Andy Levin draws top-notch challenger in Ellen Lipton in race to replace dad in Congress
By Todd Spangler, Detroit Free Press
WASHINGTON — First it was Carl, and then it was Sandy: For 40 years, a Levin has represented Michigan in Congress. But if Andy Levin is going to keep that streak alive, he’ll have to work for it.
Running to succeed his dad, U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, who has represented southeastern Michigan since 1983 (Carl Levin, Sandy’s younger brother, joined the U.S. Senate in 1979 and stepped down in 2014), Andy Levin, 57, has attracted a Democratic opponent in former state Rep. Ellen Lipton of Huntington Woods who presents a viable challenge to the family line.
Across the country, women have been winning in several contested primaries, especially among Democrats, and Lipton — who, along with labor lawyer Martin Brook, is running for the Democratic nod in Michigan’s 9th Congressional District on Aug. 7 — presents a compelling narrative. She’s a mother who has multiple sclerosis who only entered politics to fight for stem cell research. She ended up becoming well-known in Lansing for taking on several battles, not the least of which were fights over education issues, including the Education Achievement Authority, the state’s now-defunct district for worst-performing schools.
But Levin, too, has his narrative, one that may align just as well with a progressive movement challenging traditional Democrats from the left: a history of activism, from union organizing and protest arrests to helping to create a social justice group — “Detroit Jews for Justice” — to go with his own time in government, mainly working in former Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s labor department.
“I don’t want a single person to vote for me because of my name or my family,” said Levin, a self-described “hell-raiser” who has had his own health battles, twice fighting off non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and who is also a Bloomfield Township dad who still plays league hockey three times a week. “I want them to vote for me because of 35 years of working for social justice.”
No matter who wins, he or she will have a leg up heading into November’s general election against businesswoman Candius Stearns, a newcomer and the only Republican name on the ballot. Michigan’s 9th District, covering parts of Macomb and Oakland counties, was gerrymandered in 2011 in such a way as to force then-U.S. Rep. Gary Peters — now a U.S. senator — into Sandy Levin’s district, concentrating Democratic votes. Its outlines resemble one of Santa’s elves sitting in a recliner with his feet up; it backed Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016, 52%-44%.
As with many primaries, it’s difficult to chart bold policy distinctions between the major party candidates. In this case, there are general agreements, for instance, on the need for universal access to health care — “Medicare for all” is the current term — as well as the need to combat climate change, to better fund and support public education, cut college expenses and debt, guarantee social rights and fight for the working class by taking steps such as increasing the minimum wage.
The biggest differences are more questions of personal style, of background and experience, and of campaigning. When looking at those, the contrasts become more apparent.
Facing long odds
There can’t be much argument that, of the three, Brook is running a real outsider’s campaign: A 53-year-old Bloomfield Township labor and employment lawyer and father of two, Brook is attempting to do a lot with very little. In a race where the other two candidates as of the end of March — the most recent period for which campaign finance numbers were available — had each raised more than half a million dollars, he’d raised only about $24,000.
His campaign website, while polished, is largely bare, and he relies instead on social media. Other than his treasurer, he has no paid staff, no campaign manager. He attends parades, farmers’ markets, street fairs. He’s working full-time. And while he won’t rule out an Internet ad, which he can only hope will go viral, Brook acknowledges that TV is likely out of the question.
At best, he’s a long shot.
But for all of that, he’s upbeat, engaged. And he has run an insurgent campaign before, he said, serving from 2005-10 on the Bloomfield Hills School Board, the last three years as president. To win, he said, he took on a well-funded opposition — backed by political action committees — and “loud, angry voices” that seemed insistent on taking down public schools.
“I’m a big supporter of public schools,” Brook said. “I’m a product of public schools. This is the path to the middle class and it been unfairly maligned and attacked for far too long. … So, I stepped up and ran.”
While not taking swipes at his opponents, he says he best represents the outsider’s appeal — and understands that Democrats must learn how to define issues and label them rather than leaving that to Republicans, and then, “tackle the narrative.” “We need a new generation of leaders,” he said.
For Levin and Lipton, differences seem stark
As for the two other candidates, they seem to represent, in interviews at least, more contrasting approaches with different appeals, different styles. Levin can seem brash, assertive, even salty, while ticking off ideas, projects, experiences with gusto; Lipton is more methodical, appealing to logic and a scientific approach — she studied biochemistry before becoming a patent lawyer — as well as referencing a kind of accidental, civics-course advance into politics, saying, “It wasn’t something in (my) life plan, if you’d asked me years ago. … (I’m) just an ordinary person who got into politics.”
Without any public polling to speak of, Levin’s considered the favorite, on name recognition and on the strength of a long list of endorsements from Granholm to the major unions, including the UAW, the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). His father’s election-year experience in the district shouldn’t hurt and he’s expected to lend a hand.
But Lipton has already shown she’s not to be ignored, raising nearly as much money as him as of the end of March (and about $75,000 more from individual donations) and getting some key backing of her own, such as that from EMILY’s List, which supports women candidates.
For Lipton, a 51-year-old mother of two, the march into politics was presaged by her waking on her 27th birthday and finding she was partially blind in one eye. Over some months, it subsided, but she was diagnosed with MS, an incurable disease that attacks nerve cells but can often be controlled through medication. Through one such drug, Avonex, taken weekly, Lipton could control her symptoms.
But when the state enacted a ban on using embryonic stem cells for medical research, she joined the fight, helped to pass a statewide referendum enabling the research and found herself swept up in politics and running — successfully — for state representative, serving from 2008 through 2014, before being term-limited out of office.
“It found me,” she said. “Once I started doing it, I realized we really do need people who can take a fresh vision on some of these really difficult problems. … I’m not a bomb thrower. I’m just an ordinary person who found out that my skill set belongs at the table.”
