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‘Not fly-over country’: Dingell and other Midwestern Democrats start Heartland Caucus

Political concerns boil below the surface, though they struck a cordial tone

Rep. Debbie Dingell, seen here in 2019, launched a new caucus on Wednesday to call attention to a region “too often overlooked.”
Rep. Debbie Dingell, seen here in 2019, launched a new caucus on Wednesday to call attention to a region “too often overlooked.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Debbie Dingell’s quest for a leadership position within the House Democratic Caucus came with a map.

The image, shared by Dingell in November as she was vying for the coveted vice chair position, is of the United States, with stars denoting the districts represented by Democratic House and committee leaders. 

The map shows clusters in California, the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions; a smattering of stars in the Southeast and Pacific Northwest; and a total void in the middle of the country.

It’s evidence to Dingell, who lost her vice chair bid to Ted Lieu, a Californian, of a coastal bias within the party that she hopes to correct with the creation of the Heartland Caucus, one of the 118th Congress’ newest member groups. 

Dingell announced plans for the group in December and officially launched the caucus at a press conference Wednesday. It’s composed largely of members from the Great Lakes region seeking to remind their party leaders that they are “not fly-over country,” as Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, and several of her colleagues, put it.

“Part of our challenge is, we have no one from the leadership in any position. … So this is one of the realities that we face over and over and again,” Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio said, gathered around a lectern in the Longworth basement with roughly a dozen of her Heartland colleagues.

Kaptur, who has been in the chamber since 1983 and is the longest-serving woman in congressional history, has been a member long enough to remember when the Midwest held serious sway in the House. Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt was majority leader from 1989 to 1995, then minority leader from 1995 to 2003. And David Bonior of Michigan was Democratic whip from 1991 to 2002. But in recent years, power has concentrated on the coasts. 

The top Democratic leaders in the 118th Congress come from New York, Massachusetts, California and South Carolina. 

Heartland Caucus members present were from Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio, though the group’s boundaries are not yet firmly established. Rep. Brian Higgins, who represents Buffalo, N.Y., has expressed interest in joining, though he was not present at the press conference. 

Leaders said they anticipate about 40 members joining, and they listed manufacturing, labor, rural health care, infrastructure and the environment among the group’s top issues.

“We must ensure that as we’re creating policy in Washington, we are prioritizing the views, the values and issues of these communities at home that are too often overlooked — not integrated into policy consideration and core congressional action,” Dingell said. 

The group coalesced in the wake of the November midterms around a shared feeling that the region is being ignored, despite its significant contributions. 

Dingell noted that the Great Lakes provide more than 20 percent of the world’s freshwater supply. Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib said 25 percent of the country’s trade moves through her state on its way to Canada. And Rep. Mike Quigley, who represents parts of Chicago’s North Side, touted the hot dogs, the Chicago-style pizza and the Italian beef consumed throughout the country.

Several members also noted the region’s importance in presidential politics, a hot topic as President Joe Biden and the Democratic National Committee have suggested making Michigan an early primary state.

“All roads to majorities, to the White House, go through the heartland of America,” Dingell said.

Despite the group’s grievances, in typical midwestern fashion, its members struck a cordial tone.  

Dingell said Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York, Minority Whip Katherine Clark of Massachusetts and Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar of California have all been receptive to the Heartland Caucus’ concerns. And Rep. Joyce Beatty of Ohio repeated multiple times that the goal of the group was not to start internecine conflict.

“This is about unity and not about [division]. It’s about recognition,” Beatty said.

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