Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) recently announced his retirement after six terms in office. Michigan’s longest serving senator, he has distinguished himself as a down-to-earth gentleman of integrity, and was named by Time magazine as one of the 10 best senators.
A strong advocate for the state’s auto industry, Levin led the successful bailout of General Motors and Chrysler through the Senate in 2009. He chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he has called for military procurement cost controls and authored the Competition in Contracting Act. He also chairs the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, seeking less secrecy in government and authoring the Whistleblower Protection Act.
Levin has compiled a thoroughly liberal voting record as a champion of the middle class, and opposed the Iraq War. But he also agreed to language in the 2012 National Defense Appropriations Act that allows indefinite detention of U.S. citizens suspected of terrorist activity, the constitutionality of which is being contested in federal courts. His desire that a large and diverse state such as Michigan have a more important role in the presidential nominating process than such small states as Iowa and New Hampshire backfired in 2008, when an early primary he helped pushed through the legislature was declared invalid for violating Democratic Party rules, leaving Michigan with no clout in choosing the nominee.
For his remaining time in the Senate, Levin wants to pass the Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act he has sponsored, and work to boost manufacturing and enact campaign finance reform.
Levin was first elected to the Senate in 1978, defeating conservative Republican incumbent Robert Griffin, who had shot himself in the foot. In 1977, Griffin announced he would retire, and then acted like a lame duck, missing a huge number of Senate roll call votes. But the Michigan Republican leadership, unimpressed with the candidates who came forward and fearing losing the seat, persuaded Griffin to jump back into the race. Levin thoroughly exploited Griffin’s poor attendance record in a winning campaign. After fending off a strong challenge from former astronaut Jack Lousma in 1984, Levin won his next four Senate races by landslides. Polls indicated that had he sought a seventh term in 2014, he would have been a shoo-in.
Why did Levin decide to retire when he is still effective and productive, and had no re-election worries? The reason is age, but not in the context most of us experience. We live in a society where 65 is considered the standard retirement age, and age discrimination in employment runs rampant. It is different for politicians, who can retire whenever they feel like it, unless constrained by election defeat or term limits.
Levin is 78 years old, and will be 80 when his term ends in January 2015. If elected to another term, he would have been 86 at its end, and may have feared that by that time his mental acuity, energy and health might have deteriorated to the point where he couldn’t do the job any more.
Yet Levin isn’t the oldest member of the Michigan congressional delegation. The state has three Democratic congressmen who are in their eighties. John Dingell, the longest serving member in the history of the House, is 86. John Conyers, the longest serving African-American member of Congress, is 83. Levin’s older brother Sander is 81. Both Dingell and Sander Levin said they plan to seek re-election in 2014.
Politicians seeking and winning high office at what is retirement age for many others is a bipartisan thing. Over the last 40 years, George W. Bush was the only Republican presidential candidate under the age of 60. Gerald Ford was 63 when he ran in 1976. Ronald Reagan won his first term in the White House in 1980 at 69. George H.W. Bush was 64 when he was elected in 1988. Bob Dole ran in 1996 at 73. John McCain was 72 when he ran in 2008. Mitt Romney ran in 2012 at 65.
While presidents are limited to two four-year terms, there are no official limits on congressional longevity. South Carolina Republican Strom Thurmond was 100 years old when he retired from the Senate in 2002. Theodore Green, a Rhode Island Democrat, was first elected to the Senate in 1936 at 69, and retired at 93 in 1960.
And then we have the unusual political career trajectory of Claude Pepper, a Florida Democrat. He was first elected to the Senate in 1936 at 36. While most Southern Democrats soured on the New Deal, Pepper remained a staunch liberal. He lost his Senate seat in a nasty primary in 1950 to the more conservative George Smathers, and then settled in to practice law in Miami, his political career apparently over. But in 1962, a new Miami area congressional district was created and Pepper made a political comeback at 62. He established himself as the nation’s leading advocate for the elderly, chairing the House Select Committee on Aging. Pepper opposed mandatory retirement and he never retired himself, dying in office in 1989 at 88.
Politics isn’t the only field where the usual retirement rules don’t apply. Last week, a new pope, Francis, was elected, and he’s 76 years old.
Speculation now centers on who will run for Michigan’s first open Senate seat since 1994. Over the last 60 years, the Democrats have won all but three Michigan Senate elections, and U.S. Rep. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Township) has already emerged as his party’s likely frontrunner. Peters has a standard liberal Democratic voting record, previously ran statewide in 2002, narrowly losing for attorney general to Mike Cox, and running for the Senate will free him from the awkward position of being a white guy representing a majority African-American district, caused by the 2012 Republican congressional gerrymander. Possible Republican Senate candidates include U.S. Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Brighton) and Justin Amash (R-Cascade Township), and former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land.
We can be certain that whoever gets elected won’t have Levin’s seniority and clout.