Politics after Sandy

Dec 13, 2017 at 1:00 am
Politics after Sandy
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On the morning when Sandy Levin announced he was retiring from Congress, I was in Royal Oak drinking coffee with State Senator Steve Bieda of Warren, talking about his political future.

Bieda, born one day after John F. Kennedy made his famous inaugural address, was facing a dilemma. He is a natural politician, a rare one these days in that he is well-liked not only by his fellow Democrats, but by many Republicans.

Indeed, he's managed to be one of very few Dems in his party's tiny Senate delegation who can work with the other party to get things done. He finally managed to get both houses to pass a bill earlier this year that provides compensation and other benefits for those who have spent years in jail for crimes they didn't commit.

Though mostly liberal himself, he has made a habit of hanging out in barbershops some mornings, where the TVs are mostly tuned to Fox and the customers mostly voted for Trump.

"They don't seem as happy with him after this tax bill," he told me the day after it passed through the Senate.

Bieda isn't just about politics. He could make a living as a tax lawyer if he needed to. He is a history buff who raised money to get replicas of two famous civil war cannons back on the Capitol lawn.

A man of many interests, he's likely the only legislator to have ever created a U.S. coin — he won a national contest as a law student to design the 1992 U.S. Olympic commemorative half dollar.

Bieda, who wasn't exactly rich, used the $2,500 prize money for law school tuition at the University of Detroit. Like many in Macomb, his grandparents came from Poland — one to work on the line making Model T Fords; another to sell produce at Eastern Market.

Steve was the first generation in his family to go to law school, and politics fascinated him from the start. Eventually, he was elected to three terms in the state house, then two in the state Senate.

But though he is a highly skilled legislator, Michigan's asinine, worst-in-the nation term limits mean that after December 2018, he will be barred from ever serving in either chamber again... for life.

That left him with a dilemma. His name has been mentioned as a potential Democratic nominee for attorney general, but Dana Nessel — the attorney who won the landmark same-sex adoption and marriage case in federal court — is ahead in line there, as is Patrick Miles, the former U.S. district attorney in Grand Rapids.

He would be a sensible choice as lieutenant governor, especially if Gretchen Whitmer is the nominee. But that's a long shot, and she might not even choose a running mate till late August.

His dream, though, has always been to represent his district in Congress, in the seat held by Sandy Levin since 1983.

Congressmen don't have term limits, and Bieda would never have challenged Levin. For one thing, he respected him too much; for another, he was unbeatable. There had been strong rumors for weeks that the congressman was going to retire.

However, it seemed likely in early December that even if so, Levin would probably put off the announcement until after the wretched John Conyers saga was over. But when I walked out on the street, I immediately saw a bulletin on my phone: I was wrong.

Levin was calling it quits.

Which meant an opening for Bieda — though Levin's son Andy, an energy consultant, and a cast of other wannabes were sure to dive into the race. However that turns out, it ought to be said that Congressman Sandy Levin is a good and decent man who spent a lifetime supporting civil and human rights and the working people of this state. There was never a taint of sleaze attached to his career.

True, Levin and Conyers did have a few things in common.

Both have been in politics seemingly slightly longer than the dinosaurs have been gone. Conyers was first elected to Congress in 1964, in an age when our leaders were actually trying to make life better for the average American and make it easier to get ahead.

That same day Sandy Levin became the first Democrat in decades to be elected to the state Senate from Oakland County.

Both were marked for leadership from the start. Conyers had more success at first; he was on the front lines for most of the nation's big civil rights battles, and was a powerful and early voice against the corruption of the Nixon administration.

Sadly, however, his lucidity failed, and his private behavior didn't match the image of the public man. That was never true for Levin, who ran for governor twice, and lost close elections each time — both to Bill Milliken, a liberal Republican who cared deeply about Detroit, and was one of the most decent men in government, ever.

That sent Levin's career back, but he eventually got elected to Congress in 1982 and served with integrity, class, and distinction, as did his little brother, Carl, who by that time was in the U.S. Senate.

Sandy Levin did briefly serve as chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, where he helped get the Affordable Care Act through Congress. Now, he intends to teach some lucky students at the University of Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

And while it's nearly forgotten now, Levin may have been politics' first victim of punchcard voting, 30 years before Al Gore's presidency was derailed by hanging chads in Florida.

Levin lost a tight race to Milliken in 1970, a race that hung in the balance for days because the chads broke the counting machine down. When I asked Levin about that a few years ago, he said losing stung, "but not as bad because of the quality of the man who defeated me." Both were class acts to the core.

Sadly, that was a long time ago.

Needed — a state investigation: Back on Nov. 8, I wrote about suspicious activity at the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority. Tom Watkins, the CEO, bailed out after the board overruled his decision to fight more than $1 million in unapproved fees tacked on by a group called the Integrated Care Alliance (ICA).

The board, packed with veterans of the Wayne County crony culture, also took away Watkins' ability to terminate contracts. Watkins, a former state superintendent of schools, is not a rich man, but is one with integrity. When they offered him a new four-year contract last spring, he said no thanks.

Other officials with class began bailing out too. The board then offered the job to Willie Brooks, the CEO of a similar agency in Oakland County. He initially accepted — but then quickly backed out when they begin reneging on their promises.

Next, DWMHA board chair Herbert Smitherman selected one Joy Calloway, CEO of something called New Center Community Services. She did have a slight problem, however: According to Crain's Detroit Business, a state audit suggested her agency might have overcharged Medicaid by, oh, maybe close to $2 million.

Warren Evans, the county executive, then sent a tough letter to Smitherman suggesting he stop trying to hire Calloway, Smitherman said forget it, and no wonder: He seemed to have found someone who could do business in that time-honored old Wayne County way.

Calloway later withdrew her name. But one thing does seem clear: The state needs to launch a thorough investigation of this agency. They might start, a little bird told me, by looking into what financial ties the board members who voted to reverse Watkins may have to ICA and its parent company.