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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Her Own Person

October 3, 2014

DETROIT – Congressman John Dingell loves his guns. He has a wall covered with the mounted heads of big game he has shot over the years. His wife, Debbie, has a somewhat different view:

Two years ago, right after the massacre at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut, she wrote a column in the Washington Post that began, “When I was about to start eighth grade, my father almost shot my mother. It was another of their many ugly fights. I got between them – literally – and tried to grab the gun.”

Interestingly, her point was not that we needed new gun control legislation, something about to be proposed by President Obama. Instead, she noted correctly, “a fresh round of old proposals for gun-control laws won’t work,” which is just what happened.

Instead, she argued that “We, as Americans, need to be willing to acknowledge that we have serious social problems … most important, we must remove the stigma of mental illness so that those who need help, get help.”

That column illustrates something Deborah Insley Dingell wants people to know. She loves, reveres and admires her husband, the longest serving congressman in America’s history. Indeed, their marriage is widely seen as one of the closest in Washington.

But she is her own person, with her own similar but perhaps slightly different agenda. That’s important to know, because in three months, she’s all but certain to replace her husband in Congress, representing Michigan’s 12th District, an odd assortment of communities combining Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan’s intellectuals with a collection of white, blue-collar suburbs.

Republicans designed this district that way, as part of their desire to pack as many Democrats into as few seats as possible.

There is, too be sure, a GOP nominee: Terry Bowman, a 49-year-old auto worker who calls himself a “constitutional conservative.” Nobody, however, thinks he has the slightest chance to win. Debbie Dingell had, at last report, more than half a million dollars on hand. Meanwhile, a local Republican website pleaded for people to send Bowman $49 in honor of his age.

However, Debbie Dingell, who doesn’t do things halfway, is running like the race is down to the wire: Visiting community after community, gathering after gathering, earnestly talking to people about their concerns Not that she comes off as shy.

For a wife to succeed a husband in Congress is nothing particularly special. During the last century, 47 other women have done precisely that. But here’s the Dingell difference:

Every one of those other women followed husbands who had died. John Dingell is voluntarily retiring at 88, mentally as lucid as ever but facing the unpleasant truth that he is increasingly infirm.

Over a breakfast meeting last weekend, the 60-year-old Mrs. Dingell (she calls herself either that, or Debbie) said she is fortunate to have his counsel. “John is so wise,” she said. But she has scarcely spent their long marriage as a conventional wife.

Instead, she had her own career as a senior executive for General Motors, and afterwards ran her own consulting firm. A longtime political player behind the scenes, she was elected a member of Wayne State University’s Board of Governors eight years ago, and has been highly influential in that role. Some credit her with luring former top Ford executive Allan Gilmour to serve as WSU’s president during a leadership crisis a few years ago, a move most saw as a plus for the school.

Yet why does she want to follow her husband to Congress, a seat that has been in Dingell hands ever since the current congressman’s father, also named John, was swept in with the New Deal in 1932? Not because of guns.

Instead, her top priorities are health care, manufacturing and jobs, and higher education. The Affordable Care Act may have gotten millions of people some health care coverage.

But for many, she said, it’s still a question of “How do we make the system work?” As connected as they are, the Dingells still sometimes have difficulty navigating the health care universe.

It doesn’t take more than a brief conversation with Debbie Dingell to see that she knows far more about virtually any issue she’s interested in than most new members of Congress, which you might expect; she’s been her husband’s partner since 1981.

Assuming she wins, however, she won’t be John Dingell, who had more seniority (59 years) than anyone in history. She will have no seniority whatsoever. What’s more, her Democrats are likely to be, as they are now, in the minority and out of power.

So how can she hope to get anything done? “I’m a believer in working across party lines,” she said, something her husband has been doing for decades. Then she paused.

“I don’t think I’ll be a typical freshman,” she said. It’s safe to assume that resolution might gain unanimous consent.

Veterans Update: I’ve written before about a valiant group of former servicemen who for years have been trying to build a Veterans’ Memorial Park – at their own expense — to honor all who served in America’s wars. They’ve repeatedly gotten the runaround from the City of Detroit, and have twice been promised sites by city officials who later went back on their word.

“All we want is to build something beautiful so that people, young people especially, can come and learn about our nation’s history,” said Mike Sand, a former president of Vietnam Veterans of America, Detroit Chapter 9. Last week, however, a group of the former servicemen and women did talk to Mayor Mike Duggan at a community meeting. Afterwards, Sand said they felt encouraged. “They told us to come up with three possible sites and get back to them,” he told me.

We’ll stay tuned.

Veteran journalist and national Emmy Award winner Jack Lessenberry teaches at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

October 2, 2014 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry



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