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For almost two decades, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has been working to end Iowa and New Hampshire’s disproportionate influence in selecting the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee.
The effort is still a long shot.
But for the first time since 1981, a panel convened by the Democratic National Committee is undertaking a full-scale review of the party’s nominating calendar.
Party officials and political observers attribute Levin’s progress to the organizational prowess of Debbie Dingell, an elected Democratic National Committeewoman and the wife of Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.).
“She took the passion and the commitment that Sen. Levin brought to this and made it a reality as a political force,” said Josh Wachs, who was the DNC’s chief operating officer when the study group was formed.
Dingell’s role in the creation of the Commission on Presidential Nominating Timing and Scheduling comes as no surprise to those who have watched her build a reputation as someone who “may well be,” in the words of The Detroit News, “the most visible and influential political spouse in Michigan history.”
“If you’ve got a Michigan political issue, at some point, all roads lead through Debbie Dingell,” Wachs said.
Debbie Dingell was born Deborah Insley, a granddaughter of one of General Motors’ Fisher brothers and a member of, in her words, a “very Republican family.”
Dingell met her husband on a Washington, D.C.-to-Detroit plane flight.
She was a General Motors legislative analyst in her mid-20s. He was in his 50s.
She was reluctant to go out with him at first. But he persisted and the two were married in 1981.
“He asked me out 14 or 15 times,” she said.
Today, she is vice chairwoman of the GM Foundation and executive director of GM’s global community and governmental relations office. He is the longest-serving active Member of the House of Representatives and the fourth longest in U.S. history.
In 2002, when reapportionment took a House seat away from Michigan and the Republican-controlled state Legislature forced Rep. Dingell into a race against then-Rep. Lynn Rivers (D), the ranking member on the Energy and Commerce panel relied heavily on his wife.
Debbie Dingell was that rare commodity: a political spouse who knew what she was doing.
“She was pivotal. There is no question about it. She was doing everything. She was virtually running the campaign,” said Bill Ballenger, editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter.
Dingell defeated Rivers 59 percent to 41 percent.
Two years earlier, Debbie Dingell ran Al Gore’s presidential campaign in must-win Michigan. Gore had given his critics plenty of fodder: Not only had he taken a leading role in the passage of NAFTA, but he also had called the internal combustion engine a “mortal threat to the security of every nation” in his environmental tome, “Earth In The Balance.”
It didn’t matter.
With Dingell’s help, Gore won Michigan’s 18 electoral votes by 5 points.