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Will Debbie Dingell Succeed Her Husband in Congress?

Dingell, left, announced his retirement this morning. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Dingell, left, announced his retirement this morning. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

For the first time in 81 years, Michigan Democrats are contemplating a Congress without a Dingell .  

Maybe not.  

Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., announced his retirement on Monday, finishing his 29th full term in the House after succeeding his father in the southeastern Michigan district. In the wake of his announcement, Democrats are already touting the congressman’s wife, Debbie, as the most serious contender for his seat.  

(Update: Indeed, Debbie Dingell is expected to announce her candidacy on Friday.)  

The first clue the Dingell legacy could continue? In his retirement remarks , the congressman praised his wife for her “hard” work for the district.  

“I want to express my thanks and gratitude to the Lovely Deborah,” Dingell said on Monday. “She has been tireless, devoted, and worked just as hard—if not harder—for this district throughout the years.”  

Debbie Dingell, a longtime fixture in Washington and Michigan Democratic politics, married John Dingell over three decades ago. Efforts to reach Debbie Dingell for comment were unsuccessful, but Democrats have long speculated she could run for Congress.  

On Monday, the consensus among well-placed Michigan Democrats is that Debbie Dingell is moving quickly to consolidate support for run.  

Although she shares a last name with her husband, Dingell has cut her own profile as a former General Motors executive, Democratic National Committeewoman and current chair of the Manufacturing Initiative of the American Automotive Policy Council. In 2013, she passed on a Senate run  to succeed retiring Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.  

If she runs, Debbie Dingell boasts huge name identification. She’s also on the radar of EMILY’s List, an organization that backs female Democrats who support abortion rights.  

However, there’s no guarantee that the field will be cleared for her if she does run. Any primary rival would will likely come from the Ann Arbor area.  

In 2002, Michigan mapmakers married John Dingell’s blue-collar Detroit-area district with now-former Rep. Lynn Rivers’ Ann Arbor-based district. Twelve years after Dingell won that member-vs.-member race, Michigan Democrats say the district’s two population centers remain very different and there is a potential for a rehash of that regional rivalry.  

In the next and latest round of redistricting in 2012, the current 12th District  maintained much of the same geography.  

As a result, not everyone in Michigan is convinced that Debbie Dingell will have a cleared path to the nomination, and in effect, the seat. Regardless of party politics, this is a safe Democratic seat. President Barack Obama carried the 12th District twice by more than a two-to-one margin.  

“You’ve gotta think Debbie Dingell is the front-runner, but there are a lot of other people who are impressive,” a Michigan Democratic insider said in September for the Michigan edition of Roll Call’s Farm Team series.  

Like any district with a long-entrenched incumbent, local operatives say a number of politicians have waited patiently for an open-seat race. But few names immediately surfaced as operatives processed the news.  

A handful of operatives pointed to state Sen. Rebekah Warren, a Democrat based in Ann Arbor.  

“Today is Mr. Dingell’s day,” said Warren, declining to address her future plans. “Today, we honor and celebrate Mr. Dingell’s record of accomplishment.”  

One person who will not be running is Rivers.  

“I am out of the game nowadays,” she emailed to Roll Call. “I believe there are lots of up-and-coming young Dems whom I can support for that seat. I’ll watch from the sidelines.”  

Regardless of whether the 12th District stays in the family, John Dingell’s retirement and the loss of his 58 years of seniority will be an adjustment for the region and the state.  

“Today we are losing a lion,” said Michigan Democratic Chairman Lon Johnson, a former Dingell operative, in a Monday morning interview. “Not just in Michigan, but in Congress itself.”  

Emily Cahn contributed to this report. 

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