That skill set, she said, involves activism but also a less-emotional, more-scientific approach to problem-solving.
Upon landing in Lansing, Lipton — who is a native of Philadelphia and (like Andy Levin) attended Williams College and Harvard before settling in metro Detroit — helped to bring together disparate groups to reach an agreement on a languishing package of bills to set a standard for the issue of competency in the juvenile justice system. But she also became a vociferous critic of the Education Achievement Authority, or EAA, which was intended to expand to take over failing schools beyond those in Detroit — an idea originally pushed by Gov. Rick Snyder.
“It just made my blood boil,” Lipton said, as she learned about students without teachers or resources, all at a time when the Legislature was being asked to expand the EAA’s reach. She said she developed a “member-by-member” strategy to combat it, which worked. “Not only did the legislation (to expand EAA) not pass but it was dissolved. It basically collapsed of its own ineptitude.” It disbanded last year.
In 2014, as her last term was wrapping up, she continued to push for a study into just how much it costs for the state to educate a student, still looking for data that she believed could help rationalize arguments about how public schools should be funded; she was even mentioned as a possible lieutenant governor candidate for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer. Finally, she lost a tight race for the state Senate.
In more recent years, she has been president of the Michigan Promise Zones Association — which helps provide scholarships to students who live in certain areas and graduate from high schools there. She entered the race for Congress after Sandy Levin announced late last year he wouldn’t run for a 19th two-year term, raising, as of March 30, nearly as much — $501,000 to $511,000 — as Andy Levin, though she didn’t say anything against him specifically.
“In Washington, you’ve got a lot of people that are talking around each other, and talking past each other. …. It’s easy when emotions run high to do that but it’s not productive for solving problems. I’m a trained mediator and you learn as a mediator to do more listening than talking.”
Levin’s background more than family name
But if Lipton and Brook see themselves as outsiders, so, too, in a strange way, does Levin. Not, perhaps, in his background or experience — after all, his father was chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and his uncle Carl the longest-serving U.S. senator in Michigan history. His great-uncle Ted —- a longtime federal judge — is the namesake of the federal courthouse in downtown Detroit.
Levin also has government experience, serving as Granholm’s chief workforce officer — running the state’s No Worker Left Behind program, which helped retrain more than 150,000 people in a nationally recognized program in the wake of the 2008-09 recession — and later as acting director of the Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth.
But he’s quick to note perceived failings — specific failings — of his party. Of deregulation during President Jimmy Carter’s and President Bill Clinton’s terms. Of President Barack Obama, “for all his brilliance,” for not doing more to push legislation — with Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate — that would have made union organizing far simpler. For a Democratic Congress not coming up with a plan that, while bailing out banks, could have done a better job of keeping Michiganders in those homes during the Great Recession.
And as much as he suggests racism and xenophobia may have played a role in President Donald Trump’s election, he also suggests key support may have come from Michiganders who lost their jobs a decade or more ago and have been left behind, with Democrats doing too little to help them. “What have we done for them?” he asked.
“I want to create a new politics in this country where everyone who goes to work sticks together to rebuild the middle class,” he said, adding that, in the last election, it did not feel “like we were the working class champions.”
Sander Levin’s son to run for father’s House seat
Meanwhile, as to anyone who questions his progressive bona fides, he rattles off a list of his accomplishments, organizing hunger strikes against apartheid in college, organizing protests against the starting of the first Iraq war. He was arrested while trying to ensure college professors had the right to organize in various places decades ago, he said, and while protesting drilling in Alaska in Washington, D.C.
“I think I’m the insurgent candidate,” he said. “I’m as much a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King as my political heroes. … I don’t think I’m the establishment-anything.”
His lone political run came in 2006, when he lost a closely contested race to Republican John Pappageorge for a state Senate seat by less than 800 votes. But it turned out for the best, he said, leading him to join Granholm’s administration. And as quickly as Republicans will link him to what they have long called a failed tenure, he defends her as having done well considering the economic — and political — forces arrayed against her, with the auto companies in decline and the economy headed toward implosion.
As for him, Levin has been running Lean & Green Michigan, which helps municipalities set up special assessment districts through which businesses — which pay the assessments — can get long-term, low-cost loans to make energy-use improvements. And Levin’s quick to point out that a lot of the places where he has been successful in getting it up and running have been Republican-controlled and that he thinks there are plenty of areas, like job training, like trade, where he believes there’s room for both parties, in Washington, to work together.
Unlike Brook’s campaign, voters can expect plenty of advertising from Levin and Lipton in the weeks to come, heading into a primary that will likely decide the winner in November. But even though Levin looks to be the favorite, he says he’s taking nothing for granted.
“I think of it as about leadership. I think it’s fine to be in a safe seat in the state Legislature for a few terms or whatever,” he said. “But I have run programs that have consistently changed people’s lives.”
“I’m telling you, I’m nervous,” he added. “I really want to connect with the voters.”
Contact Todd Spangler: 703-854-8947 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tsspangler.
DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY IN THE 9TH DISTRICT
Date: Tuesday, Aug. 7
Candidates: Martin Brook, Andy Levin, Ellen Lipton
Background: All three have law degrees but come from vastly different backgrounds. Levin is the perceived front-runner, the son of retiring U.S. Rep. Sandy Levin, D-Royal Oak, and having racked up endorsements as well as having a long history working with unions and the former Granholm administration. But Lipton, a former state representative and patent attorney from Huntington Woods, has mounted a strong campaign, keeping up with Levin in terms of fundraising through March. Brook, a former Bloomfield Hills school board member, is a long shot, trying to score a win despite lacking funds and name recognition. Whoever wins the primary, however, will have a strong chance of victory in November in this predominantly Democratic district.