Debbie Dingell quick to speak for herself in Congress

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) greets supporters during an open house at her office in the House Canon Office building on Capitol Hill on January 6, 2015 in Washington,

Last week, in her opening days as a freshman U.S. representative from the Dingell district, Debbie Dingell squashed the critical nattering that had hovered over her 2014 campaign.

That she'd be a voting clone of her titanic, cast-a-giant-shadow husband, John Dingell, who grew up in Congress as a page and retired as the chamber's longest serving member.

That she was a political novice with no qualifications for office, who had ridden her husband's coattails for decades.

In this way, she was no different from any political spouse — of either sex — who decides to run for office or seek public approval for themselves.

U.S. Rep. Dingell may have had a long history in public life, including jobs running the General Motors Foundation, Wayne State University trustee and chair of the Michigan Democratic Party.

But really, who knew what Mrs. Dingell, as she calls herself, would do as a legislator? As it turned out, nobody had to wait long. In the first few days of 2015, she broke ties with the substance of her husband's record the way Reese Witherspoon tosses her boot off a mountain cliff in "Wild."

He built his impossibly long political career on guns (he had an A rating from the National Rifle Association) and autos. That is, the congressman often sided with auto companies — and Republicans — who fought federal regulation.

Last week, his spouse-successor diverged on both issues, and struck out on her own.

At the Detroit auto show last week, she supported President Obama's tough rules gas mileage, without apology.

She locked herself in her office last Tuesday and personally wrote a letter to Gov. Rick Snyder, urging him to veto SB789, a gun bill that would have lifted virtually all restrictions on concealed weapons — and that could have enabled even those under court-ordered personal protection orders to obtain handguns.

Her staff wondered why she was inserting herself into a state issue that was hardly her job. But she says, "This issue is very personal to me." Although she's spoken about her family experience rarely, she made it clear to the governor that her own family had lived in terror.

In fact, she had once tried to knock a gun out of her father's hand, before barricading herself and her sisters in a locked bedroom. She once wrote, "When I was about to start eighth grade, my father almost shot my mother. It was another of their many ugly fights. I got between them — literally — and tried to grab the gun."

Snyder did veto the bill, and whether or not Dingell's voice mattered in the formulation of Snyder's decision, she put herself on record as a force willing to take on the National Rifle Association, if necessary, and her predecessor's long record as a staunch defender of the Second Amendment. (For the record, Sara Wurfel, Snyder's spokeswoman, said the governor received "heavy and steady" contact on the bill from all sources, and ultimately decided to veto it after weighing all sides.)

"I"m going to be me," she told me last week. "I'm going to tell the people the truth about what I believe."

But whether her decision to weigh in was strategic or personal or both, the most experienced freshman member of Congress put herself out there. And demonstrated that Debbie Dingell's political savvy would be her own brand.

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