Politics Over Easy


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U.S. Sen. Carl Levin is best known nationally as the sharp-eyed chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who’s often seen on the news pointing out questionable spending, or arguing that our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan need to be better equipped.

His image is that of everyone’s kindly, rumpled uncle, with Ben Franklin-esque glasses perched on the end of his nose and a sparse comb-over. (Comedian Jon Stewart sometimes calls him “Grandpa Munster.”) In proper parlance, he’s Michigan’s most powerful national figure since President Gerald Ford left the White House.

First elected in 1978, when he ousted Republican incumbent Robert Griffin, Levin has now served in the Senate longer than any pol in Michigan history. When he was elected to his sixth term two years ago, he got more votes than anyone ever has in this state, and won by the largest margin ever recorded here — a 1.3-million vote landslide.

Levin is a lifelong and very proud Detroiter. Born June 28, 1934, he grew up mainly on Boston Boulevard. Detroit has remained his official residence ever since.

He began his political career on the Detroit City Council, and wants people to know he’s still fighting to do what he can for his town.

These days, when he’s not in Washington, he and wife, Barbara, live in the same downtown apartment they’ve had since he was elected to the Senate. Levin talked with Hour Detroit over a rather Spartan Sunday breakfast (waffle, no syrup, and tea).

It was voting day for Iraqis in Michigan, and he planned to drop by the polls to see how things were going. At the IHOP on East Jefferson, just minutes from his home, diners took no apparent notice that one of the most powerful men in Washington was in their midst.

What are your top priorities in Congress now?

Jobs. Jobs, always jobs — and the safety-net issue. Lots of people are out there looking for work, out of a job through no fault of their own, and they don’t even get an unemployment check.

 What should the government be doing for Detroit — the city and the metro area?

Everything it can. Economic development — jobs — we need an education focus, transportation focus, but especially jobs.

Michigan has had the highest unemployment in the nation for many months. Detroit has had a jobless rate as high as 27 percent. Should the government be doing more, doing some special program?

I believe we should. For better or worse, I would have done a lot of things to try to turn the economy around and unemployment with it.

During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had the WPA [Works Progress Administration], which put millions of unemployed to work. Would something like that make sense today?

I don’t think it’s in the cards. Probably the closest thing we’ve got to it is the summer work programs … youth programs. We’ve got major training and retraining programs, but everybody says, ‘for what?’ 

What kind of programs would you design?

I’d have a big focus on urban — all the issues that relate to the health of our cities. Everything from education to transportation, law enforcement — law enforcement is a big part of it. A lot of people moved out of Detroit — race was the number-one reason, in my judgment. It’s not just race now; it hasn’t been for a long time. It’s security. It’s educational reasons.

If you had to give the president a grade at this point, what would it be?

I’d give him a B+. He inherited a whirlwind. He took some steps against massive Republican opposition in the Senate and a threat of filibusters, which constantly had to be overcome. He took this all on, tried bipartisanship … we got one Republican vote in the Senate for the recovery package. I would think 95 percent of the economists would tell you that you had to have what we used to call “priming the pump.” He had a big choice: to let this fire keep burning until it burned itself out — this economic fire, putting us into a deeper and deeper hole — or try to contain it. That’s the fundamental issue. Of course, he’s not going to let it keep burning, but getting this thing passed in the Senate was incredibly difficult.

I think he’s done the right thing in a macro sense. Take the TARP [Troubled Assets Relief Program] thing, which was not designed perfectly, but which had to be done. If the banking system had gone under, it would have affected everybody; would have been a depression instead of a recession.

And in terms of Michigan, for the auto industry, if Chrysler and GM had gone through a “real” bankruptcy, again, there’d be a depression, not just a recession.

Then in the middle of this, he takes on health care. Whether or not it’s the right thing to do, it takes a hell of a lot of time, when the number-one focus has got to be jobs. The reason I give him a B+ is there was not enough continuous laser focus on jobs. That should be number one, two, and three, and health care fourth.

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