Sander Levin Still Fighting After 30 Years

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 01:  House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Sander Levin (D-MI) speaks during a rally against the cut off of unemployement benefits at the U.S. Captiol December 1, 2010 in Washington, DC. Two million jobless stand to lose federal unemployment benefits beginning today and millions more in the months to follow if Congress doesn't act to extend the benefits.
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
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Stacy Kaper
Oct. 23, 2013, 4:40 p.m.

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.”

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