A woman right to choose

Jun 26, 2002 at 12:00 am

Just in case you haven’t noticed, one of the most exciting races in years is happening in the Aug. 6 Democratic primary. A woman who has overcome amazing odds to win high office is running against a powerful, long-entrenched male politician with far more money and connections. And the outcome is very much in doubt.

No, no, not the race for governor. The woman in that one has tons of money, a powerful political machine and the Detroit Free Press working overtime for her. I’m talking about Lynn Rivers, now congresswoman from a district which was based in Ann Arbor, but now has shifted east to include western Wayne County, plus all of Monroe County.

That means she’s been thrown into a primary against U.S. Rep. John Dingell, the longtime don of Downriver, who has been in Congress longer than most of the marble. He’s got a slight edge in the polls, but she’s giving him a real fight — and it isn’t over yet.

Now this is not completely black and white. She isn’t running against Tom DeLay or some other Texas-style pseudo-fascist. True, John Dingell causes some liberals to roll their eyes. He likes to blow large animals away with big guns and stick their heads on the wall, and is far closer to Charlatan Heston than Sarah Brady on gun control. He’s usually delighted to rubber-stamp whatever excuse the auto companies make for avoiding better gas-mileage standards.

Yet he has long been one of the best voices on health care reform; he’s always been stoutly for a sensible Canadian-style, single-payer system. He still works very hard. Without him, the 1999 Dingell-Norwood bill that set standards for health insurance, including guaranteed access to emergency care, wouldn’t exist. He backs organized labor, even when it is wrong.

And he’s been there since his daddy died and he took over in 1955. That was one year before Lynn Rivers was born. He’s the only person to be in the U.S. House since the 1950s. If he’s still there in 2009, he’ll have served longer than anyone in the nation’s history.

Dingell fully intends to do that; he once told me his role model was John Quincy Adams, who keeled over and died on the House floor. You can argue he has deserved the right to go on.

But life isn’t fair. Thanks to population shifts, Michigan loses another seat in Congress this year. Republicans controlled the entire redistricting process, and drew boundaries that threw Dingell and Rivers into the same district, to make sure one would be killed off in the primary.

Many thought she wouldn’t bother to run. How do you stand in the way of a man whose nickname is “the truck”? They didn’t know their woman. After what she’s overcome, a race against John Dingell might seem like dodgeball to Lynn Rivers.

Indeed, the odds against her making it to law school once seemed slightly worse than Melvindale winning the next World Cup. Consider: Rivers was a pregnant high-school senior in the tiny, mid-Michigan town of Au Gres who married her high-school sweetheart the day after she graduated in 1975. By the time she was 21, they had two babies and little money.

Worse she was frequently totally incapacitated by manic-depressive disease. “There were times I couldn’t get out of bed. There were times I couldn’t comb my hair.” Yet she never gave up trying to improve herself. Life got a little better after her husband got a union job as an autoworker. She struggled through the University of Michigan, then Wayne State law school, and somehow, as an undergraduate, got herself elected to the Ann Arbor school board.

Eventually, doctors came up with the right “cocktail” of medications to keep her on an even keel. Right out of law school, a seat opened up in the state Legislature. She jumped at it.

Two years later, a longtime congressman retired. She ran for that seat too. Most thought she had no chance, less sense and no business overreaching after only two years in Lansing.

She beat the congressman’s handpicked successor, then went on to lick a tough opponent in the landslide Republican year of 1994; she has been re-elected easily ever since.

Nothing will be easy this time. The district is almost evenly divided between people she represents now and those who were represented by Dingell. Polls show he has wide leads in the Wayne County portion and near-unanimous support in Monroe County. She, on the other hand, is the overwhelming choice in Washtenaw County. Overall, he has, according to one poll, a 45 percent-35 percent lead.

But most voters aren’t paying attention yet. Both candidates are sure to spend obscene amounts of money. Dingell has more cash, but thanks to Emily’s List, Rivers ought to have enough change to make her competitive. They will squabble over a few issues. Dingell is likely to tout his record, subtly invoke his status as something of a virtual monument and claim his clout can get more for the state. Rivers will stress education (she is, refreshingly, against vouchers and charter schools), gun control and abortion, where she says she is more pro-choice.

She may also remind the voters that she’s lived a lot closer, a lot more recently to what most of their lives are like; she remembers vividly times when there were more bills than money. The question may be whether age, as well as experience, matters. Lynn Rivers is 45; John Dingell turns 76 next month.

Nobody’s arguing that he’s over the hill … yet. But what about in five years, when she might be coming into her prime as a lawmaker? This is a hard choice, but she just could stage the political upset of a lifetime. Which would be, probably, the second-hardest thing she’s ever done.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]