Old Guard vs. New in Michigan

Old Guard vs. New in Michigan

John Dingell and Lynn Rivers are locked in a battle caused by redistricting.


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.”

That there even is a Dingell-Rivers primary is evidence of dramatic changes in the American political–and economic–landscape. Despite Dingell’s determined efforts to preserve the domestic auto industry, which remains the backbone of southeast Michigan’s economy, manufacturing declines have taken their toll on the working-class suburbs south of Detroit and the nearby industrial towns he has represented since 1955–and that his father served for twenty-three years before that. With the nation’s economic center of gravity shifting toward the South and West, the 2000 Census signaled that Michigan would have to surrender a Congressional seat. But no one imagined that Dingell might be the odd man out. Even conservative Republicans revere the twenty-four-term Congressman’s stature–not to mention his good-old-boy stances on guns, abortion and the environment. So the Republicans who control the Michigan Statehouse–and thus the redistricting process–gave Dingell what was supposed to be a break. They lopped off a big chunk of the neighboring district represented by Rivers and gave it to the senior member of the state’s Congressional delegation. Republicans and Democrats alike presumed that Rivers would make some noise about the unfairness of it all and then quickly wise up to the harsh reality that politics is still a game where the rules are drawn by and for the big boys.

“They all thought I could be scared out of the race. And if that didn’t work, they were sure that the money would dry up and that would force me out,” says Rivers, as she rides from a VFW pig roast to a house party with gay rights campaigners on a typically frenzied campaign day. She adds, “We’d show them numbers that said I could win and they would just say, ‘You don’t understand. It is impossible to take on John Dingell.'”

The attempt by GOP mapmakers to help the senior Democrat wasn’t entirely selfless: They wanted to give Dingell a super-Democratic district so they could make surrounding districts more favorable to GOP candidates. In their haste, however, they grabbed two liberal college towns–Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan, and its more blue-collar neighbor, Ypsilanti–from Rivers’s old district. “The effect,” says Kestenbaum, “was to create a new district where somewhat over half the primary voters were from Lynn’s old district.” That allowed her to mount a challenge to Dingell that has forced traditional allies within the loosely defined Democratic coalition to line up against one another.

The powerful UAW, the Michigan AFL-CIO and business groups are solidly behind Dingell, and there’s plenty of speculation that the Congressman, long a favorite of the NRA, will benefit from a last-minute boost by that free-spending group. Advocates for the environment, abortion rights, gay rights and arms control are just as solidly behind Rivers, and she’s getting strong support from gun control advocates like Sarah Brady. Building-trades unions in the Ann Arbor area have stuck with Rivers, as has the powerful Michigan Education Association. Perhaps her biggest boost has come from EMILY’s List, the national donor network that aids pro-choice Democratic women.

In many senses, this Michigan contest mirrors Democratic primary battles of the late-1960s and early ’70s, when entrenched incumbents were challenged by young idealists tied to the antiwar, civil rights and feminist movements. Ask Rivers what makes her believe she can displace a House veteran and she’ll recall a race of three decades ago in which newcomer Elizabeth Holtzman ousted Representative Emanuel Celler, then the dean of the House, in a Brooklyn Democratic primary. “It was around then that Bella Abzug, I believe, said, ‘The only way we’re ever going to get more women in Congress is if some good men lose primaries,'” adds Rivers. “It turns out Bella is still right.”

In the quiet councils of senior Democrats, however, plenty of men still think Bella was wrong–not just about beating senior men but about shaping a party that reaches out to women, people of color, gays and lesbians, Million Mom Marchers against handguns and other constituencies with messages that appeal directly to their concerns. These solons float the theory that if the party would just return to its “bread and butter” economic roots, it would be unbeatable.

Though he has cast his share of progressive votes on civil rights and issues of concern to women, Dingell is very much a roots Democrat. He is, in fact, the last of the “Franklin Roosevelt Democrats”–the only member of the House who can recall conversing with the thirty-second President. To this day, Dingell begins each session of Congress by introducing the national healthcare plan his New Dealer dad first proposed in 1943. When Dingell’s father died in 1955, the son won the seat and he has loyally soldiered on–decade after decade after decade. In a Congress where seniority matters, the senior member can point to a record of remarkable accomplishment. While other members talk about preserving Medicare, he can talk about creating the program back in the 1960s. Much of the significant healthcare legislation of the past five decades was enacted with his sponsorship and because of legislative skills that political analyst Stuart Rothenberg says make Dingell a “bigger than life” figure in Congress. Often it seems as if Dingell is still piecing the New Deal together, and in a Congress where Republicans are working hard to deconstruct it, that is no small task. “I’ve stopped the Republicans when I’ve had to,” says Dingell, and he gets kudos for that from old allies like former Democratic Representative Pat Schroeder, who says Dingell “led the charge” against Newt Gingrich and the new GOP majority of 1995 when “so many Democrats kind of went in a fetal position and put their thumbs in their mouths.”

