A master of the legislative process, a relentless fighter for the underdog, a giant in public service, and a legend in Congress.
All these and more can be said of the late Congressman John Dingell.
But for me, he will always be defined by the first time I met him in 2011.
Even after serving in the Rhode Island General Assembly and then for two terms as mayor of Providence, I knew that I had much to learn when I entered Congress eight years ago.
Getting up to speed on motions to recommit and previous questions was one thing. Finding my place among legislators who had served in this chamber for decades was quite another.
During one of our first votes, I approached the longest-serving member of the chamber with a question.
“Mr. Dingell,” I faltered.
Immediately sensing my apprehension, he shook my hand and smiled.
“David,” the dean of the House replied. “I’m John to you.”
In that moment, with just four words, this colossal figure of American politics put his freshman colleague at ease.
I only served with Congressman Dingell for four years. He left the House in 2015, bemoaning the hostility and polarization that had come to define the chamber he first joined in the 1950s.
But in the past few days, speaking with colleagues who knew him much better and longer than I, the same things have been said over and over again.
John Dingell was the ideal for what a public servant should be. Unflinching in his commitment to his beliefs. Unwavering in his devotion to the Southeast Michigan community he called home.
A fierce fighter for access to quality, affordable health care who voted to pass Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program into law, who wielded the gavel as the House voted to pass Medicare into law in 1965, and who later lent that same gavel to Speaker Nancy Pelosi as she presided more than four decades later as the House passed the Affordable Care Act.
A progressive lion who, for every term he served in office, introduced legislation to establish a national single-payer health care system—a fight that continues today in the effort to pass Medicare for All.
And above all else, a consummate gentleman. The type of man who never forgot where he came from, and who always treated everyone— whether a freshman congressman from Rhode Island, an autoworker from Dearborn, or a president of the United States—with honesty, grace, and dignity.
His retirement from public service was a loss for this institution. His death this past week is a loss for our entire country.
It is a comfort to me, however, that his legacy will continue through the service of his beloved wife and my wonderful colleague, Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, who was elected to succeed her husband following his retirement.
And as we grieve the loss of our friend today, I know that all of us who serve in Congress are grateful that Debbie will continue the fight that John waged for so long.
John, thank you for your service and for all you accomplished for our nation. Thank you for setting an example of what a public servant should be.
And thank you for the kindness you showed a freshman congressman from Rhode Island eight years ago.
Goodbye, my friend. Rest in peace.
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) is the congressman for Rhode Island's First Congressional District. He has been in office since 2011. Prior to then he was mayor of Providence, Rhode Island.