Dayton Daily News
Democrat was House ‘bull’ who served the longest
John D. Dingell Jr., a powerful and tenacious Michigan Democrat who pushed landmark legislation, exposed corruption in government and became the longest-serving member of Congress in American history, died on Thursday. He was 92.
His wife, Rep. Debbie Dingell, announced the death in a statement.
Debbie Dingell, who won election to his seat after he announced his retirement in 2014, said this week that she was at home with John Dingell, whose health had been failing.
Dingell had represented what is now Michigan’s 12th District, outside Detroit, since the Eisenhower administration, a 59-year run. But when he announced in 2014 at age 87 that he would not seek re-election that year, he said he was stepping down because he no longer recognized the institution he loved. Bitter partisanship, he said, was preventing the House from getting anything done.
“I find serving in the House to be obnoxious,” he told The Detroit News.
Dingell, a physically imposing man of 6-foot-3, weighing 200 pounds and intimidating many with his booming voice, was one of the last of the old bulls, a small cadre of powerful Democratic House committee chairmen who had risen through the seniority system and wielded absolute control of their fiefs. Like the other old bulls, he used his position to protect his hometown interests — in his case, the automobile industry. Some called him the most powerful man in Washington who had never become president.
“The story of John Dingell in Congress is the story of the hopes and dreams of the American people for the past 50 years,” former Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said in a statement in 2005 honoring his friend and colleague. “John fought to pass Medicare — and he won. He fought to pass Medicaid — and he won. He fought for civil rights — and he won. He fought for the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Air Act — and he won.”
Indeed, tenacity proved to be a distinctive feature of Dingell’s political career, as did a forcefulness that earned him admirers as well as critics.
As chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee from 1981 to 1995, and again after the 2006 election put Democrats back in power, his unusually vast portfolio allowed him to shape policy affecting energy, the environment, health, telecommunications, transportation, financial services and consumer protection.
With prosecutorial zeal, he would fire off “Dingell-grams” to government agencies he was investigating. He also could issue subpoenas and hold hearings, and he exercised that power to maximum effect.
But his chief constituency was the auto industry, and Dingell was among its most stalwart champions. He viewed taking care of the industry as one of his primary legislative responsibilities. He advocated bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler and long staved off calls for tougher emissions and fuel economy standards.
“I am totally unapologetic about that,” he told The New York Times in 1991. “I represent half a million people whose lives are controlled by the good fortune or bad fortune of the auto industry. I was sent down here to look after the welfare of that district and the people I serve.”
John David Dingell Jr. was born on July 8, 1926, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where his parents had gone to search for a cure for his father’s tuberculosis. They soon moved back to Michigan, and John Sr. won his House seat. His wife, Grace (Bigler) Dingell, raised John Jr. and his siblings in Detroit and Washington.
Dingell’s first marriage, to Helen Henebry in 1952, ended in divorce two decades later. In 1981, he married Deborah Insley.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by three children from his first marriage: Christopher D. Dingell, a former state senator and Michigan circuit court judge; John D. Dingell III; and Jennifer Dingell. His daughter Jeanne Lagodka died in 2015. He is also survived by a brother, James V. Dingell Sr., a sister, Jule Walowac, and three grandchildren.