Democratic strategist Debbie Dingell

The Democratic strategist and D2 Strategies president discusses Mitt Romney’s chances in Michigan, the GOP presidential primary season and the impact of money on politics.

Debbie Dingell is president of D2 Strategies and chair of the Manufacturing Initiative of the American Automotive Policy Council. She’s an active civic and community leader in both Michigan and Washington, DC, a national Democratic strategist and member of the Democratic National Committee. Dingell previously spent more than 30 years as a senior executive at General Motors, where she headed the GM Foundation and public affairs, and is a national advocate for women and children. She serves on numerous boards, including the Wayne State University board of governors.


Tavis: For more tonight, pleased to be joined by longtime fixture in politics, Debbie Dingell. She remains a member of the DNC and is president of D2 Strategies, based in Dearborn. Joins us tonight from Washington. Debbie Dingell, good to have you on this program.

Debbie Dingell: It is an honor to be here with you.

Tavis: Let me start with that notion of Michigan being Romney’s home state. I just fell into saying it, everybody else seems to be saying it, and the truth of the matter is the guy hasn’t been there since he was what, five or six?

He’s been gone for so many years. Is Michigan really Romney’s home state or are those of us in the media ratcheting this home state affiliation up for purposes of tune-in tomorrow night to see what really happens.

Dingell: Well, I think it’s complicated. First of all, you did go to high school there, so it was longer than when he was five or six. But I think the fact of the matter is that people now think of this as his home state and if he doesn’t win tomorrow night the dynamics of this race are going to suddenly be changed.

His family remains a very prominent family in Michigan. His brother was a candidate for attorney general, was on the board of Michigan State University. His former brother-in-law, who’s his finance chair, very prominent, very good, decent man who, by the way, was a leader and helpful on affirmative action in Michigan.

So his family remains a very prominent family in Michigan. Losing tomorrow would be a big blow to the Romney campaign.

Tavis: It appears to me, given the Santorum surge, that social issues are playing well in Michigan. Is that always the case or is something happening this year?

Dingell: Well, the Tea Party was a very real force in 2010 and as I think many viewers know and you know, Republicans took the ticket from the top to the bottom in 2010. They control every statewide seat; they control both the House and the Senate in the legislature.

Though while I think budget and the budget deficit was one of the key issues in 2010, social issues have always mattered in Michigan, and those are the people that have passion. They care, and they turn out, and I think they could end up mattering tomorrow.

Tavis: Why does Mitt Romney keep reminding Michigan voters that he opposed the auto industry bailout? Why, put another way, will he not, can he not admit that in the minds of many, it worked?

Dingell: To me, that and the fact that he has been so anti-labor in his dialogue the last couple of weeks, what have been what surprised me the most, Governor Snyder, who has endorsed him, has made it very clear he’s not going to agree or disagree with what the policies were.

They worked, and let’s move on. The fact of the matter is, as Governor Romney’s campaigning in Michigan, General Motors declared its most profitable year ever in its history. GM and Chrysler have paid back their loans. More than 200,000 jobs have been created in the last two and a half years.

People are going back to work. You have GM, Ford and Chrysler operating on three shifts because consumer demand is there. So I think everybody knows it’s worked, and I’ve never heard him say, “Isn’t it great the companies are doing well? Isn’t it great people are back to work and getting jobs?”

Tavis: I get the Republican affiliation, but how is it that the governor of Michigan could endorse someone – there are a number of folk to choose from – but how can you endorse someone who again keeps trumping the fact that he was opposed to the auto industry bailout and won’t acknowledge that it’s working?

How does the governor of the state that houses Detroit endorse that guy?

Dingell: Well, first of all, there isn’t a Republican candidate that supported helping the domestic industry, and if one is just objective, I do believe that Governor Romney would be the strongest candidate against President Obama in the fall, and I think Governor Snyder wants to see Republicans win.

That’s probably the reason, among many, that he did endorse Governor Romney.

Tavis: What’s your sense of why Santorum is surging? I know you said that he’s playing to the Tea Party, but for that matter, so is Romney. These guys are fighting each other for how far right they can get, and I get that.

But why, specifically, is Santorum making this race so close in Michigan?

Dingell: I’m trying to figure that out myself in many ways. First of all, you have to remember that Michigan has an open primary, so while the leadership of the party is not encouraging Democrats to go vote in tomorrow’s primary, the fact of the matter is there’s been a low buzz or momentum of people suggesting that people should go vote against Governor Romney tomorrow.

I think quite frankly some of his anti-labor rhetoric has been one of the factors in that. That’s one thing. People, when you look at mid-Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, northern Michigan, there are a lot of very conservative people with a lot of conservative social values.

