DETROIT — Famous for gazing over eyeglasses worn on the end of his nose, Carl Levin seemed at ease wherever he went, whether attending a college football game back home in Michigan or taking on a multibillion-dollar corporation before cameras on Capitol Hill.
Michigan’s longest-serving U.S. senator had a slightly rumpled, down-to-earth demeanor that helped him win over voters throughout his 36-year career, as did his staunch support for the hometown auto industry. But the Harvard-educated attorney also was a respected voice on military issues, spending years leading the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee.
Despite his record tenure and status, he kept his role in perspective. At his direction, the portraits of all 38 senators who had served before or with him since Michigan’s statehood in 1837 were hung in his office conference room. Two empty spaces were reserved for future senators.
“I’m part of a long trail of people who have represented Michigan,” Levin said in 2008. “I’m just part of that history. The people coming after me … can pick up where I leave off, whoever they might be.”
The former taxi driver and auto-line worker, who for decades kept his faded 1953 union card in his wallet, died Thursday at 87. His family and the Levin Center at Wayne State University’s law school did not release a cause of death in an evening statement. He had been living with lung cancer since age 83.
“We are all devastated by his loss. But we are filled with gratitude for all of the support that Carl received throughout his extraordinary life and career, enabling him to touch so many people and accomplish so much good,” the statement said.
First elected to the Senate in 1978, Levin represented Michigan longer than any other senator, targeting tax shelters, supporting manufacturing jobs and pushing for military funding. His tenure was a testament to voters’ approval of the slightly rumpled, down-to-earth Detroit native whom Time magazine ranked among the nation’s 10 best senators in 2006.
“He’s just a very decent person,” Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a fellow Senate Armed Services Committee member, said in 2008. “He’s unpretentious, unassuming. He never forgets that what we’re doing is enmeshed with the lives of the people he represents.”
A Washington insider and former prosecutor known for his professorial bearing, Levin took a civil but straightforward approach that allowed him to work effectively with Republicans and fellow Democrats. He was especially astute on defense matters thanks to his years as the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
And he didn’t fear speaking his mind.
He was in the minority — even among his Democratic Senate colleagues — when he voted against sending U.S. troops to Iraq in 2002, and two years later he said President George W. Bush’s administration had “written the book on how to mismanage a war.” He gave a cautious endorsement to President Barack Obama’s 2009 buildup of troops in Afghanistan, but later warned of “the beginnings of fraying” of Democratic support.
He was also critical of President Ronald Reagan’s buildup of nuclear weapons, saying it came at the expense of conventional weapons needed to maintain military readiness.
But, colleagues said, he almost always engendered a feeling of respect.
“We’ve always had a very trusting and respectful relationship,” the late-Republican Sen. John Warner, who worked closely for years with Levin on the Armed Services Committee, once said. “We do not try to pull surprises on each other. The security of the nation and the welfare of the armed services come first.”
Famous for wearing his eyeglasses down on his nose, Levin seemed to be the same candid, hardworking guy wherever he went, whether he was in front of cameras on Capitol Hill, on an overseas fact-finding mission or lost in the crowd of a college football stadium on game day.
“No one would accuse Carl Levin of looking like Hollywood’s version of a U.S. Senator. He’s pudgy, balding and occasionally rumpled, and he constantly wears his glasses at the very tip of his nose,” Time magazine said in its 2006 article ranking the senator among the country’s best. “Still, the Michigan Democrat has gained respect from both parties for his attention to detail and deep knowledge of policy, especially in his role as a vigilant monitor of businesses and federal agencies.”
A foe of fraud and waste, Levin led an investigation in 2002 into Enron Corp., which had declared bankruptcy the previous year amid financial scandals. The probe contributed to a new federal law that requires executives to sign off on financial statements so they could be criminally liable for posting phony numbers.
Levin pushed legislation designed to crack down on offshore tax havens, which he said cost the U.S. government at least $100 billion a year in lost taxes. He also was an advocate for stem cell research and gun control.
Closer to home, Levin promoted policies benefiting the auto industry and supported giving $25 billion in loan guarantees to General Motors and Chrysler. He argued that a vibrant domestic auto industry was crucial to rebuilding the economy after the Great Recession. He also was a member of a task force supporting efforts to fight pollution and other environmental problems affecting the Great Lakes.
“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,” Obama said in 2013. “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.”
Carl Milton Levin was born in Detroit on June 28, 1934, and he stayed in the Motor City for most of his life. After high school, he spent time as a taxi driver and worked on auto assembly plant lines to help put himself through school.
Always proud of having helped build the DeSoto and Ford trucks at a plant in Highland Park, he held onto his United Auto Workers union membership card for decades. That ended when his wallet was stolen.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Swarthmore College in 1956, and a law degree from Harvard in 1959. He married his wife, Barbara, two years later, and together they raised three daughters.
Levin fell in line with his family’s strong sense of civic duty in 1964, when he was named an assistant state attorney general and the first general counsel for the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. His older brother, former longtime U.S. Rep. Sander “Sandy” Levin, had a liberal voting record on many social issues, while their father served on the Michigan Corrections Commission, a citizens’ group that oversaw prison operations, and their mother volunteered for a Jewish organization.
Carl Levin once said that public service was in his DNA, and politics often was discussed at the dinner table when he was a boy.
He dove into public office when Detroit voters elected him to the City Council in 1969, and he served as its president before ousting a Republican to win the 1978 Senate race. He won the seat five more times but decided against running for a seventh term in 2014.
After his retirement, the Levin Center at Wayne Law was established to promote fact-based, bipartisan oversight by Congress and state legislatures and to encourage civil dialogue on public policy issues. He chaired the center and co-taught law courses. He also was a partner and distinguished counsel at the Honigman law firm in Detroit.
His memoir, “Getting to the Heart of the Matter: My 36 Years in the Senate,” was published in March. The Navy named a destroyer for him to honor his years of public service.
His nephew, Andy Levin, was reelected in 2020 to his father’s 9th Congressional District seat that represents parts of suburban Detroit.
“Carl Levin personified integrity and the notion of putting the public good above self-interest,” Andy Levin said, calling him “the very picture of sober purpose and rectitude. In truth, he wasn’t unfun. In fact, he often pierced tense situations with self-deprecating humor, and he privately shared incisive observations about others with staff and colleagues.”
evin is survived by his wife, their three adult daughters, Kate, Laura and Erica, and several grandchildren. There will be a private funeral. Information about a public memorial will be forthcoming.
Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather
A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.
The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.
“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.
The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.
In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.
Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.
“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”
The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.
“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”
Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.
More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.
Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.
Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.
The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.
So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.
Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.
“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”
Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park
A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.
The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.
He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.
The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.
The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.
“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”
Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.
The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.
House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight
House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.
The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.
The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.
The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.
Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.
“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”
It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.
The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.
However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.
Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.
Haley Talbot contributed.
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