When counseling aspiring politicians, U.S. Senator Carl Levin advises them to have a second career in mind.
That way, he said, the politician can make the right decision, even if it's unpopular, because they're not concerned with reelection.
Levin, a Michigan Democrat, spoke to a couple hundred people Sunday night at Central Michigan University. He was the inaugural speaker in the Philip A. Hart and William G. Milliken Speaker Series, named after two former Michigan politicians.
Levin spoke for about 30 minutes, mostly focusing on the topic of how politicians come to decisions, and what forces influence their policies.
He said there are two main schools of thought: Represent the sentiment of the constituency, no matter what, or act in the best interest of the people — even if they're in opposition.
Levin said he subscribes to the latter theory, what he called the "fiduciary" model, although he knows colleagues who follow the former method.
"The obligation of a public servant is not to serve the public mood of the moment," he said, "but the public interest."
The fiduciary way of thinking can be politically dangerous, he said, because it often angers constituents. That is why he recommends that politicians have a second career, so they're not swayed merely by public sentiment.
Levin said the fiduciary model served him well when he voted against the Iraq War, even when public opinion seemed to support it.
So far, making unpopular choices hasn't hurt Levin at the ballot box; he was elected to his sixth term in 2008. But that's not to say he doesn't have critics.
Levin recalled a recent conversation with an angry Michigan citizen who railed against him for his policy stances. But the constituent conceded his appreciation for Levin, because the senator responds to all of his letters — albeit unsatisfactorily.
"You owe that responsibility to those who agree with you and those who don't," Levin said.
A 15-minute question-and-answer session followed the speech.
One of the questions requested Levin's thoughts on the health care legislation that will likely be debated on the Senate floor when session resumes next week, following the Thanksgiving recess. Levin said the chances of the Senate passing anything this year was "no better than 50-50."
Though he supports the highly-debated "public option," in which the government would offer a health insurance plan to rival private options, he would rather pass a "far weaker" reform than nothing at all.
"Americans believe we've got real problems in the area of health care," he said. "It's a subject that's crying for some legislative action."
Abraham Mach, a master's of business administration student, said he supported nearly all of Levin's positions, including his stance on health care.
As an immigrant from southern Sudan, Mach was also supportive of the senator's policies on the Darfur conflict. Levin co-sponsored the 2008 Darfur Peace Agreement and the 2007 Darfur Resolution.
"I'm a big fan of Carl Levin," Mach said. "I'm kind of loyal to everything he does."
Tom Miles, a Mount Pleasant resident and former mathematics professor at CMU, said he enjoyed Levin's speech.
"It's a privilege to hear a U.S. senator anytime," Miles said. "With his degree of respect, it's especially a privilege."