Rick Santorum has been talking about those, and those are the voters with passion and that turn out. He’s appealed to them. He’s appealed to many things they believe in.

I think what really struck me more than anything in the last few days was the NRA, which has come out not only very strongly for Senator Santorum, but one of the strongest messaging I’ve ever seen the NRA do – anti Governor Romney, which surprised me, because if Governor Romney is their candidate in the fall, the messaging they have out there is going to not be something they’re going to want to live with.

Tavis: I’ve been hearing and reading about this buzz in Michigan where Democrats are being asked to consider by somebody or somebodies, being asked to go consider voting against Governor Romney in the Michigan primary. I can see that, though, Debbie, cutting both ways.

Dingell: I absolutely agree with you on that. First of all, I’m somebody who believes Democrats should nominate Democrats and Republicans should nominate Republicans, and I hope ultimately we’re going to change the presidential nominating system, because you see what happens when the national media focuses on issues that matter to your state.

Everyone knows I’ve had this position for a long time – I don’t think that Iowa and New Hampshire are reflective of the diversity of this country, and I think we should be talking about the issues that matter in the Midwest and in the West and other – the South and different areas, so that every state gets to have the opportunity you’re having right now, to look at the issues that make a difference.

So what’s going to happen tomorrow is going to be interest. It’s a very interesting time.

Tavis: Michigan awards proportional delegates. How might that impact the eventual GOP nominee down the road?

Dingell: Well, for starters, Governor Romney could win the majority vote tomorrow and Senator Santorum could still win more delegates, because this is based on congressional districts.

So Senator Santorum is doing well in a significant number of congressional districts, so both of them could end up – this is going to be close. I think everybody knows that tomorrow’s going to be close.

I quite frankly haven’t – as you say, Senator Santorum has been doing a little better in the polls in the last couple of days. I’m not predicting. I just can’t tell which way this is totally going. It’s going to be close, and they could both end up declaring tomorrow a victory.

Tavis: With that Capitol Building behind your shoulder and the imagery that we’re looking at right now in Washington, I’m reminded that you have been very close to a longtime member of the United States Congress and while we’re focusing on the presidential race, Congress is up for grabs this year as well.

So given how much you’ve had your finger on the pulse for years now of congressional politics, what say you about what this year’s going to bring us with regard to the House and the Senate?

Dingell: Well, I think it’s competitive, and two months ago I would have told you I was not somebody who thought that Democrats could take the House back. But the fact of the matter is there are 70 seats that we are competitive in. We only need to win 25 to take the House back.

I think the American public is – 2008 was a Democratic year, 2010 was a Republican year. This year I think they want to hold people accountable. They are not happy with what they’ve seen in Washington. They’re tired of people fighting. They want people to work together to solve the problems of this country, and I think there’s a real chance Democrats could take the house back.

Senate’s competitive, we all know that, but I think there’s a very good chance Democrats are going to keep the Senate, too.

Tavis: That is optimistic. We will see how that actually works out. There are not a lot of folks that feel that way, but we’ll see, Debbie, if you’re right about that. Let me close by asking your thoughts about the money in politics. So much conversation of late about these super-PACs. You’re on the DNC committee. The Obama campaign is saying one thing but doing another. Your sense of all this money in politics?

Dingell: It’s wrong and we’ve got to do something to change it. Too many good people don’t want to go into politics anymore because they don’t want to have to do nothing but sit on the phone and raise money.

I looked at what happened in 2010 and I’ve got to tell you, Tavis, I was terrified when I even looked at – John had a Tea Party candidate. It was a serious race. I’d go to bed at night terrified that someone might do a million-dollar buy or a half-million-dollar buy against him, and how would you compete with that?

How would you go out and raise the money? This is a senior person that knows people and has an ability to at least go out and try to figure out how to raise money.

Money is playing too much a part of this system. We don’t have transparency, and I think it’s forcing good people from not going into public service.

Tavis: Of course, the “John” she is referencing is John Dingell, longtime member of the House of Representatives, who I referenced earlier in this conversation, or certainly inferred reference to him earlier in this conversation.

Debbie Dingell, good to have you on the program. Thanks for sharing your insights and we’ll all be watching your home state tomorrow. It is your home state. Whether it is Romney’s or not, it is yours. (Laughs)

Dingell: It is my home state. Born and bred, I’m a Michigan girl and proud of it.

Tavis: I know you are, and we’ll be watching your home state to see what happens tomorrow night. Thanks for your insights.

Dingell: Thank you. Thanks for being with you.

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Last modified: February 28, 2012 at 6:10 pm