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Debbie Dingell may be more politically seasoned than you think

Sep 29, 2014

If you follow politics in this state, you probably know that John Dingell has served longer in Congress than anyone in American history.

You also probably know he is retiring at the end of this term, and that his wife Debbie is the Democratic nominee to succeed him. And given the realities of politics, it is absolutely as certain as anything can be that she will win.

Mrs. Dingell – she uses Mrs., by the way – would not want me to say that. Neither would her main opponent, Terry Bowman, a blue-collar Republican auto worker.

There is also a libertarian and an independent on the ballot in Michigan’s 12th Congressional district, which consists of mainly blue-collar towns in Wayne County, plus intellectual Ann Arbor.

What the different parts of the district have in common is that they are overwhelmingly Democratic, and our Republican Legislature created this district as part of trying to squish as many Democrats together into as few districts as possible.

Virtually any Democratic nominee is a cinch to win here. But you wouldn’t know that from the way Debbie Dingell is campaigning. She is running as if this were a dead heat, and if she needed to meet just a few more voters to have a chance to win.

“I don’t think I would be a typical freshman member.” -- Debbie Dingell

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia about this race.

Debbie Dingell certainly won’t be the first woman to succeed her husband in Congress -- 47 others have done so. But she will be the first one in history to have been elected while her husband is still living.

That’s significant, I think, for this reason. Debbie Dingell is as or more devoted to her husband as anyone I’ve ever seen in politics.

Yet, she’s also her own person. She’s had a career with General Motors and is currently a member of Wayne State University’s Board of Governors. She is much less enamored of guns than her husband, a former board member of the NRA.

She would like to see background checks, but says that we should stop fighting so much about gun control and face the real issue, which is mental illness.

In fact, trying to do something to improve health care is, she told me over breakfast Friday, one of the main reasons she wants to be in Congress. She said that while people may have coverage, for many, the problem is simply: “How do we make the system work?”  While John Dingell is as mentally lucid as he has ever been, he has the physical problems anyone 88 faces.

Even a couple as well connected as the Dingells has learned that finding out what assistance is available isn’t always easy.

Debbie Dingell, who is 60, is also passionate about jobs, manufacturing, and making higher education affordable.

She knows a lot about all those issues. But assuming she indeed wins, she will go to Washington in January without any seniority and join a body where her Democrats will almost certainly be in the minority. She knows all that, but she also knows a lot of people, and has been close to power for a long time.

“I don’t think I would be a typical freshman member,” she told me.

Somehow, I am absolutely sure that she is right about that.    

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.