Dingell challenger touts progressive ideals in Democratic primary battle

An Ypsilanti-area medical student is challenging Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell of Dearborn in the Aug. 4 primary in Michigan, where a Dingell has served in Congress since 1933. 

Solomon Rajput, 28, is boosting his name on claims that he's more progressive than Dingell, more representative of the Muslim community in the 12th District and more in tune with everyday people who aren't "political royalty," as he describes Dingell.

"Congresswoman Dingell is a perfectly nice person. But this is a progressive district, and she's not a progressive," Rajput said. "We need somebody who's going to represent the values of this district in an unapologetic way."

Dingell, 66, is a universal health care advocate who is defending her environmental record, her representation of all constituents within her district and her own work in politics independent of her late husband, John. 

"I had thought by this generation we would see men who respected women for what they’ve accomplished on their own," the third-term lawmaker said. "I am offended by a man who says I haven’t earned what I’ve gotten in my life.”

Solomon Rajput is running in the District 12 Democratic primary for the U.S. House against Debbie Dingell. He is 27-year-old medical student at the University of Michigan.

For all his enthusiasm, Rajput faces an uphill battle to defeat Dingell in the solidly Democratic district, which spans parts of Wayne and Washtenaw counties. Dingell has raised $1.1 million this cycle and has roughly $495,000 on hand while Rajput has received about $116,000, with less than $39,500 in the bank as of July 15. 

But Rajput is one of just four candidates in the last two decades to challenge a Dingell in the Democratic primary. 

The area was previously represented for a record-setting 59 years by Dingell's late husband, John Dingell Jr., whose father represented southeast Michigan in the House before before him. 

Dingell's name is well-known not just because of her husband but as a result of hours of time she puts in among her constituents and in her district, said Mario Morrow, a Detroit-based political analyst and consultant. 

"I don’t think the woman sleeps," Morrow said. "She is in a strong political family, but she earned her right to be there. The voters put her there. And overwhelmingly the voters want her to stay there.”

Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich, speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019.

Still, Dingell is taking the race seriously by participating in frequent virtual campaign events, forums and debates and earning endorsements from big-name Michigan  Democrats such as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and progressive colleague U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit. 

Since progressive newcomers have upset Democratic incumbents in New York and other states, the effort is warranted, if not overly cautious, Morrow noted. 

"The folks that the most popular elected progressives ran against spent more time in Washington than they did in their districts," he said. "Debbie Dingell spends a hell of a lot of time in her district.”

Grassroots startup

The race is Rajput's first run for office. The son of Pakistani immigrants, he was born in California, raised in Ann Arbor and now lives in Superior Township. He is taking a leave between his second and third years at the University of Michigan Medical School to campaign. 

"I’m running for Congress because we are done waiting on our politicians to act, especially in areas that I care about tremendously, namely climate change, health care, Medicare for All, making college free for all, eliminating student debt, getting big money out of our political system and racial justice," he said.

Like Bernie Sanders, whom he supported in the presidential primary, Rajput identifies as a democratic socialist. 

After Sanders lost in 2016, Rajput worked as a field organizer for Hillary Clinton's campaign and later started the grassroots group Michigan Resistance, which hosts "calling parties" to phone lawmakers in an effort to kill "bad" bills in the Legislature. 

Rajput criticizes Dingell for not endorsing the Green New Deal, not supporting free college and for taking corporate political action committee money.

Dingell said she didn't support the Green New Deal because of the impact it likely would have had on manufacturing jobs in the district. She's working to incorporate the voice of unions in the plans and, separately, has helped battle the Gelman dioxane plume in Ann Arbor and per- and polyflouralkyl contamination throughout the state. 

"Labor unions that represent jobs in my state were not at the table," Dingell said of the Green New Deal. "I’m not about talking points. I’m about delivery. And delivery means bringing together the people who will actually get it done.”

Dingell is concerned about student debt but has said she doesn’t think taxpayers need to pay for the schooling of Warren Buffett’s grandchildren.

“I think the rich should pay their fair share, and I support the College Affordability Act,” she said during a virtual debate this month, adding there should be incentives for states to provide free, two-year college.

Rajput does credit Dingell for her Medicare for All legislation but said he is worried about the influence of donations she's accepted from Blue Cross Blue Shield. 

All of the contributions were legal and transparent, Dingell said, and none have swayed her determination to back Medicare for All. 

"I don’t owe anybody anything, and you can look at my voting record and know that," Dingell said. "Everyone knows what I stand for, and I’m bound and determined to get this done.”

Dingell's experience

A former executive at General Motors, Dingell left the company in 2009 after 32 years to work as a consultant for the American Automobile Policy Council. 

