Dingell (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)
When local Democratic leaders huddled Thursday night at a Downriver UAW hall, they prepared for what has been the norm for more than a half century: supporting John Dingell’s run for Congress.
Dingell has been the voice for southeast Michigan in Washington since his congressman father died in 1955; the Dearborn Democrat hasn’t lost any of his 29 re-elections since.
Yet, as 12th District Democratic leaders met at the Taylor union hall, there was an undertone of uncertainty as to whether their candidate would seek re-election, said Gregory Mahar, president of the Brownstown Democratic Club and a former Dingell staffer.
“The underlying thing was: ‘What’s John going to do?’ ” Mahar said. “Everybody wants him to run again.”
Dingell, 87, broke the record last year as the longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history. Known as the “dean” of the House, Dingell is regarded as a legislative giant not only for his longevity but for the landmark pieces of legislation he’s written or pushed through, including Medicare, the Clean Air Act and the Affordable Care Act.
In recent years, the congressman has been slowed by knee and hip surgeries and a bad back. Dingell, one of only two remaining World War II veterans in the House, said last year he would continue to run for office as long as there was work he could do honorably.
Luring Dingell to stay is an opportunity to regain his position as the top Democrat on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, since ranking member Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., has decided to retire. Dingell had chaired or been the ranking Democrat on the committee since 1981, until Waxman successfully challenged him in 2008 in a dramatic intra-party clash.
Dingell also is motivated to see a successful implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which he has championed, and continued growth of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, his signature conservation project.
“He’s making plans for the dedication of the visitors’ center a year from now,” said refuge manager John Hartig, who says Dingell calls him weekly about the refuge’s progress. “He wants to see the refuge grow.”
But with age taking its toll on his mobility, Dingell and wife Debbie are considering whether it’s time for his retirement. “Rep. Dingell is still making up his mind and considering his future plans,” spokesman Christopher Schuler said, “just as he does every single election year.”
“I’m going to get out when the time comes,” Dingell told The Detroit News last May. “I’ll know. And (wife) Deborah will know it. And we will do what we have done every year since I came here. Every year, late in February we start talking about do we want to go another two years. And why do we want to go another two years. Is the argument stronger for us going there or stronger for getting the hell out? And so far, it’s been stay around.”
Wife might step in
If Dingell decides to retire, local Democrats anticipate Debbie Dingell will run for her husband’s seat that includes parts of Wayne and Washtenaw counties and Downriver Detroit.
Debbie Dingell is chairwoman of Wayne State’s Board of Governors, a member of the Democratic National Committee and a staple with her husband at the myriad community events they attend.
“No one has served the people of Michigan with more dignity in public office than John Dingell,” said Joe DiSano, a Democratic political consultant in Lansing. “Replacing him is no easy task. Debbie Dingell is by far the most accomplished and experienced candidate to continue the tradition of public service.”
Another potential candidate is state Sen. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, who represents Washtenaw County. She declined to comment for this article.
On the Republican side, Terry Bowman, a UAW member and founder of Union Conservatives, is considering a run in the 12th District regardless of which Dingell may be on the ballot.
“I think she is so closely tied to his office that as an opponent I would be running the same campaign whether it would be against John or Debbie,” said Bowman of Ypsilanti.
Candidates for Congress have until April 22 to submit at least 1,000 petition signatures to make the ballot.
Dingell is raising money like a candidate for re-election. He ended the year with $331,366 in cash in his campaign war chest, compared to $281,770 at the same point in the last election cycle.
No signs of slowing down
Local Democratic leaders say Dingell continues to keep the schedule of a candidate, attending Christmas parties, the North American International Auto Show, local events and Democratic meetings. Many expressed shock at the prospect of Dingell even considering retirement since he’s remained so engaged.
“He’s truly ... a public servant and a gentleman,” said Fran Brennan, leader of the Washtenaw County Democrats. She said Dingell mentioned at a Democratic meeting late last year he’s planning for another term and she has no reason to believe he’s changed course. “By the way he’s attending meetings and always available and (staying) active and engaged, my feeling is he’s planning on running again,” Brennan said.
Dingell will speak Feb. 24 at the Southern Wayne County Regional Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Southgate, where some supporters believe he may reveal his intentions. Dingell typically makes up his mind within the first quarter of each election year after consulting with Debbie, so an announcement is likely soon.
Richard Miller, president of the Wyandotte Democratic Club, would be shocked if Dingell decides to bow out.
“His brain is always working very hard and he’s always got new ideas,” said Miller, who last spent time with Dingell at a Christmas party in Taylor. “It’s hard for him to move real fast ... but that mind is 100 percent. He’s not done by a long shot.”