Interview, Michigan Democrats — October 16, 2014 at 6:15 am

INTERVIEW: Debbie Dingell – “It’s important that people know that I will work hard for them, I will be their fighter”


As an organizer and volunteer in Washtenaw County, I am blessed with the friendship of Dean of the House, Congressman John Dingell and soon-to-be 12th District Congresswoman Debbie Dingell. Through that friendship, I have to come to realize a couple of things about Ms. Dingell and both have to do with a deeply committed love. The first is that “the Lovely Deborah”, as Congressman Dingell almost always calls her, is deeply committed to her husband. It’s a rare event, at least in our area, where, in addition to Congressional staffers, you don’t see Debbie Dingell there, as well. In addition to attending to her husband’s needs, she works the room as his surrogate, reestablishing friendships, asking questions, always seeking input.

The second is that Debbie Dingell has a deep commitment to the 12th Congressional District and to the entire state of Michigan. She’s been a fighter for so many of the causes that she cares about for many years. I once watched her stand in the middle of a huge crowd of mostly college-aged women to remind them of the battles that had been won on their behalf by her cohort of activists and the importance of not letting those gains in women’s reproductive freedoms be compromised. “I never thought I’d have to be at a rally like this at my age and fight for what we already fought for,” she told them. “This is about the most basic issues of quality care for women. Do not become quiet and complacent and take it for granted. Make sure we keep progress happening and don’t go backward.”

Due to redistricting, the 12th District is solidly Democratic so Ms. Dingell’s victory is all but assured on Election Day. But you’d never know that. Dingell is running her campaign as if every vote counted. And, in truth, every vote DOES count. Due to the heavily Democratic nature of the 12th, a big turnout at the polls there helps ALL Democrats, a fact that both Dingells point out whenever they speak in public. Her commitment to ensuring Democratic victories in the 12th is in full display as we move within three weeks of the election.

What is abundantly clear is that Debbie Dingell is her own woman and does not see herself as part of a political dynasty where she is simply “the next one in line” for this Congressional seat. She strongly feels that she needs to earn the job and it can truthfully be said that, for the past several decades, she has been working hard to do that. From her ever-present Diet Coke and white-rimmed glasses to her abundance of energy and passion, she is a highly recognizable and highly recognized part of the 12th District.

At a time when Michigan is losing large amounts of political clout in Washington, D.C. because of so many retiring legislators, Debbie Dingell’s many connections, relationships, and friendships both inside the Beltway and outside will be a huge asset to our state. Those connections, combined with her compassion, drive, and commitment, will make her a freshman legislator unlike any other.

John Dingell has said that part of the reason that he’s retiring now is because he has just had it up to here with the divisiveness and the lack of actual “congress” in the Congress. And you’re jumping into it head first. I’m just wondering why you would do that? You’ve seen firsthand what’s happening there and how different it was ten years ago in terms of bipartisanship and things like that. So, why jump into that cesspool now? Why are you doing this?

Because I think you can’t give up. Because I think that democracy is the best form of government that there is in the world and that it’s the best form of government there is. And that, if you look at the history of the United States, which I did my thesis on for my Masters, the Congress has gone through different periods of time with these kinds of tensions between parties and individuals.

I’ve spent my lifetime trying to bring people together, people of disparate backgrounds, to find common ground. I know that one person can’t change it all, but one person can make a difference. So, I’m just really committed to working hard to try to bridge tension and bring people together.

I’ll give you an example of one thing I did last year, something that I’m really proud of. I think people don’t know each other. I think, it may sound very simplistic, but there’s not enough time to develop relationships the way that there used to be. For people in Washington, it’s come in on Mondays, fly out on Thursdays, and a lot of your time there is spent fundraising or different things. So, I’ve tried to come up with an idea of how to create a gathering place, a way to do something that would bring people together.

The Library of Congress is right across from the Capitol and I thought, “What if we started a dinner series with just House and Senate members?” Because, you need to realize that, nowadays, Republicans House members don’t know Republican Senators. Democratic House members don’t know Democratic Senators.

I went to [13th Librarian of the United States Congress] Jim Billington and I said, “What if we started a dinner series about the presidents so people could learn history?” And it would just be House and Senate members and their spouses. I had talked to the Foundation Community here who are desperate to support anything that helps and there were some people that were willing to support it.

