WASHINGTON — On Tuesday morning, U.S. Rep. Andy Levin was driving through his Southeast Michigan district when he heard reporters on National Public Radio discussing President Trump using Twitter to target Levin’s colleague, fellow freshman U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.).
The Bloomfield Township Democrat thought the description of Trump’s behavior sounded too blasé. So he sat in his car outside of his 9th District office in Warren and dialed in.
“I was just driving between events in my district and I had to call in,” Levin told the host of WBUR’s “On Point.” “I was so concerned by the opening of your discussion as if, ‘Oh, it’s another controversy and the president disagrees with someone,’” Levin said.
“I find this is a mischaracterization. We’ve got the commander-in-chief attacking the safety of a public official and fanning the flames of white supremacy, where he is endangering Representative Omar and her staff, and also Muslim Americans and other people who look different,” Levin said.
Trump outraged critics last week when he tweeted an edited video suggesting that Omar — one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress along with Levin’s friend, U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) — was dismissing the gravity of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Omar said she began experiencing an increase in death threats after the president’s tweet.
“This is not OK [or] just like policy disagreements,” Levin said of Trump’s attacks on Omar in a later interview. “This is behavior that’s outside the bounds.”
Maggie Haberman, the New York Times’ White House reporter, was one of the guests on the show. She later took issue with Levin’s comments with a brief tweet.
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) April 16, 2019
Republicans are attempting to gain a political advantage by seizing on Democratic infighting as the racially, religiously and ideologically diverse House freshman class settles in on Capitol Hill.
Omar has emerged as a central figure in those clashes as some of her comments have been perceived as anti-Semitic.
Levin, who’s Jewish, has been trying to work behind the scenes to build bridges among his divided colleagues. The Washington Post reported last month that he began organizing a formal event that would bring his colleagues together to discuss anti-Semitism.
“It was all three Muslims and four Jewish members and a bunch of others — Latino, African American, Native American — it was very diverse, and we’re going to continue doing that,” Levin told the Advance. “We’re going to get together and talk about anti-Muslim bigotry and racism and the history of Native Americans.”
He hopes the effort will draw people closer, Levin added.
“If you’re the average person elected to Congress in, I dunno, Massachusetts or Florida or Kansas or Arizona or whatever, you may really not know much about [anti-Semitism],” he said.
“You may not know that talking about allegiance to a foreign country or ‘It’s all about the Benjamins,’ that these are classic anti-Semitic tropes,” he said, referring to a tweet from Omar earlier this year about politicians’ support for Israel, which she later deleted.
‘I love the craziness of it’
Levin, a 58-year-old former union organizer and state labor official, entered a freshman class that’s full of headline-grabbing political novices.
He laughed when asked whether he felt overshadowed by some of his colleagues.
“Alex is my across-the-hall neighbor,” he said of his fellow freshman U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who has rocketed to political stardom. “Her office is like a national tourist attraction. Seriously, people come and take their pictures and they put their little notes and stuff.”
He put some of his first-term colleagues getting the most attention into two groups.
“One element is AOC or others who represent this incredible new diversity and are very progressive. The other is the people who won the frontline districts who would need to win re-election if we’re going to hold the majority,” Levin said.
“I’m not either of those things,” he said.
Levin’s focus in Congress, he said, “is to raise the standard of living for working people — poor people, working-class people, middle-class people. Everybody who has to get up every day and go to work or wants to go to work, wants to just have a job with a wage that can feed their family and health insurance and a dignified retirement. … That’s what I’m working on every day and whatever amount of attention I’m getting is plenty, it’s fine.”
And he’s thrilled to be in Congress and part of the historic freshman class.
“I just never stop getting a kick out of being part of this group, I just love it. … I’m having a great time. I really love it; I love the craziness of it, the hurly-burly.”
Levin represents Macomb and Oakland counties. As the son of longtime U.S. Rep. Sandy Levin and the nephew of former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, he has one of the most famous names in Michigan politics. But he doesn’t think of himself as the heir to a political dynasty.
“People regularly bring their children on the floor of the House. I’m pretty sure I never went on the floor of the House once and my dad was a member of the House for 36 years,” said Levin, who won his father’s 9th District seat after his 2019 retirement.
When he graduated from college, Levin said, “I was a radical kid and I thought politics was way too messy and compromise-y for me. So I became a union organizer and I went on as an advocate for workers for many years.
“So it’s just funny to me, the idea of a dynasty. Whatever, it is what it is.”