Carl Levin, longtime ally of U.S. auto industry in the Senate, dies at 87

Card carrying union member

Levin had an unwavering support for the automotive industry that gave his hometown the nickname Motor City, as well as the unionized workforces they employed.

Always proud of having helped build the DeSoto and Ford trucks at a plant in Highland Park, he held on to his UAW membership card for decades. That ended when his wallet was stolen.

As Detroit and Michigan reeled with the struggles of the big U.S. automakers, Levin made sure that help would be forthcoming from Congress. He backed the federal rescue of U.S. automakers during the 2008 recession, helped secure a “cash for clunkers” provision that provided trade-in vouchers for motorists to buy new vehicles, and later shepherded federal aid to Detroit as the city faced bankruptcy. He also maneuvered to weaken higher fuel economy standards, disappointing environmentalists in his party.

Auto industry leaders paid tribute to Levin.

“Carl was a friend whom I have known my entire career,” Ford Motor Co. Executive Chair Bill Ford said in a statement. “He worked tirelessly for the people of Michigan and the auto industry.  As he championed environmental leadership he encouraged me to do the same. Carl was a model of service, decency and integrity — holding us all to a higher standard.”

Via Twitter, GM CEO Mary Barra said: “Today, we mourn the passing of U.S. Sen. Carl Levin. He was an advocate for Michigan, Detroit and the auto industry. An early and fierce champion of equal rights, he demonstrated kindness and integrity through his life of public service. Our thoughts are with the Levin family.”

UAW President Ray Curry, in a statement, said: “Carl Levin stood for honor and dignity and fairness for all Americans. As Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he steered our nation through the turbulent period after the terror attacks of 9-11 with quiet dignity and a resolve to modernize our military.

“But it was here in Detroit, where Senator Levin started as a Councilman championing Civil Rights, that he always returned. He played an integral part in the lives of UAW members and was a key and important voice during the great recession as the auto industry reeled and UAW members’ livelihoods were in the balance. We offer condolences to Senator Levin’s family on behalf of a grateful constituency of UAW members, families and communities.”

In other parts of corporate America, however, Levin was feared. In 2002, After the collapse of Enron, he summoned bank executives before his subcommittee on investigations to demand what they might have known about the company’s fragility.

Opposed Iraq war

Levin was among 23 senators who opposed the 2002 resolution that authorized President George W. Bush to invade Iraq and topple the dictator Saddam Hussein. Levin argued that Bush had failed to build an international coalition to share the military burden.

As U.S. casualties mounted and the war became unpopular, he pushed for troop withdrawals, saying military stability in Iraq could be achieved only by a political settlement among the Kurd, Sunni and Shiite factions.

Levin also led an inquiries into the treatment of military detainees and CIA interrogations of terrorism suspects. He was instrumental in the repeal of the so-called Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy that once barred openly gay people from serving in the military.

Levin was born in Detroit on June 28, 1934, and graduated from Swarthmore College before entering Harvard Law School. He was elected to the Senate after having been president of the Detroit City Council. An elder brother, Sander Levin, served in the U.S. House for 18 terms. One of Sander Levin’s sons, Representative Andy Levin, now holds that seat.

“Uncle Carl met with more presidents, kings, queens and other important people than all but a few of us ever will,” Andy Levin said in a statement. “But he treated them all the same as he did a Detroit autoworker or a beet farmer in Michigan’s Thumb – with a full measure of dignity but no airs.”

Crain’s Detroit Business and Automotive News contributed to this report.