From General Motors Exec to Beloved Anti-NAFTA Congresswoman
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she has a read on America that few others can boast.
By Nick Fouriezos
OZY first published this profile of Rep. Debbie Dingell in 2017. Her husband, John Dingell, who was the longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history, died February 7, 2019, at age 92. A funeral Mass was held Thursday in Washington, D.C.
Congresswoman Debbie Dingell is legendary for her fast feet. “She’s everywhere. Her energy just seems unbound,” says Jack O’Reilly, mayor of Dearborn, a city in her Michigan district where nearly half of the almost 100,000 residents are Muslim and many work at the Ford plant. “Prolific,” adds Helal A. Farhat, a former magistrate judge. In politics, such remarks should be taken skeptically, but they ring true after recently being Dingelled myself. Sent to the wrong Starbucks by a later-apologetic staffer, I show up late to a coffee chat with the Democrat’s more conservative constituents — and she’s long gone. “Already moving before I could catch her,” the staffer texts me.
By the end of her three-day break from Washington, Dingell will have raced across almost two dozen events in the 12th District, spanning diverse ideological and cultural backdrops from working-class Dearborn to Ann Arbor, a college town, and the Downriver, auto-and-union region south of Detroit. At each stop, constituents are met with hugs and an “I love you.” Matriarchal 63-year-old Dingell tells me when I finally catch up, “I don’t want to ever live in a bubble.” If she ever did, she popped it two years ago. In August 2015, she says, she smelled the future — she suspected, after talking to blue-collar constituents and hearing his tough talk against currency manipulation, that Donald J. Trump could indeed become president.
I like her a lot. The only thing I’ve ever told her is that she’s in the wrong party.
—Ron Weiser, Michigan GOP chair
Like Trump, Dingell has a reputation for straight talk: “They’re really scared,” she says of her union workers, “And I don’t bullshit them.” She penned an election postmortem in The Washington Post, castigating Democrats who “did not listen” to her concerns that farm-and-factory liberals had been ignored. Tellingly, some feel Dingell, a once-moderate Republican who converted after marriage, is still wasting her breath: “I like her a lot. The only thing I’ve ever told her is that she’s in the wrong party,” says Michigan GOP chair Ron Weiser.
Going forward, few Democrats are as tuned into the concerns of a diverse and evolving working class. And yet Dingell is also an old force in the capital. Her husband, John Dingell, was a key architect of the Affordable Care Act and retired after serving a congressional-record-setting 59 years. She ran for, and won, his seat in 2014. A former Al Gore campaign head in Michigan and a descendant of one of the founders of General Motors, she nonetheless manages to brand herself as a few steps away from the establishment. Last year she abdicated her Democratic National Committee seat. (It went to Michelle Deatrick, a Michigan progressive and Bernie campaigner.)
At a Teamsters 299 meeting in Detroit, Dingell promises to keep fighting for the truck drivers’ union pensions, which the Central State Pension Fund had suggested cutting by 60 to 70 percent last summer but are momentarily safe after a U.S. Treasury Department decision in their favor: “I don’t sleep at night, worried about it,” she chokes up — if it’s acting, it’s superb. Later, in the car, she hears a nearby Islamic community center has burned down. Minutes afterward, she rings the Detroit FBI director to talk the possibility of a hate crime. She had a viral moment last summer, speaking in Congress about the need for gun control after experiencing domestic violence in her home as a child.
Despite Weiser’s fandom, Dingell speaks and acts a social-justice language to make Democrats tingle. In 2015, she penned a letter to President Obama asking for American allies to limit civilian casualties in Yemen while also holding information sessions for Yemeni nationals applying for temporary protected status. Last year, she made a fuss over the mysterious death of a local Muslim Marine recruit, whose family she reminded Arab-American leaders to call in sympathy at a recent gathering: “They’re really having a hard time,” she said.
Yet Dingell has had few legislative victories since taking over for her husband. In early March, she spent hours marking up the American Health Care Act proposed by Republicans, decrying its “double whammy” for seniors — decreased Medicaid and a fivefold cost increase. But being in the minority party means playing defense. Her hands are similarly tied on Trump’s travel order, which bans new visas for immigrants coming from six Muslim-majority nations, including Yemen. Even though the Arab-American community “is happy with her,” says Sally Howell, the director of the Center for Arab American studies at the University of Michigan–Dearborn, a distrust in government trickles to her too: Residents fear reaching out to her office after passport snafus, believing that the FBI will arrive at their doors in the evening: “People recognize that a lot of it is out of her control, but they also want more,” Howell adds.
While other Democrats largely only back Trump on infrastructure investment, Dingell sees eye-to-eye with him on trade. She’s proposed renegotiating NAFTA, a major Trump campaign promise, with goals to create enforceable protections against currency manipulation, plus a requirement that 90 percent (rather than 62.5 percent) of product be made in North America before receiving duty-free treatment. The deal, which may favor American workers but threatens the supply chain that manufacturers like Ford, General Motors and Chevrolet use to get cheap parts from Mexico, marks an interesting moment for Dingell, who previously served as CEO of the General Motors Foundation. Constituents felt “she was supporting corporate America as the spouse of a congressman, but now that she’s in office, she is responding to people’s needs,” Howell says.
Dingell is on her way to a “resistance-planning meeting” when she finally pauses long enough to reflect, remarking that she hates the terminology. “It doesn’t bring you together,” she says, a concern more existential than theoretical for a woman whose district holds such varied concerns — a microcosm of the national electorate.