‘There will never be another Carl Levin’: Michigan’s longest-serving U.S. senator dies at 87

By: - July 30, 2021 5:57 am

U.S. Senators Joe Lieberman, left, Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and John McCain listen to Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) the Honorable Ray Mabus deliver his opening remarks for the fiscal year 2010 budget request. | U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kevin S. O’Brien

Updated, 3:43 p.m., 7/30/21 with comments from President Biden

Carl Levin, former Detroit City Council member and U.S. senator, died Thursday at 87. The cause of death is not known.

The Levin Center at Wayne State University issued a statement, saying, “With great sadness and heavy hearts, the [center and family] announce the passing of Senator Carl Levin.”

Levin, a Democrat, served on Capitol Hill between 1979 and 2015 and chaired the powerful U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee. He announced that he would not seek another term in 2013 and retired the next year.

The Detroit native earned a bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College and a law degree from Harvard Law School. Prior to being elected to the Detroit City Council in 1969, Levin worked as general counsel for the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. Levin, along with his brother, former U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, have been fixtures in Democratic politics for more than 50 years. 

“As a former local official, I understood the importance of responding to people in need, listening to even the smallest voice, and working hard on behalf of the people with honesty, integrity, and civility,” Carl Levin wrote in his memoir, “Getting to the Heart of the Matter.”

As he walked about the Capitol in a rumpled suit, almost always with a plain white shirt and pedestrian tie, carrying bulging files with the occasional paper flying away, Carl was 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.

– U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, Carl Levin's nephew

U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.), is Sander’s son and Carl’s nephew and was elected in 2018. He said that his uncle “personified integrity and the notion of putting the public good above self-interest.”

“As he walked about the Capitol in a rumpled suit, almost always with a plain white shirt and pedestrian tie, carrying bulging files with the occasional paper flying away, Carl was 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,” said Levin. 

“But Carl was all about the work, and the great honor the people of Michigan had bestowed upon him with their votes and their trust. He did not seek to divine their views to be popular, but rather to study the issues and advance the people’s interest to the best of his ability. Uncle Carl met with more presidents, kings, queens and other important people than all but a few of us ever will. But he treated them all the same as he did a Detroit auto worker or a beet farmer in Michigan’s Thumb – with a full measure of dignity but no airs, ever ready to puncture self-importance, posturing, mendacity and avarice.”

President Joe Biden noted that he and Levin served together for 30 years in the Senate and called him “one of the most honorable and decent people I have ever known.

“Brilliant, humble, and principled, Carl earned the trust of his constituents and colleagues by doing the work. He studied the issues in detail. He forged consensus across the aisle. He built coalitions across his beloved Michigan. With his head tilted down, his eyes peering over his glasses – Carl always looked people straight into their own eyes, listened with an open mind, and responded the way he saw it with respect,” Biden said. “Over the course of his thirty-six years in the Senate, the longest serving Senator in Michigan history, he showed how democracy – and our institutions – can deliver and work for the people.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called Carl Levin a “champion for Michigan.”

“Carl paved the way for a safer planet, helped pass several nuclear weapons and missile treaties, and spoke out courageously against entering the war in Iraq. He made Michigan a safer and better place for our families, securing funds to create the Detroit Riverwalk and writing the bill that established Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park. Carl would often wear his glasses on the tip of his nose, but he saw the best in us. He saw what we were capable of when we came to the table as Michiganders, as Americans, to get things done. Carl devoted his life to public service, and it is up to us to follow his example.”

U.S. Sen. Carl Levin helped preserve the Sleeping Bear Dunes | Susan J. Demas

Attorney General Dana Nessel called Levin a “giant” and a “personal hero.”

“His no-nonsense, brutally honest approach to politics is what gained him respect across the aisle. I greatly admired his unwavering commitment to doing what was right – even if it wasn’t easy – and his passionate approach to understanding every single issue he voted on. We all could learn a great deal from his service. My thoughts are with his loved ones. There will never be another Carl Levin.”

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson worked with Levin during her tenure as Wayne State University Law School dean.

“A light has gone out today in Michigan that can never be replaced,” said Benson. “I have no words to express what Senator Carl Levin and his lifetime of dedication to our city, state and country meant to me and so many of us who seek to serve and lead during these uniquely divided times.”

He always believed that our government could be a force for good, and he spent his career showing all of us how it’s done.

– U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) was elected in 2014 to the Senate when Levin retired.

“As chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Levin focused on ensuring our military was equipped to address growing threats. As chair of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, he held those in positions of authority accountable – especially those responsible for the Wall Street collapse and the ensuing economic recession.”

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) called Levin a “champion for truth and justice.”

“He always believed that our government could be a force for good, and he spent his career showing all of us how it’s done,” said Stabenow. 

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan called Levin a “statesman.”

“His legacy will live on forever in the hearts of Detroiters. My heart goes out to his family at this difficult time,” said Duggan.

The Detroit-Wayne County Port Authority’s public dock and terminal is named in Levin’s honor; so is a street in Detroit’s Lafayette Park community where he lived for many years.   

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

MORE FROM AUTHOR