Elliott Levitas dramatically shaved his beard in front of the Jefferson Memorial in 1982 calling it his “offering to democracy.” Levitas, a Rhodes Scholar and Democrat representing Georgia’s 4th district in Congress for a decade, died in Atlanta, Dec.16, 2022, just ten days short of his 92nd birthday.
After a previous decade in the Georgia legislature, he was elected to the 94th Congress – perhaps better known as the class of ’74, the Watergate babies, who added leftist muscle to the Congress. This class of 75 Democrats was swept into office as a result of Richard Nixon’s downfall.
“It would be ungrateful if we didn’t give some recognition to W. Mark Felt and Richard Nixon, who helped us get here,” Levitas told me. In addition to Levitas, the group – which included Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, Steve Solarz (N.Y.), Tom Downey (N.Y.), Dick Ottinger (N.Y.), Jim Scheuer (N.Y.), Jim Florio (N.J.), Jim Blanchard (Mich.), Matt McHugh (N.Y.), Glenn English (Okla.), Marty Russo (Ill.), Bob Carr (Mich.), Steve Neal (N.C.), John Jenrette (S.C.), Carroll Hubbard (Kan.), Jim Oberstar (Minn.), Herb Harris (Va.) and Martha Keyes (Kan.)— recognized their shared bond, as well as changes that came about as a result of the Watergate experience. This group of reform-minded idealists changed the practices of the Democratic Party on seniority and open meetings.
As a reporter and columnist covering Capital Hill at the time, we developed a friendship. Levitas relished in sharing a story about the time in 1983, when he wrote to President Ronald Reagan to demand a conference on power-sharing among the branches of government in the aftermath of an immigration case. John Roberts, now Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, then 28, wrote to his boss, White House counsel Fred Fielding:
“There already has, of course, been a ‘Conference on Power Sharing’ to determine the manner of power sharing and accountability within the federal government. It took place in Philadelphia’s Constitution Hall in 1787, and someone should tell Levitas about it and the ‘report’ it issued.”
Levitas, a leader on regulatory reform and leading advocate of the legislative veto, was seldom at a loss for words. He quipped: “I don’t think that a smart-aleck comment 22 years ago disqualifies Roberts for service on the Supreme Court.” The former congressman added, “He’s probably matured since then.”
Since President Reagan endorsed the legislative veto, and the GOP adopted it in its platform, “any snide remarks concerning the concept of the legislative veto would reflect on President Reagan and the Republican platform,” said Levitas, adding: “Roberts was probably unaware of that.”
Following his time in Congress, Levitas, a partner in the Atlanta law firm, Kilpatrick Stockton (now Kilpatrick Townsend) represented plaintiffs Cobell v. Norton and the American Indians on the landmark land trust case against the U.S. government. The $3.4 billion settlement was the largest to date.
Negotiation was his passion, and he excelled at the art form. Traditionally each Member of Congress gets one guest ticket for a spouse or other to sit in the House Gallery for the State of the Union Address. One year while in Congress, Levitas negotiated with his colleague, then-Rep. Ed Koch, D-N.Y., trading his mother’s fresh baked chocolate mandel bread for Koch’s coveted ticket.
Levitas, a crusader against injustice had a vision ahead of his time—including standing up against racism in Georgia. He was a true leader and will be missed.