Rep. John Dingell (D)
Michigan 15th District
Compared with points further north in “the mitten,” the southeast corner of Michigan is elevation challenged. Its flat marshlands along the shore of Lake Erie give way to flat farm lands, with rivers flowing lazily in summer and flashing with ice in winter. Here and there are power plants with giant smokestacks and factories. On the northern horizon is the sprawl of metro Detroit and of the great auto and steel and chemical plants along the Detroit River.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The 15th Congressional District of Michigan includes much of the southeastern corner of the state and owes its shape to Republican redistricters, who in 2001 devised one of the most partisan plans of the decennial cycle. In Wayne County, the district takes in parts of Dearborn and most of Dearborn Heights. The most heavily Arab-American parts of Dearborn were put in the 14th District, and these are more middle-class, even affluent areas. All of Monroe County is in the district, as are Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan, in Washtenaw County.
There are several working-class Detroit suburbs: Taylor, Romulus (home of Detroit’s Metro Airport), and Woodhaven, site of a big Ford plant. Flat Rock is home to a joint Ford-Mazda auto plant, one of the few Japanese plants in Michigan. Monroe County has a statue of Gen. George Armstrong Custer, who grew up there. Once agricultural, the county now is predominately industrial, and the southern part is in many ways an extension of Toledo, Ohio. (Michigan and Ohio almost went to war over the Toledo land in the 1830s; Ohio got Toledo and Michigan got the Upper Peninsula as recompense.) Ann Arbor is one of the nation’s largest university towns, oriented to the university but also home to auto executives and young families who like a town with plenty of bookstores, coffeehouses and liberal neighbors. In 2004, the city voted 74% to legalize medical marijuana. In 2006, it landed the headquarters of Google’s AdWords unit, which operates the company’s “pay-per-click” advertising method, Google’s main revenue source. The company planned to have a workforce of 1,000 in Ann Arbor by 2012. Ypsilanti, though it also has a university, Eastern Michigan, is less bookish and more industrial. With the decline of the auto industry, hard times have affected the entire district and infected other industries, including pharmaceuticals; in 2007 Pfizer announced the closing of a research plant in Ann Arbor. All of these areas tend to vote Democratic, though Monroe is sometimes marginal. But they are different kinds of Democrats. In Wayne County, union operatives have dominated Democratic party politics for 50 years. In Ann Arbor, the party is dominated by leftist peace activists, environmentalists and feminists. Democratic presidential candidates have won this area overwhelmingly.
Rep. John Dingell (D)
Elected: Dec. 1955, 27th full term.
Born: July 8, 1926, Colorado Springs, CO .
Education: Georgetown U., B.S. 1949, J.D. 1952.
Family: Married (Deborah); 4 children.
Military career: Army, 1944–46 (WWII).
Professional Career: Summer Park Ranger, 1947-52; Practicing atty., 1953–55; Wayne Cnty. asst. prosecuting atty., 1954–55.
The congressman from the 15th District is John Dingell, the dean of the House. He is the longest-serving sitting member of the House and hit a historic milestone in February 2009 by becoming the longest-serving U.S. representative ever. (In combined House and Senate years, Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia holds the record for total congressional service.) For many years, until recently, Dingell was also the fearsome chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. His father, John Dingell, Sr., was first elected to the House in 1932, from a district created as a result of the Detroit area’s auto boom. The first Rep. Dingell was one of the most productive urban liberals of his day, a sponsor of the Social Security program and, starting in 1943, of national health insurance. His son has been around Capitol Hill almost as long. He was a House page from 1938-43, then served in the Army in World War II. He graduated from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and its law school, helping to pay his way by working as a Capitol elevator operator. He practiced law in Detroit and served as an assistant prosecutor in Wayne County. After his father died, in September 1955, Dingell was elected to succeed him the following December. He was 29 and represented a district entirely within Detroit with large Polish, African-American, and Jewish populations. He still uses his father’s office furniture and every session continues to introduce as H.R. 15 (the number matches the district) the national health-insurance bill his father co-sponsored in 1943. He is fond of saying, “HMOs, foreign diplomats and the mentally insane are the only people in this country who are exempt from the consequences of their decisions.” Dingell is the only member of the House who served in the 1950s. Indeed, only two others have been around since the 1960s—Democratic Reps. John Conyers of Michigan and David Obey of Wisconsin. It is a measure of his seniority that the second most senior member of the House, Conyers, once served on Dingell’s staff. His personal life is also wrapped in his political career. He married, had children, but then divorced and was remarried in 1981 to a granddaughter of one of General Motors’ Fisher brothers. Debbie Dingell is vice chairman of the General Motors Foundation and a Democratic national committeewoman. She headed the Michigan campaigns for Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004, and helped each win 51% of the vote in this battleground state. In 2008, she was a central player in efforts to resolve the national party controversy over Michigan’s unauthorized Democratic primary.
