February 24, 2014 at 1:00 am

Debbie Dingell expected to run for husband's congressional seat

John and Debbie Dingell: a political partnership
John and Debbie Dingell: a political partnership: Rep. Dingell and Sen. Debbie Stabenow talk about the couple

Rep. John Dingell’s Monday retirement announcement has presented a rare congressional opening for younger party members in the Democrat-heavy district, where wife Debbie Dingell is considered the frontrunner for a seat that is seen as unwinnable for Republicans.

House Democratic aides and Michigan political figures said Monday that Debbie Dingell, 60, a Democratic power broker and chairwoman of the Wayne State University Board of Governors, has been having preliminary conversations about running for her husband’s seat in Michigan’s 12th Congressional District. The Cook Political Report said she is an early frontrunner if she runs in the district that covers parts of Wayne and Washtenaw counties.

“She would be the prohibitive favorite in the race,” said Lansing-based political consultant T.J. Bucholz.

But some political analysts say Debbie Dingell should expect a contested primary.

“Though Debbie Dingell obviously has an incredible organizational base of support, she’s also made a lot of enemies,” said Bill Ballenger, associate editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter. “The idea that she’s going to be anointed, I tend to doubt that.”

A tight general election isn’t expected for the eventual Democratic nominee.

“Republicans don’t have a shot at this seat,” said Steve Mitchell, an East Lansing GOP political consultant and analyst.

Debbie Dingell said Monday she wouldn’t discuss her election plans. “Today, it’s all about him,” she said.

The timing of Dingell’s retirement is key as there’s less than two months for others to jump into the race, and Dingell remains in power to advocate for his successor.

“His love for her is enormous, and by stepping down now, he’s able to solidify her future,” Mitchell said.

Debbie Dingell is one of Michigan’s longtime representatives on the Democratic National Committee, a former president of the General Motors Foundation chair of the manufacturing Initiative of the American Automotive Policy Council, the trade group representing Detroit’s Big Three automakers. She decided in April not to run for the U.S. Senate to replace the retiring Carl Levin, D-Detroit, saying she wanted to avoid a costly primary with U.S. Rep. Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township.

She also has been active for decades in community events and fundraising, and has built a vast political network.

“... There are plenty of serving congressmen and women in this country who bring less to the table than Debbie Dingell does right now,” said Bucholz, arguing Debbie would make a strong member of Congress.

The 12th Congressional District became more Democratic after the 2012 redistricting, which shed the more moderate county of Monroe and added more of Downriver Detroit. The district starts in the Dingells’ hometown of Dearborn, then heads south through Downriver and west to Ann Arbor. President Barack Obama beat Republican Mitt Romney by 34 points in the new district in 2012.

Wayne County makes up about 62 percent of the voters in the district, compared with about 38 percent for Washtenaw County, home to state Sen. Rebekah Warren, a liberal woman in the Legislature who insiders argue could also make a strong congressional candidate.

Warren declined comment about her future plans and instead praised the congressman for his service.

“Today is about John Dingell,” she told The News.

But Ballenger calls Warren a “rising star” in the Legislature who has the choice of vying to ascend to Democratic leader in the state Senate or running for Congress.

“That will be the decision that everybody is looking for,” Ballenger said. “... If Rebekah Warren doesn’t run, the real question is: Who could beat her?”

Former U.S. Rep. Lynn Rivers, D-Ann Arbor, who lost against Dingell in a 2002 redistricting battle, said she’s not interested in the seat.

“I’ve gotten fairly old, fat and contented,” said Rivers, who teaches at University of Michigan and Washtenaw Community College. “There are so many young people coming up in the Democratic Party that I don’t feel the need to jump back into that.”

The divide between the Wayne and Washtenaw portions of the district may be factor in drawing Democratic challengers, Rivers said. “This is a heavily Democratic seat,” she added, “and I would expect lots of Democrats to come out and play.”

Candidates for Congress have until April 22 to submit at least 1,000 petition signatures to make the ballot for the Aug. 5 primary.

Asked Monday who might be his successor, Dingell brought up his wife at the Southgate luncheon. Debbie hasn’t made any announcement, he said, and it’s up to her.

“But if she runs — the lovely Deborah — I will vote for her,” Dingell said, to laughter in the banquet hall.

Staff Writers David Shepardson and Steve Pardo contributed.
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The Dingells are considered a powerful political team. Debbie stresses bipartisanship on Michigan issues, like her husband, and has long organized Michigan's inaugural ball regardless of which party won the presidency. / Detroit News file