Debbie and John Dingell at the 2005 Memorial Day Parade in Dearborn. Their marriage blended their skills. (David Coates / The Detroit News)
WASHINGTON -- He was in his mid-50s, a blue-collar Democrat, divorced. She was in her 20s, a Bill Milliken moderate Republican who still had lunch with the nuns every Sunday.
"If you look at it intelligently," said Deborah Insley Dingell, "it's very hard to figure out how we got married."
And yet the unlikely pairing of John and Debbie Dingell has resulted in one of Washington's ultimate power couples, which each member's accomplishments are formidable individually, but where the presence of one evokes that of the other.
"I'm not sure there's another couple quite like them," said Sen. Carl Levin, who has worked with both on everything from the auto industry to Michigan's Democratic primary. "Each of them on their own is a powerhouse. ... And on the other hand, there's this real synergy between them."
John Dingell said there is "literally nothing where I've had troubles or problems that she has not helped."
Said his activist wife: "He's smart and wise and methodical. We balance each other."
It nearly didn't happen.
"She will tell you I asked her (out) 15 times," said Rep. Dingell. And she does. What broke the ice? He says it was when he helped fix a door after her home was broken into. She says it was when he asked her to the ballet.
She admits her concerns. They were from different parties. The age difference was substantial (he was born in 1926, she in 1954). He was divorced with four children. (One son from his first marriage, Christopher, is a Wayne Circuit Court judge and former state senator long mentioned as a potential successor.)
Even after the romantic hurdles were overcome, there were others. Before their 1981 marriage, they consulted with Washington super-lawyer Bob Bennett to make sure her work for General Motors -- she's a top communications exec and head of the company's charitable foundation -- wouldn't present a conflict of interest. She has not lobbied for GM since they were married, though that hasn't stopped the company's political foes from pointing out the relationship.
As he climbed the seniority ladder in Congress, she made a major impact in politics and philanthropy. Much of her work has centered on health care for women and children. She led the drive to build housing for children receiving treatment at the National Institutes of Health. She boosts a program that provides professional clothing and skills training for poor women seeking employment.
With Marlene Malek, the wife of Republican fundraiser and activist Fred Malek, Debbie Dingell hosts an annual luncheon that draws nearly every prominent professional woman in the city, from both parties.
"If she is on a board or heads an organization, she gives it her all," Malek said.
For the last two years, much of the focus has been on politics. Debbie Dingell, who is a member of the Democratic National Committee, and Levin teamed up to challenge Iowa and New Hampshire, which dominate early presidential voting.
After more twists and turn than a bad soap opera, Michigan's early primary counted -- sort of -- and the state's delegates were seated.
The social and political involvement, combined with her husband's work in Congress, gives the couple a unique perspective, Debbie Dingell said.
"It's the synergies of it. You can sit in a meeting and see the big picture and see total points of disconnect," she said.
"They're ubiquitous," Levin said of the Dingells.
"They're woven into the lives of their district and the state. ... Together, they're a huge amount of oomph and power."