He became close friends with former Gov. William Milliken, whom he lost to twice. In Washington, Republicans call Levin a tough liberal.
"Sandy is a Democrat's Democrat—he defends Democratic positions with vigor and substance," said former Ways and Means ranking member Jim McCrery, R-La. "I can imagine some Republicans kind of get their dander up when they see Sandy out there carrying the Democratic flag. That's what our system is all about. Sometimes partisanship is called for. Sandy is very thorough. Republicans know if they are in a debate with Sandy they better be ready, they better be prepared."
Yet one knock against Levin is that he sometimes acts like the chairman—something even his Democratic colleagues acknowledge—and some Republican aides complain privately that Levin can be so strident in his arguments that he can come across as condescending.
"He keeps putting ideas up and I keep saying to him, 'Sandy, you keep acting like you are in charge,' " said Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington, the No. 3 Democrat on the panel. "He laughs and says, 'We got to keep them thinking.' I say, 'Yeah, we do, so keep that shit up.' "
Of course, not all the hard times were political. In the hall leading to Levin's office is a photograph of Vicki, his late wife of more than 50 years, who died in 2008. His wife's death was a huge blow to Levin and for a time his family was not sure how he would get through it. "It's a sad and a great story. He was very close to his first wife," said Carl Levin. "He was really wiped out. We were worried about him. That's how bad it was. He was grieving for probably two or three years."
But Sander Levin did recover. In his office is a family photo that includes his second wife, Pamela Cole, whom he married last summer.
At age 82, and with his younger brother—with whom he is extremely close—stepping down from the Senate at the end of this term, there is speculation about how much longer he will stay in Congress. But Levin is running for reelection. He argues that he is as motivated as ever to help Democrats take back the House and regain the committee gavel.
"What motivates me is everything that I have been a small part of," he said. "Virtually everything in these last 30, 40 years is at stake. We fought over Social Security, rights of workers, health care—it's all up for grabs."
This article appears in the October 24, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.