The lesser-known Levin takes over key House panel

By Ken Thomas

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Rep. Sander Levin, the new chairman of Congress' tax-writing committee, is now getting a higher profile after decades in the shadow of the younger brother who's always been his sounding board.

By most accounts, Levin, 78, who goes by Sandy, accepted the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee reluctantly. He is a close friend of Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., who stepped aside amid ethics inquiries, and was loyal as Rangel tussled with ongoing questions about his personal finances and a vacation home in the Dominican Republic.

"I know this is not how he or anyone would want to take over the reins of the committee," said Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., the committee's top Republican.

Levin, D-Mich., has been a strong ally of labor unions at the heart of trade, Social Security and welfare battles, and a point person for the auto industry during federal bailouts and precipitous drops in auto sales. Throughout his career, the congressman has remained close to his younger brother, Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who was first elected to the Senate in 1978.

"We're obviously very close. We work together and think together and plan together a lot," the senator said last Thursday. "There's rarely a day that goes by where we're not talking to each other and asking each other's opinions and trying to be helpful to Michigan."

When the Levin brothers and their late sister lived in Detroit, the families shared weekly Sunday dinners. They learned politics at the family dinner table: Their father, Saul, was a Detroit attorney who served on the state corrections commission. Their uncle, Theodore, was a federal judge.

Carl and Sandy were roommates for a year at Harvard Law School in the 1950s. In the 1960s, when Sandy Levin first sought political office, Carl served as his campaign manager.

The congressman had a lengthy career in state and local politics before winning a seat in Congress in 1982, and narrowly lost two Michigan gubernatorial races to Republican William Milliken in 1970 and 1974.

The brothers were major players in keeping General Motors and Chrysler afloat through government intervention last year and worked to fund the "Cash for Clunkers" rebate program meant to stimulate auto sales during the economic downturn. They bear such a resemblance that Carl Levin keeps a "confusion file" with funny snippets of their mistaken identity.

"We enjoy getting mixed up for each other -- that's how close we are," the senator said.

Sandy Levin represents a change in tone from both Rangel and Rep. Pete Stark, the brash California Democrat who has seniority but declined the chairmanship to focus on his health care panel.

The congressman has never faced ethics questions during his House career. In his annual financial disclosures, Levin typically eschews broad estimates and lists his assets, including a vacation home on Martha's Vineyard and family property in rural Michigan, down to the single dollar.

Levin is considered a consensus-builder and a patient negotiator -- in contrast to Stark, who once challenged a colleague to a fist fight and has made many waves with bombastic comments during his career.

Levin, in an interview with The Associated Press, said last Thursday he hopes the chairmanship will help him "respond to the needs of the families that I have been meeting just regularly, working families who are under immense pressure."

Asked whether to expect changes on the committee, Levin said, "Every human being is different. I think what I will try to combine is organization, collegiality and making tough decisions."

From the trade subcommittee he leads, Levin has pushed for improved labor rights and environmental protections in trade agreements, and kept close eye on relations with China and South Korea, countries closely tied to the automotive industry and its markets.

"I'm from Michigan. I've seen firsthand the dislocation from globalization," Levin said in 2007 as the House approved a trade deal with Peru with tougher labor and environmental standards.

Levin helped marshal opposition to the Social Security reforms sought by former President George W. Bush and Republicans in 2005. He said privatizing the New Deal-era retirement program would destroy it. A decade earlier, Levin won changes to Republican-led welfare reforms that included health insurance guarantees and child support for welfare recipients who went to work.

Published: Mon, Mar 8, 2010