If your family has held onto a congressional seat for over 75 years, if you were first elected when a veteran of the Civil War was still alive, if you are the longest serving member of the House of Representatives in history, one might say your power is pretty well entrenched.
But for Rep. John Dingell, 84, that death grip on power may be slipping.
In a recent poll, Dingell was down four points to his Republican challenger Rob Steele, a doctor who has never run for political office before. Steele said his patients often tell him they think it’s time Dingell retire after a (very) long, good run.
But even as Dingell’s grip loosens, as he starts to let go, the remnants of his decades (and decades)-long rule are still evident in Michigan’s 15th.
One incident earlier this year is illustrative. When the local Chamber of Commerce scheduled Steele to deliver a speech on Obamacare, the event was nearly canceled for fear of Dingell’s wrath.
“Almost as soon as the publicity went out, I started getting calls from my sponsor and my members, objecting to this,” said Sandy Mull, president of the South Wayne County Regional Chamber. The anxious members were afraid of crossing Dingell. “It was, ‘with everything that he’s done for us, this is really an insult, and we should not offend him in this way.’”
In a May 13 e-mail, Mull told several top officials from the Chamber, “Just a heads up. I had a call from Ryan Werder in Congressman Dingell’s office, and they aren’t a bit happy about our choice of speakers for the 24th. He said we could have found someone without so much ‘baggage’ to speak on the subject. I also had a voicemail from [former Dingell staffer] Jeff Donofrio this afternoon. I haven’t had a chance to call him back, but I can imagine what he’s calling about.”
In an interview Wednesday, Mull recalled the conversation with Werder. “He said, ‘well, you know, the Congressman is disappointed that the Chamber is having Dr. Steele speak,’” Mull said.
Others were told the overtures from Dingell’s office were more threatening, especially to businesses in the district. Randy Hicks, a member of the Chamber’s legislative committee, said he was told Dingell’s office said the Chamber’s relationship would be “damaged” if it permitted Steele to speak.
Concerned, Mull took a notice announcing the event off of the Chamber’s web site.
Days later, the Chamber’s executive committee met over the issue. The speech was “very close to being canceled. It was hotly debated,” Jeff Jones, the Chamber’s chairman told The Daily Caller. The committee hashed the issue out with “vigorous discussion for close to an hour.” Ultimately, the committee voted to let Steele speak.
Mull now says the incident was much ado about nothing. “Somehow it’s being really, really blown out of proportion – and I do believe that is politically motivated,” she said.
It appears, though, that fear of Dingell’s wrath may still be driving events. In a voicemail obtained by TheDC, another Chamber member, Dave Hamilton, said on Monday that Mull was still sensitive about the issue. “She was a little bit fearful about bringing this up…she didn’t want to have any repercussions coming from Dingell’s side,” Hamilton said.
Mull said Wednesday, “nobody was afraid of Dingell! They didn’t want to offend him.”
This much is uncontested: Steele, an expert on health care, was scheduled to speak at a local Chamber of Commerce event on the president’s health care law, roughly a month after Dingell addressed the group on the same topic. Businesses in the district, members of the Chamber, expressed alarm at offending Dingell. A Dingell aide told the Chamber the congressman was upset. The Chamber nearly canceled the event. The Chamber’s executive committee ensured it went on.
For Steele, who is now in the heat of his campaign, the incident is emblematic of a worrying trend in America, if less about Dingell’s character.
“This was not an isolated incident in terms of the posture of people is clearly they are fearful of the government and their representative, and that’s of course the posture of tyranny, instead of the posture of liberty, where the government fears the people. That’s the classic Jefferson quote, where there’s tyranny, the people fear the government, where there’s liberty, the government fears the people,” Steele said in an interview Wednesday.
“I wouldn’t want to be responding in reference to [Dingell’s] character personally,” he said, but “I can’t tell you how many times I talk to people who believe what I’m doing, they know me well, they’re entrepreneurs, they’re successful business people, and they don’t want to give me money, because they don’t want their name on the report, because they’re afraid of their government.”
A spokeswoman for Dingell did not return a call for comment.