Traverse City Record-Eagle

March 17, 2013

Jack Lessenberry: Carl Levin fought for state


---- — The last time I interviewed U.S. Senator Carl Levin, he met me at an International House of Pancakes in Detroit, about as modest a restaurant as you can imagine.

He drove himself, showed up without aides, ate a waffle without syrup, talked candidly for an hour, and then drove off to see some constituents in Dearborn. Sometimes on weekends I’ve seen him in my neighborhood grocery store, in dungarees and an old shirt.

Once I asked the 20-something cashier if she knew who he was. “I think he works for the government,” she said. My guess is that she may not have known who he was, but if she voted at all, she voted for him.

Last time he ran, Carl Levin became the first person in Michigan history to get more than three million votes in any race.Republicans had stopped seriously contesting his re-election bids. Two cycles ago, I sat down one night with a former state legislator who wanted to be that year’s sacrificial lamb. Why in the world would you want to do this? I asked.

Well, it seemed that he wanted to get his girlfriend to marry him, and he thought he might have a better shot if he could at least say he was a major party nominee for the U.S. Senate.

I don’t know how his courtship turned out, but I hope he did better than he did in the election. Nobody from Michigan has ever served as long in the U.S. Senate.

Had Levin wanted another term, the GOP would likely have put a term-limited legislator on the ballot, gone through the motions, and not given them any money.But Carl Levin was, as everyone knew, a class act. He served in the senate with Strom Thurmond, who had no idea who or where he was towards the end of his career. Levin will be 80 next year, and would have been 86 before a new term ended.

Few men that age can keep up with the demands of a job that requires frequent commuting and sometimes hopscotching the world, and he knew it. Yet who will succeed him?The odds, at first glance, favor the Democrats.

Michigan Republicans have a stunning record of failure in U.S. Senate elections. They have won precisely once in their last 13 tries.Their lone victory was in 1994, when Spencer Abraham won an open seat.

That, however, was the year the GOP captured both houses of Congress, and won every open senate seat in the nation.Abraham lasted a single term before being shown the door by Debbie Stabenow, who has since won re-election twice by whopping margins.

Next year, however, they may have a shot - depending in part on national conditions. Traditionally, off-year elections favor the party not holding the presidency.

That’s especially true in the sixth year of a two-term president, though there have been exceptions.Democrats did well, for example, in Bill Clinton’s second off-year election.

Add to the mix the fact that Gov. Rick Snyder will presumably be running for re-election, and there is no well-funded, top-tier Democratic challenger in sight.

But Michiganders have long been ticket-splitters, perfectly willing to give a governor from one party and a senator from another landslide victories on the same election night.

So it may come down to the candidates. Democrats have an early front-runner: U.S. Rep. Gary Peters, 54, a three-term congressman from Bloomfield Hills.

A relentless campaigner, he has learned a lot since losing (some would say, blowing) a close statewide race for attorney general in 2002.

He is clearly interested, and has to be seen as the early favorite.The GOP picture is more muddied, and the party could face a choice between one or more establishment candidates, and a Tea Party darling.

The latter would likely be two-term U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, whose district includes Grand Rapids.Amash, who is barely 32, has made a name for himself as a maverick who has often voted no on bipartisan compromises.In fact, on dozens of bills before the house he has often cast the only “no” vote, since he says he refuses to vote for anything he hasn’t had the time to read.

The congressman is about as anti-establishment as they come.

Though he has little name recognition outside his district, he might well be able to tap huge donors like the Club For

Growth, which has made the difference in elections before.More conventional

Republicans are hoping that either U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Brighton, or Lt. Gov. Brian Calley will run.Calley, who is about to be 36, could conceivably try for the nomination, lose the August primary, and still be renominated for lieutenant governor at the party’s September convention next year.

Rogers, on the other hand, would have to give up a safe seat in the House, where he is chair of the Permanent Select Committee on intelligence.Another possibility is former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, 54, who was popular, doesn’t now have an office she‘d have to risk, but does have a family with considerable money.

Other candidates may test the waters.

Two things, however, are clear: First, a race that could have been a sleeper is now likely to suck up tens of millions of campaign dollars. And while whomever wins may be Carl Levin’s successor, they won’t be his replacement.

Nobody could be. In terms of stature, seniority and clout, Michigan in January 2015 is bound to be a little bit poorer.

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.