Dingell’s ability to lead the charge is central to the argument he makes for his re-election. The Congressman presses the effectiveness line in every interview, and it has resonance with the region’s powerful labor unions. “John Dingell has been in Congress for forty-six years. The guy is a powerhouse,” says Fred Veigel, president of the Huron Valley Central Labor Council, which backed Rivers in the past but is with Dingell this time.

Rivers, who was born a year after Dingell’s first election to the House, came to Congress in 1995. She arrived as one of thirteen Democrats in a freshman class that included seventy-three rampaging Gingrich Republicans. Like Dingell, she fought the Republicans on trade and economic issues. But she also waged battles on behalf of abortion rights, gun control, environmental protection and oversight of the military, issues on which Dingell often sided with the GOP. The ideological and stylistic differences between Dingell and Rivers reflect genuine differences in their ages and experiences. Dingell’s worldview was shaped during the Great Depression and World War II; Rivers’s introduction to politics came in the era of Vietnam, Watergate and the liberation movements of the 1970s. Where Dingell was groomed for a Congressional career by a Congressman father, Rivers grew up in rural Michigan and looked for a time to be destined for a you-want-fries-with-that? career in fast food–her résumé includes a stint as manager of an Arthur Treacher restaurant. “The thing that still astounds me about Congress is how different my life experiences are from most of the members,” says Rivers. “It’s amazing to me how little people who make $150,000 a year understand about people who make $25,000 a year.”

Rivers married at 18, quickly had two daughters, struggled with depression and helped support the family in a series of dead-end jobs before finally getting grants and loans to finish college at the University of Michigan and collect a law degree from Wayne State. “I think it’s important to have people in Congress who have lived the issues we are talking about in their real lives–not in the abstract,” she says. “I’ve been without insurance, I’ve worked minimum-wage jobs, I’ve had to return pop bottles for refunds so we could make ends meets. When we were debating about student loans in Congress, a Republican member said something about how no one would notice an additional $42 expense. I said, ‘Wait a minute! If it wasn’t for student loans, I wouldn’t be here.’ I can remember when $42 seemed like all the money in the world.”

Though she is being outspent 2-to-1 in a race that could see Dingell’s campaign spend $3 million, it appears that Rivers’s message is being heard. Dingell has a narrow lead in the polls, but those same polls show that when voters are reminded of Rivers’s personal story, she takes the lead. So Rivers is telling that story, with a big assist from EMILY’s List, which helped her win her seat in 1994. Even after Democratic leaders and major unions endorsed her opponent in that race, Rivers won easily, and her victory is still cited by EMILY’s List as an example of the group’s ability to help women take on the political establishment. EMILY’s List president Ellen Malcolm notes that she “got some calls” this year from powerful Democrats urging her group to avoid the Dingell-Rivers race. But, she says, “To me, this race exemplifies why we started EMILY’s List.” Malcolm says Dingell is “wielding all his clout to collect all the PAC money in Washington, but we are countering the clout. Our members are on fire about this race.”

Rivers’s campaign manager, Martha McKenna, estimates that of the $1.2 million raised so far by the campaign, roughly one-third has come through the efforts of the organization. “Could we have been competitive without the help from EMILY’s List? I think the honest answer is no,” says McKenna. “With it,” the 27-year-old manager adds, “we can hold our own because our people are pumped up about this race.” McKenna says a combination of savvy expenditures on biographical television ads and a “people power” get-out-the-vote push in Rivers’s stronghold of Ann Arbor will offset Dingell’s financial advantage.

Ann Arbor and nearby Ypsilanti are among the most liberal communities in Michigan, perhaps the nation. They’re the sort of places where Democratic primary voters take their issues seriously. So, while Dingell says he can get more done, Rivers says she “gets it.” Among women voters, especially the young women who could tip the close contest if they turn out, the “gets it” factor may yet trump the “get more done” argument. As Rivers tosses a bottle of sunscreen to one of her young backers before ducking into a coffee shop, Jennifer Blanchette, a 29-year-old University of Michigan graduate student, asks, “Is that really Lynn Rivers?” Told that it is, Blanchette claps her hands. “I can’t wait to vote for her.” How come? “She’s a liberal. She’s an environmentalist. She’s pro-choice. She’s so hugely different from John Dingell. And she has the courage to run against him, even with all his power. Just think if she beat him: It would be so cool to have a woman win against all the odds.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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