Michigan’s Debbie Dingell has added a new title to her long record of public service. The former chair of the Wayne State University Board of Governors, among other roles she played in public service, is now the congresswoman from the 12th Congressional District, succeeding her husband the retired dean of Congress John Dingell. She has been described as one of Washington’s most powerful women. Even the second ranking Democrat in Congress, Representative Steny Hoyer, admitted in a recent New York Times profile of Dingell that “I don’t know that I have the contacts that Debbie has in this town.”
In this exclusive interview with Bankole Thompson, editor of the Michigan Chronicle, Dingell goes on the record on a number of issues including why women need to do a better job of supporting other women, the urgency of a bipartisan Michigan congressional coalition, the way forward for Michigan Democrats in the devastating losses of last November’s election, Detroit in the hands of Mayor Duggan, etc. Excerpts follow.
MC: What are your expectations for the new Congress?
DD: It is my hope that this Congress will pull together to work on a multitude of problems facing this country, from expanding access to health care and affordable, quality education, to working to create an environment that promotes job growth and helping hardworking middle class families get ahead. I believe most Americans are tired of the partisan bickering and want to see their elected representatives work together to find solutions.
MC: What issues would you like to see addressed in the first half of 2015 in Congress?
DD: There are a number of very important issues facing the nation that have critical deadlines in the first few months of the new Congress, which need to be resolved without the drama that has surrounded so many important debates in the past. For instance, the Highway Trust Fund that is critical to repairing our crumbling roads and replacing outdated infrastructure needs to be reauthorized. We must raise the debt ceiling to keep our economic recovery on track; we need to fund the Department of Homeland Security to maintain the safety of our nation and the world. And we need to address the expiring “doc fix” and find a new solution for Medicare physician payments.
But several other issues will require serious attention in the short- and long-term to keep the country moving forward. Too many Michigan families have been left out of the nation’s economic recovery. We need to work together to create an environment that promotes job growth and expands manufacturing.
We also need to continue investing in the early emotional, intellectual and physical development of our young people. Our children are 25 percent of our population but 100 percent of our future, and I would like to see Congress dedicate more funding for 0-5 and K-12 programs, and reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) that helps ensure every child in this country can go to the doctor and have necessary checkups, immunizations and medical treatment when they need them.
Just as important, we must make it a priority to help our young people deal with staggering student debt. As chair of Wayne State University (WSU) Board of Governors, I have seen the positive transformation that comes from a quality education, and I believe that we need to ensure college remains affordable by allowing people with older student loans to refinance them at today’s rates.
Another compelling issue that has always been a passion of mine is health care. I will continue fighting to ensure that the U.S. is investing in the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and the Federal Drug Administration, along with critical health research.
But recent experiences have focused my attention on issues of the health care system for our aging population. Current laws are designed for a population that was dying younger while today, more people are living longer and living well.
We need to develop policies that help seniors get the medical care they need, while allowing them to grow old independently at home — with good nutrition, easy and accessible transportation and opportunities to remain active, contributing members of society.
This is not a Republican or Democratic idea. It’s a vital issue that is affecting many families across the country, and I am committed to working with my colleagues in Congress to find solutions that will help our aging population.
There are other important issues that Congress needs to address.
Race remains a major societal issue in this country and it needs to be part of the national dialogue. We also must work to protect our environment, fix our broken immigration system and update and simplify our tax code.
There is much to be done and I am ready to work with my colleagues — Democrats and Republicans — to make progress on the issues that matter.
MC: You called for a bipartisan MI Congressional coalition. How do you think this would benefit the state?
DD: When I was asked a question during the campaign by an environmental group about how to address the partisan divide in Congress, I made the observation that people should not assume the Michigan members always agree. For instance, much of Congresswoman Candice Miller’s district borders Lake Huron and as a longtime champion of the Great Lakes she cares as deeply about protecting them.
