More Than a Wife

04.25.13

Debbie Dingell On Passing Up Senate Race After Sexist Attacks

Congressional wife Debbie Dingell is a Beltway operator. She tells Lauren Ashburn why she skipped out on a Michigan Senate race to replace Carl Levin amid a strong whiff of sexism.

Debbie Dingell’s average day is a dizzying lesson in multitasking. She’s president of D2 Strategies, consultant to the American Automobile Policy Council, board member for several nonprofits and Wayne State University, and a frequent television guest. Not to mention, she’s a major power player in Michigan’s Democratic Party, a national committeewoman, and a former lobbyist who ran the General Motors foundation.

Yet when she actively considered running for the Senate seat being vacated by Carl Levin, she was painted as having done just one noteworthy thing in her life: Marrying John Dingell, the state’s veteran congressman.

“Women are not appreciated for having their own brain, own contributions, own accomplishments,” Dingell, 58, tells me. “It infuriates me because I have decades of accomplishment.”

Double standards for women are alive and well in both parties, as Dingell learned firsthand. The blog Michiganliberal.com noted that while she has tirelessly helped other candidates, Dingell “has a reputation for high-handed, autocratic tendencies.”

“You’d think that 30 years later it wouldn’t be ‘a man is effective and a woman is a bitch,’” Dingell said. “I thought maybe we had advanced. We hadn’t.”

Yet the lack of respect wasn’t the reason she decided not to run. Nor was the competition. Dingell came out five points ahead of Rep. Gary Peters in a recent poll for the Detroit News. In a statement last week, Dingell said the primary would have been difficult, expensive, and divisive, possibly handing the seat to a Republican. She also knew two years on the road would take a toll on her personal life.

While exploring the opportunity, Dingell got a glimpse of what the campaign would have in store for her, and it wasn’t pretty. Aside from painting her as an inexperienced woman, those trying to tank her position didn’t hesitate to attack her position on gun control.

In a Washington Post op-ed published days after the December Newtown shootings, Dingell wrote of growing up with a father who had depression and almost shot her mother in one of their many ugly fights:

“I locked my brother and sisters in a bedroom and pushed a bed against the door. My father broke in, took the door off the hinges and pulled the phone from the wall. He took the knobs off all the doors, so we could not get out and no one could get in.”

Dingell noted that her husband is a former board member of the National Rifle Association and that she respects the importance of the right to own guns.

She says her message, published well before the Senate vote on background checks, was designed to “change the conversation” to include mental health issues. Dingell’s detractors called her a “friend of the NRA,” to quote the Michigan Liberal blog—a claim she denies.

“I already know my relationships with some people will never be the same,” she tells me.

“You’d think that 30 years later it wouldn’t be ‘a man is effective and a woman is a bitch.’”

Dingell is not a stranger to disappointment. Despite her hard-charging work and social schedule—recently attending, on the same night, a preview to D.C.’s famed Fight Night at chi-chi Georgetown restaurant Café Milano and a birthday party on Capitol Hill for two congressmen—her greatest disappointment is her inability to have children. “I still get teary 20 years later,” she says. “But I’m a great aunt to everyone.”

She remains grateful she met John Dingell in 1981 on a plane from Michigan to D.C.; she now says that route is symbolic of their marriage. He asked her out 15 times before she said yes. After dating for 10 months, John Dingell proposed. At the time, he was quoted as saying, “I told her every damn thing that was bad about me…I wanted her to know what she was getting into.” To this day, Debbie is glad she made the leap: “I feel lucky every single day to learn from his wisdom, strength, and experience.”

One of her projects is pulling together information for her husband’s upcoming all-time public service award. In June, the 86-year-old Dingell will become the longest-running member of Congress—a fact she doesn’t like to talk about out of “superstition.”

For now, Dingell is making it her mission to help other women reach the top in politics. She rattles off figures highlighting the paucity of female leadership at all levels in Michigan, from the state Senate (four of 38) to mayor (none in the top 10 cities), and has vowed to change the numbers. She talks about “making our communities better,” and if that makes her sound like a politician, it’s no accident. Dingell isn’t ruling out a time when running for office is “the right choice” for her.