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Obama, Dingell Make a Deal « The Washington Independent

Debbie Dingell seemed frazzled. Yes, she was, as always, color coordinated — sporting a knee-length lime green skirt with a lime green necklace and watch. But she had not slept the night before. It was the afternoon of June 4, the day after Sen. Barack Obama’s declaration of victory in the Democratic presidential primary race, when she–as a Michigan superdelegate–finally chose to endorse the junior senator from Illinois, someone perceived as a threat to the very industry she works for.

While the evening before was triumphant, with Obama clinching the nomination, it had begun badly. General Motors, where she is a senior executive and vice-chairwoman of the General Motors Foundation, had announced it would be closing four truck and SUV plants. She’d spent the night flipping between MSNBC and CNN, watching the regurgitation of the evening’s events, unable to find real peace.

(Matt Mahurin)
(Matt Mahurin)

"I’m tired," she said. "I haven’t had a night like that, where you just can’t sleep. It was a tough day because we had the announcement and I endorsed Obama. All the women are mad at me."

It had been a rough week for Dingell. That weekend, she’d sat in the day-long, epic Democratic National Committee’s Rules & Bylaws Committee meeting where the fate of delegates from her home state and Florida were decided. After announcing that the DNC–of which she is a member– would seat all the delegates, but give each only a half-vote, she gathered with the Michigan delegation to determine the next step.

She herself had also decided months ago that since her husband, the venerable congressman and fellow superdelegate John Dingell (D-Mich), had supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, she would support Obama. But she only made that pledge public after Obama made one of his own to her.

"He said he will fully restore [our delegation]," Dingell said. "Otherwise, I wouldn’t have endorsed. He promised me." (A few days earlier Obama told The Associated Press, "I want to make sure that the Michigan delegation is happy. I want them to feel good. When they come back from that convention I want them to say, ‘We are fired up and ready to go,"’ he added. "And so I’ll be in close consultation with the Michigan delegation to make sure that happens.")

Dingell’s voice–which can hit a piercing pitch–was barely above a whisper. Outside her office on Massachusetts Avenue, rain pounded the sidewalk and the wind whipped a tarp from construction nearby. Perky she was not — but she had earned that disposition. She is not only a member of the DNC and a superdelegate, she is influential in the Democratic hierarchy at the state as well as the national level. She is a true power-broker in Michigan — her husband has represented the state in Congress for 54 years and she herself appears on two weekly television shows in Detroit. For years, as Michigan’s fortunes have fallen, she pressed for the state’s concerns. In many ways her latest battle–to move the Michigan primary up–has been her most taxing.

As the months wore on, so did the pressure on Dingell, who has always tried to fully engage in both the bare-knuckle, internal politics of Michigan and Washington society. One has to remember that Dingell’s fight is seven years in the making. That’s how long it’s been since she and Sen. Carl Levin pressed the DNC to change the presidential primary and caucus system that gave preeminence to Iowa and New Hampshire. When they felt the two states had cheated by moving their spots ahead of where they were originally slotted, fellow Democrat Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed a law last fall that called for a Jan. 15 primary for both the Republican and Democratic Parties.

In many ways, to those not living in Des Moines and Manchester, Michigan had a point: here was a Rust Belt state whose problems — the loss of blue-collar jobs, financial strains on the white-collar workers, inner-city meltdowns, health-care costs — served as a bellwether for the rest of the country. Why shouldn’t a big central state weigh in early?

"Ethanol is an issue in this country for one reason–the cornfields of Iowa," Dingell said. "Nobody thought that this election would be the one that it was. The pundits. The candidates. If Rosa Parks hadn’t refused to give up her seat–I don’t know if I should be comparing it to the civil-rights movement, but sometimes you have to break the rules to get change. And we need change. People don’t understand how we nominate our candidates. It’s not a representative process.

"I think they’ll be real change," Dingell continued. "Both candidates want to see real change in the nomination process. Not only in terms of Iowa and New Hampshire, but proportional voting and superdelegates. They’ve both said to me they’d be pushing for real change and the only person who can push for change is the candidate and [Obama] did say he’d be pushing for change in the system."

But the way each party reacted to Michigan moving its primary date was not new. The Republican National Committee took away half the state’s delegates, and the DNC stripped Michigan of its entire 128. All candidates signed a pledge not to run in the state and Obama, John Edwards, Gov. Bill Richardson and Sen. Joe Biden took their names off the ballot. Only Clinton’s remained. While she won the state, the other 44 percent of participants voted "uncommitted." Clinton supporters argued that not seating the full delegation put the state in play for the GOP and Sen. John McCain, who did campaign there in January.

