Meet America’s Only Jewish Political Dynasty: The Levins Of Michigan by the Forward

Meet America’s Only Jewish Political Dynasty: The Levins Of Michigan

For as long as Andy Levin can remember, politics was part of his life. He was 4 when his father, Sander Levin, was first elected to Michigan’s State Senate; he spent his pre-teens traipsing around the state through Dad’s two failed gubernatorial bids; and he returned from a college gap year in India to find himself pressed into service as a field organizer for the elder Levin’s initial, successful run for Congress in 1982.

To many, then, it seemed fated when the younger Levin, now 58, triumphed last month in an election to replace his father, 87, who was retiring as a congressman for a bevy of Detroit’s northwest suburbs.

Yet in doing so, Rep.-elect Andy Levin perpetuated a unique entity in American politics: its only Jewish dynasty.

“They’re the Jewish Kennedys, I guess,” said Alana Alpert, the rabbi for Congregation T’chiyah, the Reconstructionist synagogue where Andy Levin was president until he resigned to focus this year on his campaign.

It’s not just that Levin’s father held the seat for 36 years. Or even that his uncle, Carl Levin, served as Michigan’s senator for 36 years, including an overlapping 32 years during which Sander Levin they “talked to each other about everything all the time,” Sander Levin said.

The Levin family has been prominent in the region’s public life for nearly a century. An uncle, Theodore Levin, served as a federal judge and now has his name on Detroit’s federal courthouse. Theodore Levin’s son, Charles Levin, spent 22 years as an elected Michigan Supreme Court justice. And another uncle, David Croll, was a mayor of nearby Windsor, Ontario, and in 1955 became the first Jewish senator in the Canadian Parliament.

“There was no separation between politics and our life,” recalled Andy Levin a few weeks before the 2018 general election. “It was our life. We drove around the state as a family. Dad always drove like a million miles an hour, and Mom had a legal pad where she was writing down things Dad would say. In the 1974 campaign [for governor], we had these buttons we wore that said, ‘I’m Sandy’s son’ or ‘I’m Sandy’s daughter.’ We would have our own driver sometimes and would go around making little appearances, waving and stuff. I used to blow up balloons, like hundreds and hundreds of balloons.”

His children came to his campaigns unpressured, Sander Levin said. “I wanted them to do what they wanted to do, but they all were interested. I mean, what kid shouldn’t be? That’s kind of my attitude.”

There is no Jewish parallel to the Levin family in American history. No other Jew has served in Congress alongside another immediate family member or bequeathed a seat to one of their children.

One reason is that few Jews were elected to federal office until deep into the second half of the 20th century, so there hasn’t been enough time to build a brand or family tradition in politics the way so many Christian families have, said Bryan Cranston of Southern Cross University in Melbourne, Australia, who studies political dynasties around the world.

Dynasties have their downsides, he said. Cranston sees them not as evidence of a tradition of integrity within a particular clan admired by the public, but as a reflection of the cognitive load imposed by American politics on its citizens.

“You have enormous numbers of elections in the United States and voters and the media get inundated with so much information about so many races,” Cranston said. “One of the ways the voters cut through it is by recognizing certain names. It’s a very valuable commodity.”

Andy Levin is at least a fifth-generation American Jew, a great-grandmother having been born in a wagon train in New Mexico on the Oregon Trail in 1876, he says. Most of the family immigrated from the shtetls of eastern Europe around the turn of the 20th century; a department store opened in 1897 by a great-grandfather in Birmingham, Michigan, is now a Starbucks that bears a plaque marking the site’s history.

The family’s political interests were instilled early as a response to their status as Jews, Sander Levin recalled. He and Carl Levin, now 84 and in private practice as an attorney, grew up not in the bosom of Detroit’s flourishing urban Jewish community but in suburban Berkley, a few miles from the Catholic church that was home to the virulent anti-Semite Father Charles Coughlin. (Carl Levin did not reply to requests for an interview for this report.)

Their father, Saul Levin, formed a law firm with two of his brothers in the 1920s, a time when Jews could not join practices run by Christian attorneys. The NAACP’s magazine, “Crisis,” came to the Levin home each month, Sander Levin said. The family talked at the dinner table about black singer Marian Anderson, who was refused permission in 1939 to perform for an integrated audience at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.

“The three heroes in our family? Roosevelt, Hank Greenberg and Joe Louis,” said Sander Levin, referencing the 32nd president and two Detroit sports icons, the first Jewish pro baseball star and the legendary African-American boxer. “That kind of sums it up.”

Yet for much of his life, Andy Levin said, he lacked a burning desire to go into elective politics, regarding it as “too messy and too yucky.”

As an undergraduate at Williams College, a graduate student at University of Michigan and law student at Harvard University in the early 1980s, Levin was active opposing apartheid, the draft and the nuclear arms build-up. After that, he worked for the AFL-CIO in Washington, and, on the side, litigated asylum claims on behalf of refugees.

