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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Did “Hanging Chads” Hang Sandy Levin?

December 8, 2017

ROYAL OAK, Mich. – Sandy Levin, who announced last weekend that he was retiring from Congress, had a valiant political career that lasted more than half a century.  He’s been a state senator, twice a candidate for governor, briefly chair of the powerful House Ways and Means committee, and when he leaves, will have served the House for 36 years – the same amount of time his younger brother Carl served in the U.S. Senate.

In all that time, there was never the slightest hint of scandal – a refreshing contrast to the cloud swirling around the state’s now longest-serving congressman, John Conyers of Detroit.  But while it’s largely forgotten now, early in his career, Levin was politics’ first victim of a disaster that may have cost him the governorship, and – three decades later – Al Gore the presidency:

Punch cards and hanging chads.   

Sandy Levin was the Democratic nominee for governor of Michigan in 1970, in what turned out to be a cliffhanger of an election against Gov. William Milliken, who had been in office less than two years, inheriting the job after George Romney resigned to join newly-elected President Richard Nixon’s cabinet.  Early returns on Election Night indicated it would be a close race, one decided by the size of the Democratic turnout in Detroit. George Edwards, Detroit’s 30-year-old city clerk had proudly switched the city to the newest in voting technology: Punch cards.  They soon poured into the election center, but  the chads clogged the counting machine, and it broke down. Workers could neither make it work, or open it to get the ballots out. Eventually, all the votes were counted by hand.

Three days later, Milliken was declared the winner by a slender 44,000 votes.

But did he really win?

The late Ed McNamara, Levin’s running mate and choice for lieutenant governor, always said that some election workers that crazy night took boxes of ballots home – and never brought them back. “I still think we really won,”  McNamara told me.

 This columnist doubts that enough votes could have disappeared to make a difference.  But the farce did make a difference to the city clerk who switched the city to punch card voting: His political future was destroyed.

Levin, meanwhile, bided his time. Four years later, he ran again, but lost a rematch by a somewhat larger margin. That was Sander Levin’s last statewide race.

But eventually a seat in Congress opened up, and he won it in 1982. He’s been there ever since, standing for workers and unions, civil rights and the auto industry. He’s had strong reservations about NAFTA, and trade negotiations that too often leave manufacturing workers out in the cold.

And Levin was also chair of the House Ways and Means committee for a brief, but crucial 10 months in 2010, when he helped make sure the Affordable Care Act became law.  His retirement is bound to set off a scramble to succeed him. The front-runner may well be State Sen. Steve Bieda (D-Warren) one of the best-liked men in the legislature.

Bieda, born the day after President John F. Kennedy’s famous inaugural address, has proven himself an able legislator, and one of the few Democrats who has been able to work with Republicans; his signature accomplishment was a bill signed into law this year to compensate those who have served years in prison for crimes they did not, and were later exonerated.  The senator also has the advantage of being from Macomb County, where two-thirds of the district’s voters now live.

But the congressman’s son Andy Levin, a clean energy expert and a Harvard-trained lawyer, is also likely to run. His only previous foray into politics was a race for state senate that he narrowly lost in 2006, in part because of a Green Party candidate.  But the Levin name has been magic for decades. Sandy’s younger brother U.S. Sen. Carl Levin retired undefeated in 2014, after serving in the Senate longer than anyone in Michigan history.

Other Levins have served as federal judges and on the Michigan Supreme Court.  None have suffered any scandal.  And the soft-spoken Sandy Levin always has had class.  Back when the 2000 recount was on in Florida and “hanging chad” had become a national buzzword, I asked him to comment. For whatever reason, he declined to weigh in on the famous punch card question. Perhaps it was too painful.  But a few years ago, he did say that losing the governor’s race was the hardest thing in his career. “We were broken-hearted over losing. “But it was tempered by the fact that I lost to a man with the decency and class of Governor Milliken,” he said.

In later years, both men told me they had come to admire and respect the other. So much so that when each man lost his wife to illness, the other was among the first to call with condolences. “We’ve developed a fine relationship,” Levin told me a few years ago, words echoed by the man who beat him twice.

Try to imagine any of today’s rivals saying that someday.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

December 7, 2017 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry



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