For Debbie Dingell, a life primed for politics

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Ann Stock as assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs. She stepped down from that position last year. This version has been corrected.

February 25

In 1977, John Dingell asked Deborah Ann Insley out on a date 15 times before she finally said yes.

Thirty-seven years later, she’s now Debbie Dingell, wife of the longest-serving member in the history of the House of Representatives, and known in Washington, D.C., and Michigan as having her hands in just about everything.

“She’s one of the better-connected women around, definitely,” says Marlene Malek, the wife of Republican super-aide Fred Malek.

It should serve her well. On Friday, Debbie Dingell plans to announce her candidacy for Congress, seeking the Michigan seat that her husband, a Democrat, has held for 59 years, as long as she has been alive — the seat to which he is not seeking reelection.

And as someone who has built up a network in D.C. and in her home state, it could just be one of the easier transitions to Congress.

“Everyone knows her, she knows the players, she knows how to get things done,” says Jack O’Reilly Jr., the mayor of Dearborn, Mich., which is in Rep. Dingell’s district. “It’s a great loss for us. . . . No one knows more about the federal government than [John Dingell]. But she’s been exposed to all that.”

Even before she has made her announcement, she already has major players in her corner. “Anyone who knows Debbie is dazzled by her intellect, her talent and her resolve to get the job done,” says Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “For the many years I have known her, she has been not only a working partner to her husband, the dean of the House, but a strong champion for the people of the state of Michigan.”

In one of her last acts as a political spouse rather than a political candidate, Dingell declined to comment, saying only, “It’s about John right now.”

Dingell was something of Michigan royalty before she ever met her husband. Her maternal grandfather and his brothers started Fisher Body, a manufacturer that General Motors bought in 1926. Nearly 50 years later, Debbie graduated from Georgetown University and joined GM as a legislative analyst before taking a job as a lobbyist in 1977. In an interview with People magazine in 1986, she said she used to buttonhole members of Congress about issues such as fuel efficiency but never did sit down with her future husband. “Because he intimidated me a little,” she said.

Though not too much. They wed in 1981, and she gave up her job as a lobbyist, because he was a powerful congressman and at one point chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

She stayed busy. She spent about 30 years at GM and ran Al Gore’s presidential campaign in Michigan.

In 2000, Al Kamen’s In the Loop column in The Washington Post made her a runner-up for one of that year’s Political Animal awards.

These days, when she is not doing commentary on Michigan television, she is attending board meetings for various nonprofits or hitting up the D.C. social scene.

Her boosters will say that she’s just as active, perhaps more so, in Michigan.

“She’s one of the only people I know who can really be two places at the same time,” says Anita Dunn, who has worked as a consultant on various campaigns for John Dingell.

Adds Ann Stock, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs: “Every time you see her, she has glasses on the top of her head and a pen in her hand ready to go to work. Seriously, look at every picture.”

The best way to see Dingell’s influence is to take a peek at the guest list of her annual women’s “friendship” luncheon held at the Ritz-Carlton. She started the bipartisan luncheon with Malek in the mid-1990s, in the midst of the Clinton/Gingrich showdowns. Back then, about 40 women showed up, but over the years the guest list has ballooned to more than 250. The point, Malek says, is for women in both parties — a combination of politicians, their spouses, business leaders, etc. — to get to know one another. There is no assigned seating; they pick their table numbers out of a bowl and therefore have the opportunity to meet new people. In a time where you can’t read a Hill newspaper without some reference to nostalgia for the old days when pols could be friendly after work, this is a throwback.

“I can tell you firsthand I have heard people say, ‘If political people could embrace each other or have that sense of camaraderie among themselves, it would be very helpful,’ ” said Catherine Reynolds, a philanthropist and now one of the co-hosts of the luncheon. “Any time you can sit and break bread with someone, I think you can begin to understand their perspective and open up a relationship or dialogue.”

The goal of such an event may just be to make friends, to seek comity in an otherwise divided city. But of course, it has the added benefit of building a network. In D.C., where connections are currency, Dingell may be one of the richest women in town.

Ben Terris is a writer in the Washington Post's Style section with a focus on national politics.
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