“I could have graduated from college, gone to law school, run for state rep,” Levin says. “I became a union organizer. I was a radical kid.”

He changed his mind about politics when, in 2006, Michigan Democrats needed a state Senate seat to win control of the chamber. He went back home to run and lost by 0.6%, but stayed in the Wolverine State to run the state’s worker re-training programs for then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm. After she left office in 2011, he founded Lean & Green Michigan, a firm that provides financing for businesses and large residential buildings seeking to convert to renewable energy sources.

Andy Levin said he toyed with the notion of running in the Democratic primary for governor this year, motivated to return to elective politics by disgust over the Trump Administration. Then his father announced his retirement from Congress.

“My process and his process were sort of overlapping,” Andy Levin said. His father “was like, ‘Well, I’m going to retire.’ And I was like, ‘Well, you know, I’m gonna run for Congress.’ There wasn’t any pressure or anything.”

Agreed Sander Levin: “My decision to retire came first. I was going to retire regardless. And when he decided to run, it made my decision all the more happy for me. It wasn’t any longstanding plan.”

The name clearly gave Andy Levin a major head start, propelling him to a surprisingly close primary victory over former State Rep. Ellen Lipton. Lipton never complained publicly about having to fight the name, but the Detroit News zinged him in their endorsement of her: “Congressional seats should be earned, not inherited, and Andy Levin’s record in the district is scanty.”

Indeed, Levin, who views his name as a “wonderful asset,” survived that primary battle despite 2018 being a year in which Democratic voters across the nation chose a record number of women candidates. Only two Democratic men in Michigan were not beaten by female opponents in Congressional primaries this year – Levin and incumbent Rep. Dan Kildee. Kildee’s uncle held the seat for 36 years before his nephew succeeded him in 2013.

“Certainly, Andy Levin made the most of his family connections when he was running this year,” said Susan Demas, longtime political journalist and editor-in-chief of the non-profit progressive news site Michigan Advance. “Andy’s name was literally one letter off of his father’s, Sandy. He wasn’t shy about talking about his father and uncle on the campaign trail, knowing both were immensely popular when he was running in his very competitive Democratic primary.”

There are differences between father and son, however.

Andy Levin said he is more religiously Jewish than his father or uncle.

While living in Washington, he and his wife, Mary Freeman, joined Adat Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Bethesda, Md., tied closely to the progressive activist group Jews United for Justice. They decided to steer their new spiritual home in Michigan, Congregation T’chiyah, in a similar direction. They raised money to form Detroit Jews for Justice and urged the hire of Alpert as both the shul’s rabbi and the organization’s executive director.

“A lot of politicians wouldn’t go to a synagogue like the one that I lead, they would go to some big fancy synagogue where being there gets them some points,” Alpert said. “Andy put all this time and energy into growing this community because he believes in it. That’s a special thing.”

He is also notably more liberal than the Levins who came before him. Carl Levin, as longtime chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was known as a hawk loathe to criticize Israel. By contrast, one of Andy Levin’s closest Detroit-area allies is Rep.-elect Rashida Tlaib, who controversially wavered this summer on whether she supports a one- or two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

That kerfluffle didn’t bother Levin, who said Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American and Muslim woman to serve in Congress, is “an authentic representative of her community.” They differ on the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel – she supports it, he does not – but “I trust her as a human being to work with on these issues, and I’m not really focused on where she is exactly on everything,” Levin said.

“Certainly my approach to Rashida is not to push her away because of these things but rather to try to bring her closer and to really have dialogue about it,” he said. “I know I can have great dialogue with Rashida Tlaib.”

To Andy Levin, being allied with other minority groups is logical. That, his father explained, comes from their Jewish upbringing.

“For us, having roots in the Jewish community made us believe that we should take those roots and expand them to reach out to other communities,” Sander Levin said. “It very much affected our attitudes towards all kinds of issues relating to the freedom of people. We identified with other minorities.”

No other Levins of Andy’s generation seem likely to run for office, but all of his children are interested in social justice, Alpert said.

A proud grandfather, Sander Levin would be delighted to see future Levins in politics, he said.

“I think it’s pervasive within our family, but we’ll see,” he said. “I see it in our next generation, a belief in our Jewish faith and taking that as a basis for reaching out. All of the grandkids, they all have that wonderful spark.”

Correction, January 9, 2:49 p.m.: In the 26th paragraph, the language “Only two Democratic men in Michigan beat female opponents” was changed to “Only two Democratic men in Michigan were not beaten by female opponents,” because Representative Dan Kildee did not have a female opponent.

This story "A Jewish Dynasty Takes Hold In Michigan" was written by Steve Friess.

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Meet America’s Only Jewish Political Dynasty: The Levins Of Michigan

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