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Debbie Dingell wanted to be a nun, instead she's at the center of everything in Washington

Detroit Free Press - Debbie Dingell wanted to be a nun, instead she's at the center of everything in Washington

When Debbie Dingell got elected eight years ago to replace her husband, John, in Congress, those who didn’t know her or her reputation well may have wondered whether she could establish herself in her own right and step out of his prodigious and historically long shadow.

No one wonders anymore.

Headed into a campaign for a fifth two-year term, this time in a newly drawn district based in Ann Arbor that will no longer include her and her late husband’s longtime base in Dearborn, a fair case can be made that Dingell, a 68-year-old Democrat, is as effective and visible a legislator as Michigan has in Congress. Certainly, no one has as deep a set of political connections in Washington and in Michigan, and she is as busy using them as anyone.

“She’s very loyal and she’s a really hard worker,” said U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, perhaps her closest friend in Congress despite being from a rival party at a time of enormous partisan division. “And she’s sharp as a tack.”

In recent Congresses, Dingell, who grew up as a Republican and worked for General Motors in Washington for decades, has played a major role writing and passing bills addressing PFAS contamination and extending funding for older Americans to receive care in their homes rather than in nursing homes. Her bill to require technology in cars that could someday prevent drunks from driving — which she introduced after a family of five from Northville was killed, and which was opposed by the auto industry she once worked for — was made part of last year's infrastructure bill.

She brokered talks between auto companies, labor unions and environmentalists ahead of the White House announcing a target of having half of all new cars and trucks sold in the U.S. by the end of the decade be electrified or otherwise emit zero greenhouse gases. She took part in the fractious House talks over the sweeping social agenda put forward by President Joe Biden, who is an old friend of hers, and is a regular presence on TV and cable news shows.

And it also almost goes without saying that, if there is an issue that is significant to Michiganders — be it funding for the Great Lakes, flooding in metro Detroit, concerns of Lebanese Americans or Yemeni Americans about relatives facing violence and war in other parts of the world — she's involved, dashing off letters to bureaucrats, working on legislation, or phoning someone from her near-endless list of contacts.

When high lead levels were found in the water in Benton Harbor — across the state in Upton's district — she joined him in insisting the Environmental Protection Agency do more. When Ford Motor Co.'s Flat Rock Assembly plant was temporarily idled recently because of the ongoing global shortage in semiconductor chips, she again urged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — Dingell's a member of Pelosi's leadership team — that the House needed to bring up a compromise on legislation to bolster U.S.-made semiconductors. She did it publicly, too, calling out House leadership on Twitter.

Coincidentally or not, a week later Pelosi released a new version of the bill — which passed the House Friday — and sets the stage for compromise legislation with the Senate.

And to think that, in high school in Grosse Pointe and in college at Georgetown, Deborah Ann Insley — a granddaughter of one of the Fisher brothers, who created the company that supplied auto bodies to GM — had every intention of becoming a nun. 

“Oh yeah, I was sure I was going to be a nun," said Dingell, sitting, masked, in her Washington office, living up to her reputation as taking no risks when it comes to catching or spreading COVID-19. And while she ultimately decided the habit wasn't the right fit for her, she said it was the nuns, particularly those at what was then known as Sacred Heart in Grosse Pointe Farms, who made her what she is: detail-oriented, strong-willed, tireless, candid. Open to listening to other viewpoints, but equally forceful in pressing her own. 

Like when she laid into U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, for loudly heckling a group of Democrats who were trying to hold an event outside the U.S. Capitol. Like when she argued against Republicans trying to use a procedural motion to stall gun control legislation. In that latter incident three years ago, she gave an emotional speech on the House floor, describing how as children she and her siblings hid in a closet, worried for their lives, as their parents argued, knowing her father was mentally unstable and had a gun.

She says there was no plan for her remarks, they came in the heat of the moment. The late-Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, who knew a little of her story, urged her to tell it.

"I'm an intense, passionate person," said Dingell, who is well known not only for her tenacity but for her willingness to say what's on her mind. "I used to apologize for it. Now, I don't. ... At this point in my life, I'm very proud of it and make no apologies."

If those who didn't know her well were surprised by how she's taken to the job of legislating, those who knew her before largely are not. After all, she knew Washington and its players, in both parties, as well as, if not better than, anyone. In her office hang photos of her and John with several presidents, Democrats and Republicans alike.

"When she was elected," said Sandy Baruah, a friend who is president and chief executive of the Detroit Regional Chamber and a former head of the U.S. Small Business Administration under President George W. Bush, "I remember telling some journalist that Debbie will walk into the House as the most senior freshman since (the late Florida U.S. Rep.) Claude Pepper came from the Senate to the House back in '62."

Rana Abbas Taylor, director of communications and marketing at ACCESS, the nonprofit organization serving southeastern Michigan's large Arab American community out of its headquarters in Dearborn, has known Dingell for decades. But it was when her sister, Rima, her husband, Issam, and their three children were killed by a drunk driver, and Dingell committed to get legislation passed that would put technology in cars that could someday largely stop such tragedies, that Abbas Taylor said she saw what Dingell was capable of — and that she was even willing to take on the auto industry to do it.

