Dingell’s Powerful Wife: Bridge Between Michigan and D.C
For almost two decades, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has been working to end Iowa and New Hampshire’s disproportionate influence in selecting the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee.
The effort is still a long shot.
But for the first time since 1981, a panel convened by the Democratic National Committee is undertaking a full-scale review of the party’s nominating calendar.
Party officials and political observers attribute Levin’s progress to the organizational prowess of Debbie Dingell, an elected Democratic National Committeewoman and the wife of Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.).
“She took the passion and the commitment that Sen. Levin brought to this and made it a reality as a political force,” said Josh Wachs, who was the DNC’s chief operating officer when the study group was formed.
Dingell’s role in the creation of the Commission on Presidential Nominating Timing and Scheduling comes as no surprise to those who have watched her build a reputation as someone who “may well be,” in the words of The Detroit News, “the most visible and influential political spouse in Michigan history.”
“If you’ve got a Michigan political issue, at some point, all roads lead through Debbie Dingell,” Wachs said.
Debbie Dingell was born Deborah Insley, a granddaughter of one of General Motors’ Fisher brothers and a member of, in her words, a “very Republican family.”
Dingell met her husband on a Washington, D.C.-to-Detroit plane flight.
She was a General Motors legislative analyst in her mid-20s. He was in his 50s.
She was reluctant to go out with him at first. But he persisted and the two were married in 1981.
“He asked me out 14 or 15 times,” she said.
Today, she is vice chairwoman of the GM Foundation and executive director of GM’s global community and governmental relations office. He is the longest-serving active Member of the House of Representatives and the fourth longest in U.S. history.
In 2002, when reapportionment took a House seat away from Michigan and the Republican-controlled state Legislature forced Rep. Dingell into a race against then-Rep. Lynn Rivers (D), the ranking member on the Energy and Commerce panel relied heavily on his wife.
Debbie Dingell was that rare commodity: a political spouse who knew what she was doing.
“She was pivotal. There is no question about it. She was doing everything. She was virtually running the campaign,” said Bill Ballenger, editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter.
Dingell defeated Rivers 59 percent to 41 percent.
Two years earlier, Debbie Dingell ran Al Gore’s presidential campaign in must-win Michigan. Gore had given his critics plenty of fodder: Not only had he taken a leading role in the passage of NAFTA, but he also had called the internal combustion engine a “mortal threat to the security of every nation” in his environmental tome, “Earth In The Balance.”
It didn’t matter.
With Dingell’s help, Gore won Michigan’s 18 electoral votes by 5 points.
Chris Lehane, Gore’s spokesman at the time, credits Dingell with getting the Democratic presidential candidate to talk about what he “wanted to do on the environment and on other issues in a way that resonated in a state like Michigan.”
“In part because of Debbie’s efforts, Michigan, relative to some of the other states, got locked down a lot quicker,” Lehane added.
Donna Brazile, Gore’s campaign manager and a Roll Call contributing writer, calls Dingell a “bridge to the people of Michigan” and a “bridge to just about any interest you need in Michigan.”
Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic strategist whose experience in Michigan goes back to Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign, thinks Dingell has “made herself a political player in her own right” through a unique combination of factors: “Her husband is a very influential and important long-term Member of Congress. She works for a company that is a significant factor in the Michigan economy. Add that to the fact that she works in Michigan politics, she is a member of the DNC, and she is willing to step up to the plate and do a lot.”
Dingell and Levin had not always been allies on the calendar issue.
“She became persuaded that the right side of this issue was to try to break this monopoly that these two states have on the whole process of nominating a president,” Levin said.
Dingell said she opposed Levin’s efforts in the run up to the 1996 and 2000 elections because she did not believe in changing the rules “in the middle of the game.”
The key to forcing the issue was persuading Michigan state party leaders to risk the ire of the national party.
“The Michigan folks did a good job of putting all of their ducks in order in Michigan and lining up the in-state political support they needed — from the Congressional delegation to the labor folks to the constituency communities,” Wachs said. “Debbie Dingell was instrumental in that effort.”
States have the power to decide when to schedule nominating contests. But the DNC exerts influence over those timing decisions by threatening not to seat delegates if they come from a state that schedules its contest outside of a DNC-determined window.
Mindful of Michigan’s status as a vote-rich battleground, Dingell and Levin persuaded the Michigan Democratic Party to threaten to schedule its presidential caucus on the same day as the 2004 New Hampshire primary, contrary to national party rules, on the theory that the DNC would not make good on its threat.
Michigan Democrats ultimately backed down, but they did so only after then-DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe agreed to form a commission to study the party’s 2008 nominating calendar.
The panel, which is co-chaired by Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) and ex-Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, is slated to hold its third meeting July 16.
The commission will present its recommendations to DNC Chairman Howard Dean at the end of the year.
In addition to Iowa and New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation status, the panel is also considering the detrimental effects of front-loading and ways to use the calendar to energize key voter blocs and key regions of the country.
“I’m dead set against any one state or two states having a lock,” Dingell said. “Iowa and New Hampshire do not represent the diversity of this country.”
The effort to strip Iowa and New Hampshire of their first-in-the-nation status in the Democratic presidential nominating process faces fierce opposition.
“Iowa and New Hampshire provide a real grass-roots opportunity for candidates no matter how much money they have or how much name recognition they have,” said Kathy Sullivan, chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democratic State Committee. “New Hampshire is the one state that flipped from red to blue” in 2004. “We worked our tails off. Why punish a state that did its job in 2004?”
“We are not saying that Michigan should go first,” Dingell counters. “We are saying we need a fair system, a rotating system that reflects a broad spectrum of issues.”
Elmendorf, who advised then-Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt’s presidential campaign in 2004 before becoming deputy campaign manager of the Kerry/Edwards campaign, said the chances of dislodging Iowa and New Hampshire are “probably slim.”
“Iowa and New Hampshire have done a really good job over the decades of getting anyone who is thinking of running for president to sign in blood that they will not challenge their status. If all the candidates agree, it is sort of hard to change it,” Elmendorf said. “This is a big job to take on Iowa and New Hampshire. If anyone can do it, Debbie can. But it is an uphill fight.”
The fight has nevertheless reignited speculation that Dingell herself may be eyeing a run for political office one day, assuming that her stepson, Christopher Dingell, a former state Senator who is now a judge in Michigan, does not run himself.
Ballenger said there has “constantly been speculation” over the years about whether she will succeed John Dingell — just as he succeeded his father in 1955. “But she has never given any indication one way or another.”