Dingells' marital, political partnership makes impact in Michigan and D.C.
John Dingell's death ends a high-powered marital and political partnership whose influence was felt in union halls, corporate boardrooms and the corridors of Congress for more than three decades.
The longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history was succeeded by his wife, Debbie Dingell, in 2015. They were attentive companions at public events and parades. At home in Dearborn, they were confidants on policy and politics.
“I don't do many things without talking to her,” he said in 2013. “And she doesn't do many things without talking to me.”
A prime example was her decision in 2013 not to run for the U.S. Senate when Democrat Carl Levin of Detroit announced he was retiring.
Instead, she ended up campaigning for her husband’s 12th District seat, which spans parts of Wayne and Washtenaw counties, after he decided to retire.
“I’ve never told my wife what to do," John Dingell said in 2013. “And she's never told me what to do. But we talk about it. ... She came to her own conclusion.”
Dingell was known as a bulldog when grilling congressional witnesses, but he softened when it came to “the lovely Deborah.”
“She’s more beautiful than the spring,” he said.
In healthier times, a mischievous Dingell once startled reporters by saying when he retired, he’d spend his last days chasing her around the bedroom.
Debbie Dingell was previously a Democratic Party leader, the former chairwoman of the Wayne State Board of Governors and a former longtime General Motors executive. She was a Republican who switched to the other party when she married John in 1981.
“They are two powerful people,” Democratic Rep. Sander Levin of Royal Oak said in 2013. “Each has had their own forum. ... They've worked together, but they've also worked in their own environment in their own purposes.”
But the unlikely courtship wouldn’t have happened without Dingell’s persistence.
They met on a flight between Washington and Detroitin 1977.
Deborah Insley was in her 20s working as a GM legislative analyst and dining every Friday night with a group of Jesuit priests.
Dingell was in his 50s, divorced, with four children and a leader of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee.
She was afraid of flying, but it was her seatmate who kept her calm on the bumpy flight. Afterward, Dingell called her at least 15 times for a date. She kept turning him down — hesitant about differences in age and position, and his past marriage.
Then, Dingell called with tickets to a ballet, "Giselle." “That is how he got me to say yes. I love the ballet,” she said.
Dingell recalled that first date in his 2018 book:
"My memories of that June night are of the stunning woman who sat next to me and of the weather. It was the sort of gorgeous summer night that's perfect for romance," Dingell wrote.
"I can't tell you a damned thing about the ballet itself. It wasn't important. All that mattered was watching her blue eyes, wide with delight."
Not long after they started dating, she was mugged and her keys stolen, then her back door smashed in a week later. Shaken, she called Dingell, who came over, sealed up the door and sat on a chair in the living room with a pistol in his lap.
"We ended up talking all night, about our dreams and our fears, our hopes and our wants — everything that mattered," he wrote in his book.
"Just before sunrise, I kissed her goodbye and told her, 'I'm going to come back to you in about a week or 10 days, and I'm going to ask you a question, and I hope you will say yes.'"
The couple married May 15, 1981. After three decades, John Dingell said in 2013 that his bride was “the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
“I've never seen a couple closer than John and Debbie Dingell,” said U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing.
On Friday, Debbie Dingell posted on social media:
"To all our friends. My heart is broken. My true love is gone. The tears are flowing pretty freely as I miss the man that made me whole. One can know it is coming, but nothing prepares you for the hole in your heart. He was my one and only true love. Know he loved everyone of you And was proud to call you friend. D2"
Contributions by Staff Writer Melissa Nann Burke as well as Marisa Schultz and David Shepardson, former Detroit News staff writers.