The Dean Is Done: 59 Years Will Be Enough for the Cunning and Complex John Dingell
Posted at 5:53 p.m. on Feb. 24
Dingell drew less than 60 percent of the vote in a general election only twice: in 1994 and 2010, the last two times Republicans won control of the House. Instead, his toughest elections were the two times he was forced by redistricting to face other incumbent Democrats in a primary. In a district that was a third African-American, he won in 1964 in part because he’d voted for the Civil Rights Act that year but his opponent, Rep. John Lesinski, had voted no.
Much tougher was his campaign in 2002 against eight-year veteran Rep. Lynn Rivers. That became an intense fight between the very liberal and not-quite-as-liberal factions of the Democratic caucus — and caused a break between Dingell and Nancy Pelosi that proved a decisive downward turning point for his time as a power player.
With the backing of Pelosi, then the minority whip, Rivers raised significant sums from environmentalists, gun control advocates and supporters of abortion rights — the three communities in the Democratic base with which Dingell has disagreed most prominently. With the help of National Rifle Association members and the auto industry, Dingell won that intraparty battle with 59 percent. But his rift with Pelosi was never repaired, and soon enough she was positioned to help secure an equally consequential Dingell defeat.
Because of his uncompromising interest in protecting Michigan’s automobile industry, Dingell has long been at odds on energy and pollution policies with the more liberal members of his caucus — Pelosi and fellow Californian Henry A. Waxman principal among them. After her first term as speaker, in which Pelosi and Dingell clashed publicly on several fronts, she got behind Waxman’s challenge to the venerated seniority system. In 2008, Waxman wrested the gavel away from the dean on a 137-122 vote of all House Democrats.
It was an outcome Dingell seemed unlikely to reverse now in light of Waxman’s own forthcoming retirement. But that reality played no role in his announcement rationale on Monday, which focused instead on the overall state of legislative affairs.
“This Congress has been a great disappointment to everyone,” he said. “There will be much blaming and finger pointing back and forth, but the members share fault, much fault; the people share much fault, for encouraging a disregard of our country, our Congress and our governmental system.”