Rep. John Dingell

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–After 23 terms in Congress, the women’s vote may perhaps be the chink in Michigan Rep. John D. Dingell’s political armor. Because congressional districts were recently redrawn in the state, the dean of the House of Representatives is now running the same congressional district as Rep. Lynn N. Rivers, a junior colleague who says her record on women’s rights issues will help her defeat him in Michigan’s Aug. 6 primary.

To counter his opponent’s claims, Dingell rounded up 200 prominent women supporters at a Washington fund-raiser last month to bolster support among women voters as he prepares for the toughest campaign of his 46-year career.

He initiated the event, called Great Women of Washington, after a number of leading women’s groups endorsed his less experienced but more progressive primary opponent, four-term Rep. Rivers. The two were drawn into the same congressional district as a result of Michigan’s Republican-controlled redistricting process.

“He’s a friend from a long time ago,” said former Colorado Rep. Pat Schroeder when asked why she is supporting Dingell over Rivers. She said she gained respect for Dingell when former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich took over Congress in 1994. “So many Democrats kind of went in a fetal position and put their thumbs in their mouths . . . But Dingell put on a freshman beanie and went out there and led the charge,” said Schroeder.

Schroeder attended last month’s fund-raiser and said she expects to lend a helping hand to her former colleague as the campaign heats up.

Prominent East Coast Women Back Dingell

Schroeder’s not the only prominent woman backing Dingell: Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu; former press secretary to then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, Lisa Caputo; and former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick have also lined up behind him. A number of prominent women lobbyists, bureaucrats, activists and congressional wives also attended the Dingell fund-raiser. Dingell plans to host a similar event later this spring with women from his home state.

Dingell spokeswoman Anita Dunn said that these women support Dingell because he has a long record of shepherding women-friendly legislation through the House.

“The real test in this race is going to be who actually gets things done to make a difference for women and for families,” Dunn said, noting that her boss sponsored legislation that would allow new mothers and their babies to stay longer than 24 hours in the hospital, fought for tougher mammography standards and helped fund mammograms and pap smears for low-income women.

Rivers Has Support of Major Women’s Organizations

Despite the strong show of support for Dingell at last month’s fund-raiser, Rivers remains confident that she has the solid backing of women voters–a key demographic in the liberal, activist and highly-educated college community of Ann Arbor, Mich.

Rep. Lynn Rivers

“I think [Dingell has made] a real concerted effort to campaign in Washington,” Rivers said in a phone interview. “But people in Washington don’t have a vote and people at home don’t tend to be moved by the Washington establishment . . . I’m not exactly sure what the point was.”

Instead of Capitol Hill politicking, Rivers is relying on an eight-year voting record that has earned her a reputation as a tireless champion of reproductive rights, women’s health initiatives, equal pay legislation and gun-safety laws. She says these issues will play well among the relatively small group of likely primary voters, who tend to be more liberal than the voting population at large.

In addition, women’s groups such as the National Organization for Women, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, the National Women’s Political Caucus and EMILY’s List have endorsed Rivers in her uphill battle against one of the most influential Democrats in Congress.

Rivers also has the support of Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi of California, who has taken the controversial step of making a significant financial contribution to Rivers but not to Dingell.

Dingell’s Mixed Record on Abortion Rights

A generally pro-choice Democrat, Dingell is occasionally out of step with reproductive rights groups. He has voted for such anti-abortion legislation such as a bill that would recognize a fetus as an independent victim of a crime with rights separate and equal to those of a woman. He has also opposed an amendment that would permit military personnel and their dependents to obtain privately funded abortions at overseas military hospitals.

Gun safety groups such as the Million Mom March and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence also prefer Rivers over Dingell, an avid hunter and former member of the National Rifle Association. They note that Dingell voted to repeal the assault-weapons ban and opposed legislation that would require thorough background checks on purchases at all gun shows–votes that could alienate the district’s high proportion of so-called soccer moms.

When courting the women’s vote, Rivers, 45, also points to her personal experience as a teen-age mother struggling to make ends meet in low-paying jobs, as a part-time college and law school student depending on student loans, a survivor of severe depression and as an active member of the Ann Arbor school board–experiences she says help her relate to ordinary people better than her 75-year-old opponent.

“I know what its like to go without health insurance,” she said. “It’s a terrible thing. I had two kids without health insurance. People resonate with that, they realize I’m a real person.

“For women’s groups, I have been there on all the issues, not just women’s health,” Rivers said in a swipe against her opponent, who has championed women’s health initiatives but has lagged behind on other issues of concern to women.

A Real Powerhouse Against a Fresh Face

Dingell is widely regarded as the front-runner in this reconfigured Democratic district, where both incumbents have represented about half of the new constituents. That could change, however, as state Democrats await the outcome of a court challenge. If Democrats prevail, the district’s lines may be redrawn.

Nonetheless, Dingell starts out with a significant advantage: seniority. Having won 23 consecutive elections with solid margins, Dingell has far more experience and influence than Rivers.

The ranking member and former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Dingell spent years developing support networks, securing powerful committee assignments and raising money and his profile on Capitol Hill and in Michigan.

Dingell has raised $1.2 million since January 2001, while Rivers has raised about half of that–$633,000–over the same time period. Dingell also has $1.2 million in the bank, more than twice the $459,000 that Rivers has.

“Rivers has definitely got the uphill struggle,” said Bob Campbell of the Detroit Free Press. “She is definitely the underdog. The race is pitting a real powerhouse in the state against this fresh face who’s got a lot of energy. I expect that that is going to be without question the most interesting congressional primary in Michigan.”

Allison Stevens covers politics in Washington.

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