"They weren’t coming here anyway!" Dingell bellowed to crowds around the state in the days before the primary, explaining why they had to push the event up, while lashing out against both Iowa and New Hampshire.

Of course, we’d later learn that both candidates probably would have come — given the closeness of the election. Watching the process unfold, Dingell, along with three other Democrats — Levin, Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, and United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger — formed a committee to explore every option…which they did. There was a push for a "mail-in" caucus, for a do-over "firehouse primary" conducted without money from the state. Nothing took.

As the months wore on, so did the pressure on Dingell, who has always tried to fully engage in both the bare-knuckle, internal politics of Michigan and Washington society. In many ways she’s a figure from another time, when congressmen spent more time in the District and mixed easily with members of the other party. Today she and her husband are among the few office-holders who attend both Democratic and Republican social events.

"She’s been very stressed over the whole thing," says her friend Marlene Malek, a Republican with whom Dingell holds an annual bipartisan, women-only lunch each holiday season. "It hasn’t been easy for her and it’s understandable. She’s just been under a lot of pressure.

Despite the aftershocks, Dingell still defends the decision to move the primary up. As candidates stumped in Pizza Ranches in Iowa and the homes of wealthy benefactors in New Hampshire, Dingell says the problems Michigan faces — rising unemployment, a stagnant economy, a mortgage meltdown — were being ignored.

In this process, Dingell might have irrevocably damaged her relationship with the Clintons, whom she used to fervently support. While her endorsement of Obama came late, it was contrasted by the support her husband and Granholm gave to the New York senator. While remaining "neutral," for most of the primary process, most figured she would support Clinton’s nomination. Um, so here’s the thing…..

"I love Bill Clinton," Dingell said. "You can’t not love Bill Clinton. But people are tired. She’s a good woman and would have made a good president. And she’s smart and she’s thoughtful and reflective.

"I think we have to work through this divide and she’s got a big role," Dingell continued. "How this plays out is dependent on what she does in the next few days. She’s a significant factor. A lot of that’s in her hands. I’d like her to reach out and become part of the healing, be part of the future too. I want the two of them to represent hope and change."

Had she spoken to Clinton about her decision?

"No," Dingell said. "I’ve tried to call her the past two days and she hasn’t called back. I’m not in what you’d call the inner circle right now."

Now Dingell might be faced with a bigger challenge than re-seating the Michigan delegates. After admittedly alienating herself from women friends within the Democratic Party, she has to sell Obama to the state’s voters. Obama’s decision to keep his name off the ballot miffed more than a few Democrats in the state. His problems with the blue-collar workers who gravitated toward Clinton will certainly be magnified in Michigan, where unemployment has spread like a terrible virus, where even as late as January, people were complaining they could no longer afford such luxuries as Detroit Red Wings tickets. Making matters worse is the perception that Obama is an enemy to the Detroit auto industry.

"I went to Detroit and told the automakers that they’re going to have to raise fuel-efficiency standards on cars," Obama said as recently as last month to a crowd in Indianapolis. "And I have to say that when I delivered that speech, nobody clapped. The room was really quiet. But that’s OK, because that’s part of what is the task of the next president."

Dingell conceded Obama has his work cut out for him. Her loyalties are clearly divided — between her longstanding ties to car manufacturers and the appeal of a candidate, brimming with possibilities, who seems to stand against the policies and practices of the industry that held together her home state for so long.

She clearly thinks she can help reconcile her chosen candidate and her state’s key business. "I think his impression of the auto industry is 40-years-old," she said. "I think he has to understand what’s going on within the industry, the research and development. That’s what his problem is."

"I think Michigan’s going to be tough," Dingell said. "People like me have to be loyal to someone and convince people that even though he didn’t want to run on the ballot they should vote for him."

And how do you do that?

"You can say, ‘He’s here now and you can talk Michigan issues’," Dingell said. "You can say, ‘Do you want to continue what’s happened with this country in the past eight years? Did George Bush care about the auto industry? Or do you want somebody who says he’ll meet with CEOs of the autos within the first month of being here?’

"[Obama] has no choice," Dingell said. "He has to talk about these issues. You’re going to see both of these candidates. It’s Michigan’s time. You’re going to see policies talked about, issues developed — and both candidates have to deliver."

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