"Anyone who works with her knows she is a mover and a shaker. She gets things done," said Abbas Taylor. "She did just that with this legislation."

"She is a tell-it-like-it-is kind of person, with her constituents and with other members of Congress," she continued, adding that Dingell let those working to pass the bill know about all of the obstacles in their way. "It's refreshing (to have someone) kind of cut through all the political stuff and let people know what's up.

"When it got serious ... and there was a possibility it could be passed, we knew Debbie was going to see it through."

From the beginning, she insisted on her own identity

From the perspective of a political reporter, writing about Debbie Dingell presents an embarrassment of riches — you almost don't know where to start.

There's her long history at GM, running its government affairs office among her other leadership roles over the years; her involvement in numerous nonprofits, community groups and events, including the one that puts on Detroit's America's Thanksgiving Day Parade; her tenure as a Democratic National Committee member; her service as a member of Wayne State University's board of governors. It's as if she's never been out of the public eye.

Then, there is her relationship with John, a towering and powerful figure who was 27 years older than she and divorced when they met on a rough flight to D.C. He asked her out more than a dozen times over two years before she finally agreed. After marrying in 1981, they were one of D.C.'s most notable couples and were entirely devoted to each other. But as former Free Press reporter Ruby Bailey put it in 2005, Debbie Dingell was a "high octane" player herself. John Dingell said she was the savviest political strategist he'd ever met.

John Dingell, who was chairman of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee his wife now serves on, taught her a great deal about legislating, Debbie Dingell says — about building coalitions, about keeping doors open. But there were always differences between the two of them, too. Importantly, she said, it was always her intention — her insistence — that "the lovely Deborah," as he often referred to her, would keep her own identity.

"I had my own identity, my own career, my own life," she said.

That became doubly important to her when she decided to run for the seat he filled for nearly 60 years — more than anyone else in congressional history — in 2014.

"I wouldn't let John campaign with me," she said. "I didn't even want him at the election night party, which really hurt him. And I'm very proud of my last name. The love affair we had is the most important thing that will ever be in my life. ... But I had to prove myself, I had to earn the trust and respect of people in the district and I needed to do that myself."

John David Dingell Jr. died three years ago, at age 92. Visibly bereft, Debbie Dingell oversaw funerals in Michigan and in Washington, and his burial at Arlington National Cemetery. And then she went back to work. 

"After John died, I didn't want to go out," she said. "I didn't want to be with people. Here's where I was lucky. I had a job. And so the day I buried him at Arlington, we were voting to reopen the government. And I came in and everybody said, 'What are you doing here?' And I said, John would tell me to do my job. And I did. But all I wanted to do was do my job. I didn't want to socialize with people. I didn't go out with the girls. I didn't. I just — I still have no desire to ever date in my entire life. None."

As it was, however, she attracted some unwanted attention from the person who was then the most powerful man in the world.

A fight with Trump, and the rise of political hatred

Debbie Dingell saw President Donald Trump's 2016 victory in Michigan coming before anyone else did, and said so. And when Trump was elected, she said she wanted him to succeed, as she would any president.

When John Dingell died, Trump publicly paid his respects, ordering flags to be flown at half-staff.

But when Debbie Dingell told Fox News that she would likely vote to impeach Trump for trying to get Ukraine to investigate current President Joe Biden, his political rival, Trump targeted her specifically. He called her "pathetic" in a tweet and then, at a rally in Battle Creek, suggested she was two-faced and that John Dingell might be "looking up" from hell.

Upton saw it before she did and told her about it as she entered a meeting that night with the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of legislators from both parties.

"She just exploded at him — she was just so distraught," Upton said. "She still wears her wedding ring around her neck." Upton — who would later vote to impeach Trump as well for his remarks leading up to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol — called Trump and told him to apologize, as did others. The president refused.

Dingell said she should have seen it coming. Kellyanne Conway, Trump's adviser, had called her personally the weekend before to let her know Trump was on the warpath. Dingell had earlier indicated she was hesitant about impeachment; in the end, she decided there was enough evidence against Trump to warrant the vote.

"I truly think he thought I wouldn't vote for impeachment," she said. "But I had a responsibility to my country."

"I do believe in respecting each other, treating each other with civility," she said. "But I'm not afraid to stand up ... and I can be tough when I have to be."

But that was the beginning of a level of political divisiveness and hatred that she has experienced firsthand. At one point, after Fox's Tucker Carlson ranted about her, she said, there were armed men outside her house in Dearborn; fortunately, police made sure she was safe. Late last year, her Michigan office was broken into and vandalized. She appeared on CNN with Upton, who also had been targeted by menacing phone calls, and shared a voicemail she'd gotten with the caller, barking profanities, saying, "I hope your family dies in front of you."

This, to a widow, who lives alone; who stays up at night, when she's not working, reading spy novels.

She used to meet regularly with a group of male friends at Einstein Bagels in Dearborn, pre-COVID-19, talking politics. Then one day, a man — a Trump supporter, a World War II veteran — came in and started screaming at her. She didn't know what to do; she thanked him for his service. She soon stopped going out with the group.