She married John Dingell Jr. in 1981, shortly afterward becoming a Democrat. John, the longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history, had succeeded his father, also called John Dingell, who served in the House from 1933 until his death in 1955.

When her husband decided to retire, Debbie Dingell campaigned for his seat in the 12th District. She won in 2014 with 65% of the vote.

But long before her election, Dingell was a respected player in Democratic circles, serving as a member of the Democratic National Committee, chairing Vice President Al Gore's Michigan presidential campaign in 2000 and helping John Kerry win the state presidential primary in 2004. 

She sits on the influential Energy and Commerce Committee and in 2018 House Democrats picked her to help lead their caucus’ messaging arm as co-chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.

For years, Dingell has been a "pragmatic" politician who works across the aisle but also stands firmly behind her Democratic beliefs — qualities with which the 12th District appears to agree, said David Dulio, a political science professor at Oakland University.

"She’s got a good read on the district and not only the politics of it but the policies that fit it,” Dulio said. 

Rajput said the Democratic "establishment" is not happy he's running. 

"They're going to support a dynastic family that they don't want to upset or because they're scared of her. That's been our experience," he said. "It doesn't matter because ultimately the most important endorsement is the one of the people."

Fluke upsets in once-safe districts for Democratic incumbents are bound to keep Dingell on her toes.  

In 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated 10-term incumbent U.S. Rep Joe Crowley in New York on the charge that he'd lost touch with his district. Earlier this month, Jamaal Bowman beat Democratic U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel in a neighboring New York primary on the same premise. 

While there are places a progressive outsider might have a shot at knocking off another incumbent, it doesn't seem to be the case in Michigan's 12th, said Bill Ballenger, a former GOP state lawmaker and author of the Ballenger Report. 

"Debbie Dingell is not going to take a challenge like this lightly," Ballenger said. "She’s going to be on her guard, and she’s going to fight back.”

Bipartisanship a 'myth'?

Despite her moderate leanings, Dingell has been endorsed by the chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and progressive figures like Tlaib and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel. 

She has prioritized health care, the Great Lakes, gun reform and domestic violence, among other issues in office and emphasizes the need for civility in politics, regularly working across the aisle through the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. 

Rajput implied that's a waste of time because the bipartisan narrative is a “total myth." He suggested lawmakers like to claim bipartisanship publicly but never achieve significant change by it. 

"Nobody who is talking about bipartisanship can in recent history point to any meaningful piece of legislation that made a meaningful difference in Americans' lives — that wasn't just a marginal noodling around the edges kind of change that like most people wouldn't realize actually took place," Rajput said. 

Dingell said his opposition to working across the aisle is short-sighted and doesn't reflect the diverse populations within the district.

She has worked with members of Michigan's GOP delegation to expand funding for the Great Lakes and worked with GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder to expand Medicaid in Michigan. 

"When you get elected, you don’t have the luxury of just talking to or represent the people who like you," Dingell said. "We're not Republicans or Democrats in this country. We're Americans."

Rajput, who is Muslim, said he would be the first Pakistani-American member of Congress, if elected. The district has never been represented by a Muslim, despite being home to the largest Arab population in the country. 

Dingell stressed her strong relationship with the Muslim community, ticking off endorsements from the Yemeni American News, the Arab American News and the Arab American Political Action Committee.

Last week, she presided over House debate on legislation she sponsored to repeal President Donald Trump's executive order blocking travel from majority Muslim countries.

"I have lived in Dearborn for 25 years," Dingell said. "They are my neighbors and my family. I am not afraid to stand up for them, and there is a reason that every Arab-American group endorsed me for re-election.”

Rajput has not endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, saying he finds many of his policy stances "inadequate for the crises that we're facing in this present moment."

Though he plans to vote for Biden, Rajput would not say whether he plans to campaign for him ahead of the November election. 

"We're just really focused on the primary at the moment. In terms of campaigning for him, that's something that I would really think about after the primaries because it'll really depend on if I win or lose," he said. 

Dingell stayed neutral in the Democratic presidential primary, vowing to support the candidate her district did after the turmoil that followed the 2016 primary fight. In March, the district supported Biden.

There's too much on the line to withhold support for the Democratic nominee at this point in the race, Dingell said. 

One of the lone voices to warn Democrats of Trump's surprise victory in 2016, Dingell has sounded similar alarms in 2020, if only to ensure the state is won by a large margin so as to ensure the integrity of the election and sidestep allegations of voter fraud. 

"There’s too much at stake to not all be working in the same direction," Dingell said.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) watches election results with the public at the Democratic party election night event at the MGM Grand casino in Detroit on  November 8, 2016.