"I don't want to live in a bubble."
Debbie Dingell on why she warned Trump could win - and thinks Parkland could be a turning point.
From the May, 2018 issue
Speaking at Pioneer High at the March for Our Lives demonstration organized in the wake of the school shootings in Parkland, Florida, Debbie Dingell bellows, "I have been told that the NRA considers me one of their worst enemies. And you know what? I'm proud of that!"
A diminutive sixty-four-year-old, Dingell has represented Ann Arbor in Congress since 2015, when her husband, John Dingell Jr., retired after holding the seat for nearly sixty years. She's continued his tireless constituent service and passionate support for national health insurance--a plan first introduced by John Dingell Sr., her husband's father and predecessor.
But the couple is divided on guns. An enthusiastic hunter, John Dingell had an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association and served on the group's board of directors. But not long after taking office, Debbie Dingell joined other Democrats in an overnight sit-in on the House floor. Spurred by the Orlando nightclub shootings that left forty-nine dead, they were calling for a vote on a bill that would have prevented people on the federal do-not-fly list from buying guns.
In a midnight speech, Dingell shared a personal testimony. Growing up, "I lived in a house with a man that should not have had access to a gun," she said. "And I know what it's like to see a gun pointed at you and wonder if you are going to live. And I know what it's like to hide in a closet and pray to God, 'Do not let anything happen to me.'"
Her father, David Insley, was a gun collector with a prescription drug habit. Before his death, he told the New York Times that he didn't recall brandishing weapons--but admitted he "hadn't done a very good job of parenting around guns."
Despite their fights, her parents "stayed together because in those days you stayed together," Dingell says in an interview at the Huron Valley PACE senior services center on Ellsworth, where she's just taken part in a
symbolic groundbreaking. As always, she's dressed beautifully: a gold and black scarf with a stark black sweater and skirt. Asked if she works out, she answers, "I run in airports."
She says her emotional speech on the House floor was unplanned. Though she and her sister talk about those terrifying childhood memories, she says, it's very difficult to speak of them publicly. Her mother, now in her eighties, follows the news about her and "it's a time she wants to forget. It's a time we want to forget, too."
The Republican-controlled House adjourned the next day without voting on the no-fly bill. Two subsequent bills that Dingell cosponsored--one to keep people convicted of stalking or domestic violence against dating partners from buying guns, another to ban sales of assault weapons--also remain in limbo.
Despite such frustrations, Dingell--herself a onetime Republican--is emphatic about the need for "crossing lines" by engaging in bipartisan discussion. But recently, while she was drinking coffee at a Starbucks with a group of Tea Party constituents, "a World War II veteran came to me and started screaming to me," she says, telling her, "You need to resign and get out of the way and let Donald Trump save this country!"
As the country's political divisions deepen, has she ever feared for her life? "I didn't until this year," she says.
Dingell is usually up by 6 a.m. and is often the first to arrive at her office. When not in D.C. she's visiting, speaking to and listening to her more than 700,000 constituents--the diverse Twelfth District encompasses Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Dearborn, and Detroit's downriver suburbs. Ann Arbor mayor Christopher Taylor praises her and her staff for being accessible and smart, for instance in the long-running project of trying to get a new rail station built. When Ypsilanti residents complained about terrible postal delivery, Dingell organized a town hall meeting that drew a crowd of 300.
Dingell's maternal grandfather was one of the Fisher brothers, who built car bodies for General Motors. Raised in upscale Detroit suburbs and educated at Catholic schools, she's aware of the isolation that privilege can bring, and consciously rejected it.
"I don't want to live in a bubble," she stresses. "I want people to be able to talk to me ... I don't want someone trying to filter what the truth is to me." That's why she does her own grocery shopping, usually at the same Kroger, every weekend. "If I'm not there, people are like 'I didn't see you last week.'"
Long before Donald Trump's upset victory, she grew nervous about the lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton among union members in her district. At the time, she recalls, "I tried to hit a union hall every week." But her fellow Democrats ignored her warnings. "For two years I said that Donald Trump could win and that this state could go Republican," she says. "And everybody thought I was certifiable!"
She had access--"I could talk to Hillary"--but was largely shut out of the campaign. She says that when she told then-vice president Joe Biden he was needed in Michigan, he told her, "I go where the campaign sends me."
"They had a group of people who thought they knew how to win," she says, "and forgot about old-fashioned politics."
Dingell is running for reelection this year. It's seen as a safe Democratic seat, but especially after Trump's victory, she's taking nothing for granted.
After the State of the Union speech in January, Dingell issued a press release that read, "I will work with the President when I can and fight him when I have to." The release showed a photo of Dingell with her guest at the speech: Cindy Garcia, a UAW member whose husband, Jorge, was a "Dreamer." He'd lived in America since he was ten, but the Trump administration deported him to Mexico. Dingell tried to prevent the deportation, but could only delay it.
Dingell credits her determination to the nuns who ran the Academy of the Sacred Heart in suburban Detroit. They took the students into Detroit to tutor the week after the 1967 riots and to Grosse Pointe to hear Martin Luther King Jr. call for housing desegregation--a controversial topic in that wealthy, white, conservative city. "I can still recall the hatred in the room," Dingell says. "The Reverend Mother pointed to the back of the room and warned 'If I tell you to run, you run.'"
"The nuns taught me to stand up for what's right," Dingell says. "They taught me the importance of action!"
A graduate of Georgetown (bachelor's and master's, both in foreign affairs), Dingell spent most of her career at General Motors. She worked as a legislative aide and lobbyist before joining the GM Foundation, where she rose to be president. She's a former trustee of Wayne State University and has served on many boards and committees, particularly those dealing with health issues.
She met her future husband on a flight to D.C. Divorced and raising four children on his own, John Dingell held a position of great power as chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee--and enjoys telling that he had to ask her for a date about fifteen times before she accepted. They married in 1981, when he was fifty-five and she twenty-seven.
Guns aren't the only issue on which her personal life informs her politics--the opioid crisis is another. Her youngest sister, Mary Grace, suffered from depression and, like their father, became addicted to prescription drugs. A dozen years ago, she died of an overdose at age forty-three. "We loved our baby sister," says Dingell.
When the #MeToo movement caught fire, Dingell revealed that in Washington she'd been groped by a "historical figure" and subjected to aggressive advances by a former U.S. senator (she's never named either man). She tells me she also was "stalked" by a male boss when she first worked at the GM Foundation. "I went to get help from GM. I was told 'the fourteenth floor [where top executives worked] likes him. Put up with it or leave.'
"#MeToo is making it OK for people to talk about what's happened to them," she says. "I continue to say it's not real until it's real for the waitress, the factory floor worker, the law partner."
Some Democrats question her willingness to work with Republicans--she speaks to Mark Meadows, who heads the conservative House Freedom Caucus, every week. Asked about the criticism, Dingell looks impatient. "I've made it really clear that you've got to respect each other and be civil, but that if somebody tries to do something that is against my values, or is wrong, they will meet a buzz saw like one they've never seen."
After the Parkland shootings, Dingell and western Michigan Republican Fred Upton convened a bipartisan working group on gun safety. Does she think the outcome on gun safety could be different this time?
"I think our young people are going to be the answer as to whether this is a turning point or not," she says. "They're 25 percent of our population, 100 percent of our future.
Dingell now tries to get into a school every week. If students "stay out in front," she says, "if they keep making their voices heard in many different ways, I actually think this can be the tipping point."
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