I talked with David Rubenstein, who is a good friend, I told him about this idea and he said, “Don’t do anything.” He called me the next morning and said, “It’s done.” He’s the same person that did the Washington Monument. He’s supported educational activities at the Library of Congress. So, we started this dinner series.

The first dinner, which was a year ago September, David said to me when we got there, “The staff says not to get excited about this, you’ll be lucky to get 30 members.” We had worked it as a spouses organization and the first dinner had 90 House members and 26 Senators. People like Joe Manchin and Bill Nelson really made a point to go find freshman Republican members to introduce them, etc.

The last one was in June and it had 300 members, 300 House and Senate members. It sounds corny, but people are mixing it up and it’s just a little thing. And that’s what we’ve gotta do; think out of of the box, how do you bring people together?

So you believe that this may be an historical blip and that we could get back to …

I would never call it a blip. I think the American people need to tell their elected representatives that they’re tired of people fighting, that they want people to come together for solutions, and that we’ve got to put that foundation in Washington, D.C., as well.

You’ve certainly got a lot of connections yourself and there’s been a lot of talk about how Michigan is losing a lot of clout with Carl Levin retiring, and Congressman Dingell. What’s your perspective on that, on Michigan losing this voice and the impact that will have on our state?

I think that people have no idea how much Carl Levin and John Dingell and, quite frankly, David Camp and Mike Rogers did for the state of Michigan. They weren’t men who put their finger in the air and asked, “Which way is the wind blowing?” They were very strong Michigan supporters who believed in doing what was right. The wisdom of the people who are leaving the Congress is going to be very, very difficult to replace.

So, you feel like you’re filling some pretty big shoes. But you come with some relationships already.

I’m very clear that I’m not trying to fill John Dingell’s shoes. First of all, I know how big they are. He’s irreplaceable. And so is Carl Levin.

I’m going to be Debbie Dingell.

I know how much they did and how hard it’s going to be to replace for the state of Michigan.

What do you see as the issues that will drive you the most as you move forward?

Some people say I’m too passionate about too many things. [laughs] But, first, I care about manufacturing and auto production because they are the backbone of our state. And I know we don’t need to send one more person to Washington that’s going to bash the domestic auto industry. That’s why there is a clear choice in Michigan’s Senate race. So that’s obviously going to be one of my main issues.

As someone who has cared about health care issues her whole life, I founded the National Women’s Health Resource Center because women weren’t included in federally-funded research, something people didn’t realize. I started working on women’s breast cancer when nobody would say the word “breast” and mammograms weren’t covered by insurance companies and no money was being spent on research. I’ve been very passionate about heart disease in the last few years. The Framingham Heart Study that said, “An aspirin a day keeps the doctor away” had no women in it. There are studies being done in Boston that show that a C-reactive protein test may be more indicative of potential heart disease in a woman than any traditional test. So, that’s clearly one of my issues.

Mental health issues have been important to me. I’ve had mental health problems in my family. Many others have. And I think we need to take the stigma out of mental health and talk openly and honestly about the issues and deal with that.

You wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post about that, right? About how we can’t have a knee-jerk reaction to gun control laws but at the same time we need to respond to issues like that?

And we didn’t get anything done! Everyone went into their corners and we haven’t done anything. You know, we’ve got mental illness and we’re looking at … if you talk to law enforcement officers, they’ll talk to you about veterans who are coming back with post traumatic stress. There are just so many different things we’re dealing with here. We need to train people. We need to take this stigma off.

I’ll tell ya, I wanted to write an article after they had the shootings in California about how to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. When I went to write it, you really do realize how complicated the issue is. Because I do also want to take the stigma off it. That means if someone is postpartum depressed and has to go on an anti-depressant for a few months, is that somebody that you want to somehow never let own a gone ever again? It’s not straightforward. And it will keep people from seeking the treatment that they need. So, it’s complicated. But, just because it’s complicated doesn’t mean that we don’t look at how we can solve the problem.

Any other issues that are driving you?

Education. I’ve chaired the Children’s Leadership Council. We have HighScope in this district, which has had some of the best research in this country on early childhood development. But, as Chair of Wayne State University’s Board, I believe that we’ve got to make tuition affordable. I believe that in America every child should have access to affordable, quality education.

People who are looking at the political landscape look at you and they say, so she won her primary in a district where the primary is the only race that matters because it’s so solidly Democratic thanks to redistricting, and yet Debbie Dingell is running for Congress as if it’s a 1-point race. Why are you doing that?!