"I will sit down and talk to anybody," she said. "I don't want to physically be threatened. And that is probably the one thing that has changed in the last year, is that I (realize I) have to be more careful than I used to be about potential physical threats. But when somebody gets mad, I'm like, 'OK, sit down,' and talk about it."

When COVID restrictions made socializing more difficult, she put more of an effort into her social media pages, dishing out comments and observations on Twitter and on Facebook. Lately, with rising inflation, she has been tracking the price of goods in her district.

And she has continued to argue for everyone taking a more civil tone — including some of her own staff, when they thought it was OK for former Trump Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to be shouted at in a restaurant in Virginia. 

"I don't think it's OK to shout at anybody," she said. "Dr. King talked about hate and how dangerous it was. And his observations are really timely right now for what's happening in our country. And I think people are losing their confidence in government. They're losing the confidence in elections. And those are the fundamental roots of our democracy. And when you start to see this kind of division, this loss of confidence, this loss of civility, our democracy is in danger."

The last year brought challenges both politically and personally

On Twitter, Dingell posted some impressive statistics about 2020 regarding her office: 40 bills introduced, 27 passed in the House, 83 town halls — virtual or otherwise. Tens of thousands of constituent letters or calls answered.

Amid all that, the year had its personal challenges for Dingell, however. Just days after welcoming Biden at Detroit Metro Airport en route to a Ford plant in her district where he drove the new all-electric F-150 Lightning, and in the middle of her talks with automakers, labor unions and environmentalists, she developed a stomachache that got worse and worse.

She had a perforated ulcer, presumably caused by over-the-counter pain medications she had been taking for dental surgery she had earlier in the year. Emergency surgery was performed; she was sidelined for a week, although she also tried to use it as a wakeup call to others about the harms those medications can cause.

Then it was back to work — if she ever really stopped working.

There are those who might look at some of her office's accomplishment as more aspirational than practical. Take that agreement to support electric vehicles sales, it doesn't carry the weight, or the funding, of the incentives included in Biden's currently stalled Build Back Better plan. 

But while the parties are still looking for a path forward on that, it's worth noting that Biden has, at least, put a marker down as to where he and the parties want to head. He and they will be gauged on their progress. And aspirations do become tangible sometimes: GM last week announced it's putting $7 billion into Michigan plants to make the state a hub for electric vehicle manufacturing.

Behind the scenes, there is a lot of talking about what can be done to salvage tax incentives to boost sales of electric cars and trucks. Expect Dingell — as well as much of the rest of the Michigan members of the House and Senate — to be a big part of those negotiations.

But Dingell doesn't want anyone to think that everything's about work for her. Sure, she puts in long days. But they typically start and end with a girlfriend — her word, not this reporter's — checking in by text or phone. She still loves to play games when she can; she fondly recalls a time when she beat President Bill Clinton at hearts.

And if she doesn't have John's gift for sarcasm, for crafting turns of phrase that skewered his political enemies and made him a viral force on Twitter toward the end of his life, she has an infectious laugh and loves to joke. And she talks. To. Everyone.

Cynthia Ford, a philanthropist and vice chair of the Children's Foundation board of directors, met Dingell when she married Edsel Ford II decades ago, and they have been close friends since. It's often hard, she said, to get together with Dingell. But when they and other friends do, it's to talk things like books, shopping and travel plans. They do talk politics, too. "She's always appreciated my interest in politics, public service, what’s going on. … Our conversations go way beyond what she’s doing in Washington," she said.

It's been especially hard to get together much during COVID. But they did, on one occasion, when Ford held a socially distanced gathering of about a half dozen friends on her deck in Grosse Pointe. On this occasion, Ford recalled, Dingell showed up with twice as many Jimmy John's sandwiches as guests because she didn't want to show up empty-handed.

Everyone took extra sandwiches home.

So Ford said she is not at all surprised by her friend's successes. 

"She's always been a strong, independent woman. Now she has a platform and people are listening to her," she said. "She's certainly earned it. ... What I do know is that particular part of her, the way she conducts herself, is very deliberate. It isn't by accident that she tries to be a consensus builder. It comes very naturally to her."

Now, she has closed on a new home in Ann Arbor. Dearborn will become part of a district that includes Detroit's west side, Southfield, and other parts of western Wayne and southern Oakland County. If she wins reelection, Dingell will inherit some communities she has never represented: Northville, Canton, Novi — where her 88-year-old mother lives and will be able to vote for her for the first time.

She has already been out meeting officials in the new district, while also holding events in the current one. 

She knew that with Michigan losing one of its current 14 seats in Congress, Dearborn would likely be merged with a portion of Detroit. And she said she didn't want to run in a district which represented a better chance for a candidate of color to hold onto or win.

Abbas Taylor said the people of Dearborn will miss her. But they expect she'll still be involved, if they need her.

As for her future, Dingell doesn't reveal any indication that she's ready for retirement, even with 29 other House Democrats not running for reelection this year and many predicting Republicans will retake control of the chamber.

She understands better than many how hard it can be at this point, being a politician.

“But I'm at a point in my life, my work is my life. It's what gives me meaning.” she said.

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