|John Dingell (D)||231,784||(71%)||($2,522,180)|
|John Lynch (R)||81,802||(25%)||($19,870)|
|Aimee Smith (Green)||7,082||(2%)|
|John Dingell (D)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (88%), 2004 (71%), 2002 (72%), 2000 (71%), 1998 (67%), 1996 (62%), 1994 (59%), 1992 (65%), 1990 (67%), 1988 (97%), 1986 (78%), 1984 (64%), 1982 (74%), 1980 (70%), 1978 (77%), 1976 (76%), 1974 (78%), 1972 (68%), 1970 (79%), 1968 (74%), 1966 (63%), 1964 (73%), 1962 (83%), 1960 (79%), 1958 (79%), 1956 (74%), 1955 (76%)
Dingell served as chairman of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee from 1981 to 1995 and was also chairman of its Investigative and Oversight Subcommittee. He was one of the most powerful and effective committee chairmen ever. He grew his jurisdiction to the point that his committee handled up to 40% of all House bills; he had the largest budget and staff of any House committee. And as institutions will, the committee took on the character of its leader: bright, determined and domineering. Dingell, dubbed “the Truck,” and his committee superintended the breakup of AT&T and the sale of Conrail by public offering. His 1992 cable reregulation bill was the only one on which Congress overrode President George H.W. Bush’s veto. He was a key player in the legislation creating the Medicare program for the elderly in the 1960s. He had a hand in writing the Endangered Species Act, and after a decade of sparring over clean-air legislation, Dingell worked with Democrat Henry Waxman of California to produce the 1990 Clean Air Act.
On other issues, Dingell backed organized labor’s agenda against the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement and other agreements that followed. An avid outdoorsman and a hunter of deer, elk, caribou and moose, he long opposed gun control but voted for the 1994 crime bill and resigned from the National Rifle Association board. One of his proudest accomplishments is the creation in 2001 of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, on both sides of the river, from Zug Island in River Rouge south to Lake Erie. Dingell worked to get donations of land or easements from private landowners, land preservation groups and the Army Corps of Engineers, and the refuge grew from 394 acres to over 5,000. In many ways, he is an old-fashioned Franklin D. Roosevelt Democrat, supporting big government and strenuous regulation, taking a conservative line on some cultural issues and backing an assertive foreign policy. He was the only Michigan Democrat to vote for the Gulf War resolution in January 1991, although he voted against the Iraq war resolution of 2002.
When the Republican majority took over in 1995, Dingell, as the senior House member, swore in Republican Newt Gingrich as speaker and then occasionally cooperated with Republicans to produce legislation. He developed a productive working relationship with Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the Republican chairman of the committee beginning in 2004. Like many in the GOP, Dingell long opposed raising fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks. But when he was on the other side of an issue, which was often, Dingell was a formidable opponent. He not only refused to support the Republicans’ 2003 Medicare prescription-drug bill, seeing it as too skimpy, but he went on the road to criticize it. President George W. Bush once called him the “biggest pain in the ass” in Congress. Dingell also sprang into action whenever Michigan’s interests were threatened. In 2003, the city of Toronto started transporting its trash—180 truckloads a day—to a landfill in southwest Wayne County in his district. Dingell and Michigan’s Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow insisted that Environmental Protection Agency enforce a 1992 treaty that they said required Canada to give notice of each shipment and allowed the U.S. to reject each one. EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt argued that only hazardous waste was covered by the treaty, but Dingell persisted and got a 12-4 subcommittee vote demanding enforcement.
After Democrats won the House majority in 2006, Dingell took over as Energy and Commerce chairman again. Asked about his priorities after 12 years of Republican policies, Dingell said, “We will kill the closest snake first.” But while Dingell still had considerable power, it did not compare to his earlier stint as chairman. He no longer also chaired the investigative subcommittee that has been so effective in its heyday, taking on bungling federal bureaucracies and putting top government officials on the hot seat. Moreover, the Energy and Commerce jurisdiction was diminished during the era of Republican control, with securities, accounting and insurance legislation reassigned to the Financial Services Committee. In early 2007, Dingell and Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, sparred briefly over jurisdiction over data-security legislation, then promised to cooperate. Despite a promise from Dingell that he would hold hearings on carbon emissions in spite of his close ties to the big automakers, newly installed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went around him and created a select committee on global warming to consider legislation on carbon emissions—over Dingell’s strenuous objections. “These [select] committees,” he sniffed, “are as useful in relevance as feathers on a fish.” He called the new panel, headed by fellow Democrat Edward Markey of Massachusetts, “the committee on world travel and junkets.” In the 110th Congress (2007-08), energy legislation was Dingell’s chief priority. After the Senate passed new fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks, Dingell moved to try to find a compromise that would be easier on Detroit. Negotiating chiefly with Pelosi, he argued for differences between cars and light trucks, and for additional time for the industry to comply. The result, he said, was “a strong bill that [auto companies] will hate but with which they can live.” He firmly opposed state-mandated fuel standards or regulation by the EPA, but had to give in on those demands under pressure from Pelosi. Although liberal groups like MoveOn.org mocked him as a “Dingellsaurus,” he was at the table for the final deal in December 2007. It produced a 35 mile-per-gallon average standard by 2020. Some environmentalists cheered him, while some of his friends in Detroit howled.