Because it’s very important to me that people know that I will work hard for them. That I don’t take this race for granted. That I don’t think I’m entitled in any way. I want people to get to know me. I’ve said that this is giant job interview with the people of the 12th District and they need to know that they’re going to have someone who is going to work for them every single day. So, just because the primary is over, the election isn’t until Election Day and I need to earn people’s trust and their respect after they get to know me. And, by the way, I plan on working this hard the day after the election. I’m already fully booking the week after the election so people see me and I’ll be out. It’s just very important and that’s who I’m going to be. I’m going to be their fighter.

One of the things that the 12th District is pretty well known for is, not just campaigning to win an election for themselves, but for helping all of the other candidates that are running in that area. Is that something that you see yourself continuing and what does that look like in 2014?

The 12th District alone, not the “greater 12th”, had a 110,000 people that voted in 2008 that did not vote in 2010. We’ve got to find a way to engage people back into democracy because democracy thrives when people are engaged and involved. So, yes. That’s one of the reasons that I’m working so hard.

We are very committed to doing the 12th District – the greater 12th District…

When you say “greater 12th District”, what does that mean?

The greater 12th includes all of the state candidates. And we’ve got a great team. We’ve got a great slate of state legislators; state Senate, state House and the other players that educate the voters and really get people engaged. So, we’ve been meeting regularly and we’ll not only do the core 12th, which is the geographic boundaries, but we’ll be working on the 7th district Senate seat that Dian Slavens is running for, the 53rd House seat that David Hoener is running in, the 56th House seat that Tom Redmond is running for, Kristy Pagan in the 21st, Dian Slavens’ old seat. And, quite frankly, Pam Byrnes is a great woman and she abuts the 12th Congressional District, we share Washtenaw County, and she’s a good friend. So, we’re going to help turn out the vote for her, too.

I didn’t get involved in local organizing until 2008 with the Obama campaign. On Election Day, while the Obama campaign was busy setting up it’s own little individual personal structure that was separate from the traditional campaign, the 12th District – actually it wasn’t the 12th District then, it was the 15th – was blowing by in vans full of people knocking doors. We thought we had everything going on but it was clear to me at that point that the 15th District – now the 12th District – actually had their own ground game going on that had already been in place. So, what we’re talking about this year, is this a continuation of that, then?

Absolutely. The 12th is known for its GOTV operation and we plan on living up to the reputation we’ve had. More importantly, not only living up to it but delivering and helping.

As I’ve said, we’ve got everybody involved. Everybody is engaged. All of the state Reps, all of the state Senators are working together as a team to help one another.

When I ran a staging location in 2010 during the midterms, I think we had five people running canvass packs for us whereas, two years before that in 2008, we had 150 people running packs for us on GOTV weekend. The drop off between 2008 and 2010 was not an order of magnitude, it felt like several orders of magnitude less involvement of folks. I’m seeing that, this year, there are quite a few more engaged people willing to volunteer their time. It’s more closely resembling a presidential election in terms of the get out the vote operation. I’m curious, you’ve see plenty of these election cycles, how does it look from your perspective as someone who is sort of a veteran at looking at these? How does 2014 look relative to previous midterm elections in Michigan?

I have mixed feelings about it, actually, because, quite frankly, I think more money will be spent in Michigan than been spent in presidential elections in recent years. I think the amount of money that’s been allowed to come into the political process to buy elections is horrifying and that we need to do something about Citizens United.

Having said that, Michigan is one of the ground zero states in the country. Nobody thought that either the U.S. Senate race or the gubernatorial race would be competitive and, yet, they’re two of the most competitive races in the country. That’s resulting in a LOT of money being spent. I think by the end this will be a $100 million state which is absolutely horrifying. You’re seeing it in ads on the television, but also in the ground game, on the ground. Nobody IS taking anything for granted so there’s been a significant investment in voter contact that has been going on all year.

Why do you think, for example, that the governor’s race is so close this year when nobody thought it would be?

I think the governor hasn’t convinced people that what he’s done has made a difference and I think he underestimated the pension tax and right to work and other issues that are deeply bothering people, as well as the perception of disinvestment in education in this state when education is one of the number one issues for everybody in Michigan.

How do you feel about his race? Do you think Schauer can pull this off?

Oh, definitely. I think this is a very competitive race. I don’t think Michigan is broken yet, but Governor Snyder’s not won this race. So, I think Mark Schauer stands a VERY good chance.

[All photos by Anne C. Savage, special to Eclectablog]