Michigan Democrats Face Heated Primary

A potential primary in the suburbs of Michigan, which would pit the dean of the U.S. House against the darling of academia, could turn bitter if two Democratic incumbents are forced to go head to head for their political survival.

Democrat Rep. John Dingell has been representing his Detroit suburb district since inheriting the seat from his father in 1955 at the age of 25. He is the longest serving member of the House of Representatives, earning the title of House dean. His last serious primary challenge through his lengthy career was in 1964.

But Dingell's 16th Congressional District is being merged with the 13th District, currently held by four-term Democrat Rep. Lynn N. Rivers, a spunky single mom who began her political career on the school board after working her way through college and law school.

Neither expects to be leaving Washington any time soon.

"I do not like the idea that I could be in a race with a friend," Rivers said, but "I’m not particularly frightened with the prospect of having to campaign against the dean of the House – they will just have to decide between the two of us, who shares our ideas and values."

"The congressman has had a record of getting things done. (Supporters) are looking at who has done more and will continue to do more for this area of Michigan and they’re choosing John Dingell," said Dingell campaign manager Lon Johnson. Dingell, who was traveling this week, was not available for comment, Johnson said.

The August primary is dependent upon federal approval of Michigan's redistricting map. The federal appeals court is likely to uphold the new lines.

On its face, a primary race will have all the ingredients of a political whopper: Rivers is a female "outsider" benefiting from the full support of feminists and the university intelligentsia who reside in her middle class, economically and socially liberal district.

Dingell is a life-long politician who has spent almost 50 years bringing home the bacon to a blue-collar middle class district that is liberal on the economic issues, but more traditionally conservative on the social ones.

Rivers is avidly pro-choice. Dingell wholeheartedly supports gun rights. She’s got the backing of the influential pro-woman Emily’s List. He's got the support from the powerful labor unions in their newly combined district.

"She brings into this new district probably as strong a — if not stronger — base of support than Dingell," said Joe Solmonese, a spokesman for Emily’s List, which first supported her in 1994, when she was running against "the old boys’ network."

Emily's List, however, conducted its own poll in March that found Dingell ahead of Rivers by 52 to 44 percent.

"You have Dingell who is representing labor in the suburbs of Detroit and Rivers, who is representing the Ann Arbor college community," said a GOP strategist, on condition of anonymity. "Whoever gets those swing votes in between will carry it."

"I would tend to put my bets behind Dingell," said Michael Barone, columnist and co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. "I would be surprised, and to some extent unhappy, if he lost. His experience in this institution is invaluable."

Dingell plans to bank his win on his role in the most powerful committees in Congress, including his position as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee from 1981 to 1995, where he oversaw the break-up of AT&T.

Rivers will rely on her experience in life. A champion of mental illness treatment and a national health care system, she said she has worked hard to enforce ethical standards in the House. For example, she has sent back to the Treasury one of two congressional raises and plans to send back the next one also.

"A lot of the things Congress talks about in the abstract I’ve actually went through," she said, noting her time working minimum wage jobs while her children went without health care.

Speculation is rising over whether this intra-party fight will have broader implications for Democratic unity, which some observers say is shaky.

Both camps are hoping it will be a clean race if the two do go to a primary, but Republicans, who don't stand much of a chance in this solidly Democratic district, are hoping that somehow, a Democratic rift will benefit them in the long run.

"Democrats lack ideas for solving America’s toughest challenges, they have no leader and they are fighting with each other," Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., said in a recent memo to his House peers. "There is a multi-tiered conflict going on among national Democrat leaders. No one leader speaks for the party, and confusion has never been greater."