On other issues, Dingell worked with Pelosi to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. Although their plan drew bipartisan support, and a Senate-passed companion bill had two-thirds support to override a veto, it failed to attract sufficient backing from House Republicans to override a Bush veto. Dingell succeeded in enacting a bipartisan bill to strengthen product-safety regulation, however. And under pressure from Dingell and others, the Food and Drug Administration in 2007 abandoned plans to close seven labs across the nation, including one in Detroit that already had been downsized.
The 2008 election ended on an unexpectedly jarring note for Dingell. The morning after the Democrats’ resounding victory at the polls, Waxman called to tell him he planned to challenge Dingell for the chairmanship of Energy and Commerce in the Congress opening in early 2009. The 82-year-old Dingell had suffered from health problems in recent years, undergoing two heart operations and the installation of an artificial hip, and he was recovering from knee surgery. Waxman said that in light of the election of a Democratic president, Barack Obama, “We have a narrow window to act” on big health and energy issues. Dingell was caught off guard and scrambled to put together a two-week campaign to defend his chairmanship as the party organized for the 111th Congress (2009-10). He was backed by the centrist Blue Dogs, who defended his record and raised alarms about the liberal Waxman. With Pelosi officially neutral—though her allies lobbied for Waxman—Dingell lost the chairmanship in a Democratic caucus vote, 137-122. “This was clearly a change year, and I congratulate my colleague Henry Waxman on his success today,” Dingell said. “What will never change is my commitment to the working men and women of the 15th Congressional District of Michigan who have honored me with the opportunity to represent them here in Washington.” Dingell and Waxman agreed that Dingell, as chairman emeritus of the full committee, would not have a subcommittee chairmanship but would “play an integral role in the negotiation” of national health care legislation on Capitol Hill and with the Obama administration. And despite his diminished status, Dingell was instrumental in crafting in December 2008 the federal bailout of $13.4 billion in short-term loans for the auto industry, which Bush approved after the Senate deadlocked.
Since his first election in December 1955, Dingell has had only two serious challenges, both in Democratic primaries after redistricting plans threw him into a district with another incumbent. In 1964, he ran in a district mostly new to him against John Lesinski of Dearborn, who was the only northern Democrat to vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. With strong support from the UAW, Dingell won 54%-46%. Then in July 2001, the Republican Legislature put him in the same district with Rep. Lynn Rivers, an Ann Arbor liberal first elected in 1994. Democratic leaders urged Rivers to run in the neighboring 11th District, but she declined. Rivers campaigned as someone who understood the problems of ordinary people, while Dingell campaigned as a veteran congressman who had gotten things done. Dingell posed the question to audiences: “Are you going to replace one of the most effective members of the House of Representatives with one of the least effective members?” Rivers emphasized their differences on abortion rights and gun control. Dingell parried by pointing to the women’s issues he had worked on—breast and cervical cancer screening, minimum hospital stays after childbirth, and children’s health insurance. This was Michigan’s most expensive House primary ever. Dingell spent $2.5 million against Rivers, while she raised $1.5 million. Earning Dingell’s everlasting enmity, Pelosi stepped in to support Rivers. In the August primary, Dingell won 59%-41%. He won 74%-26% in Wayne County, which cast 43% of the votes, even though part of it was in Rivers’s old district, and 80%-20% in Monroe County, which cast 19% of the votes. Rivers won Washtenaw County 69%-31%. In the general election, Dingell won easily in this solidly Democratic district.
Given his health and the loss of his chairmanship, there was speculation in 2009 that Dingell would give up the seat and that his wife might seek to replace him. But Dingell insisted that he first wanted to help Obama enact legislation on which he—and his father—had worked for decades. “I creak a little more each year,” he once said. “But I keep going. … I will burn out when I burn out. I don’t know when the hell it will come. It probably will come in time. But I still give my people a full day’s work. I still give them seven days a week. I still travel the district. I still work hard on legislation.”