I share her love of the water and her commitment to protecting this precious resource. Beyond that I believe the entire delegation shares a love for the state of Michigan and wants to fight to see it thrive, and work to protect its industries and natural resources. Getting everyone in the same boat, rowing in the same direction can deliver positive results.
Everyone has different perspectives, knowledge, potential strategies and ideas. I have called for the governor, congressional delegation and state legislature to talk more to develop relationships and be educated at the same time on critical issues. Thoughtful conversations in which people listen and offer real dialogue can result in positive results. I haven’t found anyone who doesn’t think the idea is a good one.
I hope that the delegation will meet regularly on a bipartisan basis. I would like us to have periodic meetings with the governor and interested state legislators. Fact-finding is useful and all the new freshman members from Michigan have expressed an interest in learning together.
We recognize that there are many issues we need far more knowledge on and, quite frankly, I have always found real dialogues, real listening can be productive and actually help in finding solutions.
I respect all the members of the Michigan delegation and am excited to have the opportunity to work with them.
MC: Do you think the current political climate is encouraging for women to enter politics?
DD: I believe the political landscape is changing but it is still challenging for many women as they consider entering politics for many reasons. First, the reality is while men are sharing more and more of the responsibilities of everyday living, many women remain the primary caregivers for families and shoulder more of the household responsibilities. And we take those responsibilities seriously so we have to figure out how we can balance all the demands of life.
I also believe women need to do a better job of supporting women. Men have supported each other for years, mentored them, created networks, etc. I, by the way, have been lucky to have many great men mentors. But women bring a unique and important voice to the policy-making dialogue, and we need to celebrate and support each other far more than we do. We need more smart, qualified women at all levels of government as we tackle some of the most pressing issues facing our families and communities.
MC: What has changed for you personally since your election to Congress?
DD: Honestly, this has been a complicated time as I transition from things that I have enjoyed such as being chair of the WSU Board of Governors and working with the men and women of the domestic auto industry. This new job will allow me to stay very connected with people, to fight for issues we all care about, and champion issues I care about deeply but in different ways.
I also have a love affair with a man going through a transition as well, and his health issues this fall have impacted me greatly in two ways. As a wife and caregiver who is going to make sure he fully recovers but also in personally experiencing the healthc are system.
There are real issues and I am becoming even more passionate in advocating for fixes that impact so many of us.
MC: What do you make of the results of last November’s election in Michigan where Democrats lost significantly?
DD: I think the mid-term elections showed that voters are frustrated with partisan politics, which is why my practice of creating a bipartisan dialogue is more important than ever in bringing people together to tackle tough problems. I think the elections also showed Democrats need to work harder to communicate our message and vision.
MC: Any lessons the Michigan Democratic Party should learn from the election?
DD: Democrats need to study what worked and what didn’t work. We can’t afford to hold on to our rhetoric without doing an analysis of what truly happened. The status quo for the next election is not acceptable.
MC: What specific issue would you like President Obama to highlight in his State of the Union address?
DD: The economy, national security, race, health care and education.
MC: Do you support President Obama’s decision to lift the embargo on Cuba?
DD: Political and human rights reforms in Cuba are needed, and while I am studying this issue with people who are experts on both sides before offering an opinion, I will support any policy that will help establish lasting and meaningful reforms for the Cuban people who seek Democracy.
MC: With Detroit out of bankruptcy, what should happen now?
DD: The hard work has begun and much more lies ahead. It is in Mayor Duggan’s hands and he needs the cooperation of many to bring all programs together. I believe the mayor needs to consult with the congressional delegation, brief us on his plans and outline what we can do to support the city’s turnaround.
It is important to have an urban strategy discussion at both the federal and state level for the state of Michigan and the entire nation. Many of us understand how important a thriving Detroit is to the state of Michigan but we also need to discuss the real problems and issues facing other communities in our state to ensure we’re doing all we can to support their economic recovery.