Debbie Dingell Poised To Keep U.S. House Seat In The Family

NPR icon by Liz Halloran
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Alex Brandon

Debbie Dingell is expected to announce Friday that she will run to succeed her husband, John Jr., for the southeast Michigan congressional seat that's been in the family since John Sr. was elected in 1933.

Though several news outlets reported her intentions, former Michigan state legislator Bill Ballenger of InsideMichiganPolitics.com retained a kernel of skepticism.

Ballenger, who has known Debbie, 60, for four decades, and John Jr., 87, even longer, says it was the 29-term congressman's own comments that raised a red flag.

"Deborah and I simply are coming home," John Dingell said Monday in Michigan when he announced his retirement.

But by Wednesday, that plan seemed more than up in the air. "I actually take these people seriously," Ballenger said. "That's my problem."

If she runs, Debbie Dingell, a former General Motors lobbyist turned Democratic Party activist and her husband's closest political aide, will begin as a prohibitive favorite.

With the prominent Democrat — she's a national party committee member — poised to keep Michigan's Democratic-oriented 12th Congressional District in the family, here are five things to know about the woman who has been a congressional spouse since 1981.

  1. The granddaughter of one of the Fisher brothers, who in 1908 began Fisher Body in Detroit, Debbie Dingell grew up in a wealthy Detroit suburb. Fisher built automobile bodies for customers that included Buick and Cadillac and made tanks and airplanes during both world wars. By the mid-1920s, its entire operation had become part of General Motors.
  2. Her position with General Motors and personal holdings in the company while her husband served in Congress had long been seen as one of Capitol Hill's most public conflicts of interest — and never more than during Congress' 2008-2009 bailout of GM and Chrysler. She ended up leaving GM after 32 years. "I was hoping to finally put this conflicts question behind me," she said in a 2010 Washington Post article.
  3. She tested the Senate waters last year when Michigan's longtime Democratic Sen. Carl Levin announced his plans to retire at the end of 2014. But Dingell, stung by a local liberal blog's criticism that she had "high-handed, autocratic tendencies," passed on the race. Her assertion that her critics were sexist, however, rang false in a state represented by Sen. Debbie Stabenow and where voters twice elected Jennifer Granholm governor.
  4. She runs at two speeds, fast and overdrive, and is known for her wardrobe of eyeglasses and her affinity for Diet Coke, according to those who know her. But it was fear of flying and a bumpy flight in the late 1970s that introduced her to a first-class-cabin seatmate, Rep. John Dingell Jr. The Washington Post reported that he asked her out 15 times before she said yes.
  5. Some of her biggest fans are some of Washington's biggest players, ranging from philanthropist Catherine Reynolds to former Obama White House Communications Director Anita Dunn.

Ballenger, the Michigan political analyst, says that Debbie Dingell would "pick up right where her husband left off" if elected to Congress, but perhaps with a sheen of bipartisanship.

"She was once a GM lobbyist, from a wealthy Grosse Pointe family, and was once a Republican," he said. "The interesting thing about her would be where she'd line up ideologically."

That is, if she runs. And if she wins, she'll usher in what DeadlineDetroit.com headlined "A Full Century of Dingellmania In The House."

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