The Democratic primary campaign was in its last days and — once again — Mark Levine was not expected to win.
His four competitors for state delegate were progressives just like him, and had locked up the major endorsements for the nomination to represent Virginia’s 45th District. Whoever won would face no general election opponent, and would almost certainly head to Richmond to battle the Republican majority.
But there was a difference between Levine and the others, and not just that he had unsuccessfully run for Congress last summer. Levine’s interest in lawmaking began with an experience he deeply wished he could have avoided: the brutal murder of his sister by her husband in 1996.
Levine spent 10 years fighting to put his brother-in-law behind bars and working on domestic-abuse and custody laws that eventually enabled his parents to win custody of his niece and nephew.
Now, Levine’s mother was urging him to explain all that to Northern Virginia voters in a mailing that would lay bare the family’s pain, but also would demonstrate his capacity to fight for justice.
Levine was hesitant. He didn’t want to exploit his sister’s memory. His political consultants advised against it. But his mother was convinced that the story of the murder and the laws he helped pass was exactly what voters needed to know.
“Obviously, this is something I’m going to work on for the rest of my life,” Levine, 49, said in an interview, a few days after winning the election by 336 votes. “What I learned from working on my sister’s case is that if you don’t work day in, day out, every day, to stop injustice, injustice will win.”
Janet Gail Levine was the typical big sister, her brother says. She was three years older, and she told him what to wear, how to dance and what music to listen to. Levine, a self-described geek, adored her.
In the small, close-knit Jewish community in Nashville where they were raised, Janet was both smart and popular — a class officer who bought her clothes at thrift shops, then wore them with such panache that others copied her style. As an adult, she became a successful painter and illustrator.
She met Perry March while both were students at the University of Michigan, and they married in 1987. Her parents paid March’s law-school tuition and supported the couple in their first years of marriage, helping to finance construction of the couple’s dream house. After March was fired from a job amid allegations of sexual harassment, he went to work for his father-in-law’s Nashville law firm.
By summer 1996, the marriage was falling apart. The night before she disappeared, Janet told her mother she had an appointment to see a divorce lawyer.
March called his in-laws at midnight on Aug. 15, 1996, to report that his wife had gone, leaving behind a note saying she was taking a vacation. Her parents were suspicious; it was uncharacteristic for her to leave her two young children.
It took a decade to unravel exactly what happened to Janet Levine March. According to the evidence produced at his trial, Perry March murdered his wife that August night by hitting her in the head with a wrench. Her body was never found.
March fled with the children to Illinois, where his siblings lived, then to Mexico, where he remarried, opened a cafe and ran a business purporting to help American and Canadian expatriates buy homes. He was expelled from the country after those retirees accused him of fraud, and he was arrested on murder charges upon landing in Los Angeles.
In a series of trials that mesmerized Nashville, March was convicted of second-degree murder, tampering with evidence and abuse of a corpse, among other charges.
He was sentenced to 56 years in prison. His last appeal, to the U.S. Supreme Court, was denied June 8.
Levine, a Fulbright scholar and graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School, had come out as gay in the early 1990s. “I thought that would be the biggest challenge I ever had,” he said wryly.
He was a successful Los Angeles-based trial lawyer when his sister was killed.
After March fled to Illinois and refused to let the elder Levines visit their grandchildren, Mark Levine and his father wrote amendments to Tennessee’s child custody and visitation laws which established the right for grandparents to see their grandchildren on a regular basis.
The bill also allowed a judge to terminate a parent’s custody if that parent was found criminally or civilly liable for the death of the other parent.
Levine walked the floors of the Tennessee Capitol, testifying whenever he was allowed and buttonholing legislators to tell them his sister’s story. The legislation passed unanimously.
But March fled with the children to Mexico, where he was out of reach of U.S. law. Mark Levine argued his family’s case in U.S. federal court, where a judge ruled that the children’s fate was in Mexico’s hands.
It would be four long years until they saw the kids again. After March was arrested, the children — who had been sent to stay with March’s siblings in Chicago — were returned to their grandparents in Nashville, who soon won permanent custody.
Levine’s nephew has graduated college and is working as an engineer. His niece is an undergraduate, thinking about a nursing career.
Levine was drawn into national politics by the Clinton impeachment battle of 1998-1999 and the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2000 decision in Bush v. Gore (which he calls “an absolutely illegal theft of the vote”).
After writing a brief for the Congressional Black Caucus and appearing on national radio talk shows, he was hired as a staff lawyer for Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). He left after two years to work as a radio and television talk show host.
Levine said he decided to run for office because he saw a chance to advance the progressive causes he had long supported, and believed in his ability to find common ground with those who disagreed.
In 2014, he was one of 10 Democrats who competed for the nomination to replace retiring U.S. Rep. James P. Moran (D) , a contest that former lieutenant governor Don Beyer won easily.
After state Del. K. Robert Krupicka Jr. (D) decided to retire at the end of this year, Levine realized he had another chance.
When Levine’s mother first proposed the campaign mailing, Levine’s political advisers were reluctant.
At campaign forums, he had been mentioning his experience writing laws in Tennessee, but said little about his sister’s murder.
As the June 9 primary approached, Levine decided to go for it. He and his team worked for days on the proper way to tell the story, creating an eight-page booklet complete with family photos.
“We didn’t want it to be maudlin,” Levine said. “It was a way to show how we responded to tragedy.”
To quell his doubts, Levine thought of state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), who has devoted much of his General Assembly work to improving mental health care since his mentally ill son stabbed him in 2013, then committed suicide.
He also recalled former congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), who ran for Congress and made gun control her signature issue after her husband was shot to death on the Long Island Rail Road in 1993.
“It’s vital we tell these stories. Not talking about it is dangerous,” Levine said. “To me, it’s like coming out. . . . Once gay men and women began coming out, everyone realized they knew someone who is gay. . . . I believe the exact same thing is true for sexual abuse and domestic violence.”
On Election Day, voters stopped Levine to offer sympathy, and to thank him for raising the issues described in the mailing.
Levine raised more than twice as much money for his campaign as his rivals, mostly from his own funds. He and his campaign staffers knocked on 10,000 doors.
Even his opponents privately acknowledged the impact of the emotional pamphlet.
If elected, Levine would be part of a vastly outnumbered Democratic minority and probably would have trouble getting legislation passed unless he could harness his strong liberal stances into compromises that appeal to more conservative lawmakers.
He already has some ideas, including attempting to persuade his colleagues to let Northern Virginia counties and cities decide whether to set a higher minimum wage than the rest of the state.
Levine tried last winter to write a new child-custody bill for Virginia, which would have allowed a judge to deny custody to a parent who had threatened or carried out abuse to any other individual. It died in committee. He said that once he’s in office, he might try again, looking for language that works better.
“When I say I know the pain of an unjust law, it’s visceral for me,” Levine said. “When I say I don’t quit — I don’t ever quit.”