August 7, 2014 at 10:48 am

Laura Berman

Candidates might dispute notion that it helps to be female

There’s no official war on women, just a continuing snark campaign that’s apparent even when women candidates run — and win.

Tuesday’s primary added two almost-congresswomen to the Michigan delegation, but it also provided continuing evidence that women in politics are eking out victories, sometimes despite the political establishment that professes to want more women holding office.

Southfield Mayor Brenda Lawrence ultimately beat three men, including former Congressman Hansen Clarke and state Rep. Rudy Hobbs — a candidate backed by the state Democratic machine, from the political muscle of (U.S. Rep.) Sander and (U.S. Sen.) Carl Levin, to the UAW and other unions, to former Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Lawrence won anyhow, in part by appealing directly to women voters, and with help from Emily’s List, a Washington, D.C., group that supports pro-choice women candidates. It was a tough, three-way race that tested all the candidates.

Even so, after a Democratic Party breakfast Wednesday morning, an official came up to Lawrence and suggested that he’d supported the wrong candidate. “He said, ‘If there’s anything we can do, a massage, a foot rub, whatever ... ,’” recalls Greg Bowens, her communications director.

It was a joke, yes. But it was also the latest campaign revelation to Bowens, a former aide in Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer’s administration, whose stint with Lawrence is his first with a female candidate. Again and again, he saw her fending off stereotypes. “It did surprise me,” he says.

Debbie Dingell had the support of the male political establishment — and that, too, cut against her. Even on the morning of her victory, she was defending herself against a shadow — the long shadow cast by her powerful husband, retiring U.S. Rep. John Dingell — as viewed through the media’s lens.

On the morning following her triumph in the 12th Congressional District race, Fox 2 News teased readers with a headline proclaiming: “Debbie Dingell says she’s ready to stand on her own two feet.”

The dripping condescension of the headline is notable: It suggests the future congresswoman has been hobbling along for 60 years. That’s an impression interviewer Tim Skubick toyed with repeatedly during the Fox 2 interview, as he grilled her about whether her husband, Congressman John Dingell, would appear in a commercial for her before the general election. That wouldn’t happen, she said.

“So you don’t want your husband to endorse you?” he asked. It was good TV, perhaps, but you have to wonder whether a Dingell son would get the same treatment, especially on a victory morning.

Dynasty is an established phenomenon in American politics — see the Kennedy and Bush families — but Debbie Dingell is hardly a political wife newly vaulted into the public eye: She’s a fixture on the scene, a constant presence at funerals, forums and festivals, and half of a powerful political team.

What she’s not is an ingenue making her political debut.

Anne Doyle, who speaks around the world on women in politics, supported Lawrence and resents the suggestion that “being a woman helps” in a district that’s 60 percent female. “In this culture, it helps to be a man,” she said. “Look around you. She’s got years of experience, a track record, grass-roots support. It was all about credentials. Being a woman? That’s the cherry on the top.”
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Laura Berman’s column runs Tuesdays and Thursdays.