Former Sen. Carl Levin, champion of congressional oversight, dies at 87

Former Armed Services chairman was Michigan's longest-serving senator

Former Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., has died. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Former Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., has died. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 29, 2021 at 10:38pm

Retired Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, who was Michigan’s longest-serving senator, has died at the age of 87.

His passing was announced Thursday in a joint statement from his family and the Levin Center at Detroit's Wayne State University.

"Whether he was chairing a hearing on critical national security issues or working on behalf of his home state, he believed that collaboration and compromise served our common purpose better than partisanship and political brinkmanship. He was a clarion voice for a military strong enough to defend our nation and uphold American values," the statement said. "He was a tireless advocate for the positive role that government can play in the lives of the American people and a relentless watchdog ensuring that government programs meet their commitments."

The longtime chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Levin retired at the beginning of 2015 after a 36-year career in the chamber.

“We liked to joke that we were such good friends because I made him feel tall and he made me feel like a snappy dresser," Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., said in a statement.

“Carl Levin was a man of substance, character, and integrity. He was a big-hearted workhorse who dedicated his life to standing up for the downtrodden, holding the powerful accountable, and making the federal government work more effectively for the American people," Reed said.

Levin was born in Detroit in 1934. As a teenager, he worked on the assembly line at a Chrysler plant. He carried his United Auto Workers union card in his wallet ever since.

Levin received his bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College and went on to law school at Harvard University, just like his older brother, Sander, who later represented Michigan in the House. Sander M. Levin rose to become chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee before his retirement in 2010.

After law school, Carl Levin worked as the general counsel to the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. In 1970, Levin was elected to the Detroit City Council and eight years later he won a seat in the U.S. Senate.

As a senator, Levin earned a reputation as a tenacious and intelligent legislator. In addition to being the lead Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, working with members of both parties, including the recently deceased Virginia Republican John Warner, as well as the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to authorize defense spending and oversee the U.S. military.

Levin also was chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, where he delved into the causes of the 2008 financial crisis and looked at how companies exploit the tax code. His post-Senate career was spent working on a variety of projects, including establishing the Levin Center at Wayne Law, which has had a focus on improving congressional oversight.

“It is so important that the executive branch have a congressional branch which aggressively and effectively looks at programs to see whether or not the programs and the laws are working well, to see which new laws might be needed and to see what wrongdoing needs to be remedied,” Levin said in a 2017 interview with CQ Roll Call.

The Michigan Democrat was an ardent defender of the auto industry and worked to protect the Great Lakes.

"His legacy extends to every corner of Michigan, including the preservation of the Sleeping Bear Dunes and the Upper Peninsula’s mining and maritime history; cleaner Great Lakes and Michigan streams; a beautiful Detroit Riverwalk; and an American auto industry that is stronger for his tireless support," Levin's surviving family members and the Levin Center said in their statement.

In March of 2013, Levin announced his intent to retire at the end of his term. He said he and his wife “decided that I can best serve my state and nation by concentrating in the next two years on the challenging issues before us that I am in a position to help address; in other words, by doing my job without the distraction of campaigning for re-election.”

Democratic Sen. Gary Peters succeeded Levin in the Senate.

"From his days on the Detroit City Council to the halls of the United States Senate, Senator Levin always had the well-being of Michiganders on his mind," Peters said in a statement. "He was a leader of unmatched character, principled leadership and integrity who will be remembered for his devotion to his family, our state and our country — and whose incredible impact was equaled by his humility."

Levin is survived by his wife, Barbara, their three daughters and several grandchildren, as well as his older brother Sander.