The dean of the United States House of Representatives is surveying his new domain. Following a nasty bout of Republican mischief at the redistricting drawing board, John Dingell has been forced back onto the campaign trail after several decades without serious competition. So here he is on a 95-degree Fourth of July morning, sweating a bit after walking Ypsilanti, Michigan’s two-mile-long parade route. Now Dingell, 76, who came to Congress midway through Dwight Eisenhower’s first term as President, is watching the parade go by, surrounded by white male aides in blue “Dingell for Congress” T-shirts.
Suddenly, Dingell detects a commotion and spies a red wave. Elderly women in sensible shoes, African-American activists, teenagers with dyed hair, beefy union men and local elected officials come marching up the street, all clad in flaming “Lynn Rivers–Congresswoman” T-shirts and chanting “August 6th–Vote for Lynn.” As Dingell ponders the spectacle, a small woman in a red-and-white dress whirls past, zipping from one side of the street to another with a bucket of candy for the kids, dog biscuits for the pets and a fist pumping in the air as the crowd breaks into spontaneous applause. Lynn Rivers, 45, is moving so fast, shaking so many hands, hugging so many people that she does not notice the man she will face in a primary election that will cost one of them a seat in Congress. “I never liked running against other members,” muses Dingell. “And I don’t like primaries with other Democrats.”
The smart money is still on Dingell as the August 6 primary approaches. But bets are starting to be hedged–especially as polls show Rivers narrowing Dingell’s lead to the single digits. “There’s a slow, growing recognition that Dingell could be in trouble here,” says Washtenaw County Commissioner Larry Kestenbaum, one of the best political numbers crunchers in the region. “I think Lynn is going to win, but there are still people who won’t dare say it. They can’t imagine it; they’ve had a Dingell in Congress for almost a century.”
What makes the Dingell-Rivers race one of the most fascinating contests in America this year is the way it illustrates the ideological and generational differences that strain the fabric of the Democratic Party’s big tent. Dingell and Rivers share near-perfect pro-union voting records, both champion childcare and Social Security, and both support an activist government that meets the real-world needs of working families. Yet, as Rivers notes, “We are very different Democrats.” Dingell is clearly an old school Democrat who thinks the best way to help auto workers is by helping the auto and energy industries, a position that frequently puts him at odds with environmentalists. He’s a former National Rifle Association board member, a frequent foe of efforts to protect abortion rights and an ally of Southern conservative Democrats–and Republicans–when it comes to giving the Pentagon what it wants.
Rivers is new school. She’s skeptical about the corporate agenda, especially on environmental issues. She’s an enthusiastic backer of gun control, 100 percent pro-choice and one of the most consistent questioners of Pentagon excesses and military adventurism in Congress. “I’m a more progressive voter in Congress than John is,” says Rivers. “And I think our party needs progressive members if we are going to offer an effective alternative to the Republicans.”