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.

 
Has President Obama done anything special for Detroit?

The battery package — we got most of the battery money [for development of electric batteries]. This is not just Detroit, but Michigan — we got 60 percent or 70 percent of $2 billion just for batteries.

Should Michigan be getting more Pentagon spending? We always see studies that say Michigan sends more to Washington than it gets back.

That’s true. And that’s not going to change overnight. You aren’t going to open new army bases in Michigan. They aren’t going to build ships in Michigan. They aren’t going to build bombers in Michigan. … What we’ve been able to do is earmarks. Military funds. There’s a long list of those around the state. Focus: Hope has got some.

Is the percentage of defense spending in Michigan increasing?

[Pause] Probably not … because so much of defense spending goes for personnel costs. In absolute dollars, it’s increasing. There have been a lot of improvements, particularly in military construction. Selfridge [Air National Guard Base], Grayling, Alpena. I’ve been able to get a lot of funding. Now, that’s a lot of dollars. In that sense, a bigger proportion has been coming to Michigan.

What are the main things you have been able to do for our area over the years?

I’ve spent a lot of time on our infrastructure. All the rail issues: We’ve got rail up Woodward, to Ann Arbor, and beyond. We’ve got funding, not to build it all; I’m just talking about planning money. We’ve gotten a lot of money for Next Energy.

We’ve gotten a lot of research and development money for Wayne State. I consider these things to be anchors. The city needs anchors.

We’ve put a lot of effort in Focus: Hope — a lot of money in there … manufacturing systems money. We’ve even got some Department of Defense money for a “Parts Hospital.” If you go to Iraq or Afghanistan, you’ll see equipment built by Focus: Hope. When the part breaks on a vehicle, if they don’t have the part right there, they can make the part using satellites and blueprints. They make the part right on the scene.

That’s far from an exclusive list. I’ve done a lot to get money for the riverfront, but I just wanted to give a sense of the breadth.

There’s currently a controversy over whether to build a new internationally owned bridge over the Detroit River. Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun wants to build a second bridge next to his old one, but a coalition of governments wants an internationally owned bridge instead.

I’ve kind of looked on with amazement at the power of Moroun. Other than that, I’m not sure, with the decline in commercial traffic, that we need another bridge. I don’t assume another bridge is needed. A lot of people do. I’m willing to be convinced when the time comes, if it comes.

Have you seen a huge change in atmosphere since you came to Washington in 1979?

In the last five to 10 years, you’ve had these extreme ideologues … who don’t want government to function well.  Remember Ronald Reagan’s statement that government wasn’t the solution, it was the problem? They take it literally. Now, if you say that some government programs sometimes don’t work very well and are wasteful — I believe all that … government can screw up. I saw that when I was on city council and HUD didn‘t want us to tear down some dilapidated homes. I went out there with a bulldozer. But government is the only force that can get us out of this ditch that we’re in.

Are you optimistic about GM and Chrysler?

I am. They went through Chapter 11, and they’re a lot trimmer. Their products have been really good for a long time. It drives me crazy when people talk about that, about Detroit’s so-called inferior quality.

Your brother, U.S. Congressman Sandy Levin, became chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee this year, making you two the most powerful brothers in Washington since the Kennedys.

He’ll do a great job. We’ve always been close. He always took me under his wing. I was three years younger, but his gang and my gang played basketball, baseball, football — you name it. He got his driver’s license, I guess when he was 16, and within days or weeks probably we were hitting the road together.

We went traveling together, fishing together. We went Out West together; went down to Mexico.

What do you honestly think about the future?

You just somehow or another got to have confidence in America, that America — and Detroit — will come blundering through. We’ve had challenges over the centuries. We’ve made changes — some significant changes. Overcome prejudices. I just have a lot of confidence in this country.  Optimism can get carried away sometimes, but that’s who we are as a people.

And that’s a good thing.

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