In Divided Michigan District, Debbie Dingell Straddles the Biden-Sanders Race

DEARBORN, Mich. — Everywhere Debbie Dingell stopped over the weekend, she found herself sounding like a Swiss diplomat. “I’m neutral,” she said.

At the farmers’ market in Ann Arbor. At a pre-St. Patrick’s Day dinner with Rotarians at a banquet hall on the Detroit River. At the mosque in this city, which has one of the largest Arab populations outside the Middle East.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. are “both my friends,” Ms. Dingell, the Democratic congresswoman from Michigan’s 12th District, insisted as reporters and constituents swarmed around her on Saturday after a rally for Mr. Sanders at a Dearborn middle school. She had just finished a brief, private meeting with the senator in the boys’ locker room — a scene she later said “pretty much sums up” the peculiar political world she inhabits these days.

The way that Ms. Dingell is walking the line between the rival Biden and Sanders camps before Michigan’s Democratic primary on Tuesday is the latest example of her need to balance the competing sentiments of voters in her district, where the country’s divisions all seem to converge.

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From college students and immigrants, she hears the appeals for a leader with Mr. Sanders’s populist message of economic equality and racial justice. Small-business owners share with her their worries that only Mr. Biden’s brand of center-left politics will unite the Democratic Party. Autoworkers give her an earful about how happy they are that President Trump is confronting China over trade.

In her district, which covers roughly 400 square miles from the University of Michigan campus in the west to the Lake Erie shoreline in the east, there are precincts where more than 90 percent of the votes cast for president in the 2016 general election were for Hillary Clinton. And there are others where Mr. Trump took close to two-thirds of the vote.

On balance, Democrats do better than Republicans here. But Ms. Dingell’s victory in 2018 with 68 percent of the vote is not explained by liberal dominance alone.

The concentration of manufacturing here — steel, engines, automobile parts — has made her more sympathetic than most Democrats to Mr. Trump’s trade policies. She pushed for renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, which she blames for the loss of tens of thousands of jobs in her district. But Ms. Dingell also holds positions that Republicans and moderates oppose, like supporting “Medicare for all” legislation that would eliminate the private insurance system.

She has scolded Democrats for failing to see that Mr. Trump could win Michigan in 2016 and says she remains convinced he could do it again. She is one of the rare Democrats who sit for regular interviews with Fox News. Her independence is something that is increasingly rare in both political parties today, where conceding that the other side has a point can have a high cost and little reward.

“I get up at meetings, and I’m Debbie Downer,” she said.

When she was first elected in 2014 after her late husband, former Representative John D. Dingell Jr., retired, Ms. Dingell was no political novice. She was chair of former Vice President Al Gore’s Michigan campaign in 2000 and represented the state on the Democratic National Committee. Before running for Congress, she worked for more than 30 years at General Motors, holding high-level jobs with the company’s public affairs division and its foundation.

Since Mr. Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to win her state since 1988, it sometimes seems as if Ms. Dingell pleases no one. Anti-Trump demonstrators showed up at her events and heckled her when she said she opposed moving forward with impeachment proceedings against Mr. Trump last year.

Then when she voted to impeach him in December based on evidence that he pressured Ukraine to investigate Mr. Biden and his son, the president attacked her and her late husband. “Maybe he’s looking up,” Mr. Trump said at a rally in Michigan a few days before Christmas — a suggestion that Mr. Dingell was in hell.

She’s faced other partisan affronts during her tenure. She said she had been spit on by a pro-Second Amendment supporter and came home one night to find a man waiting for her in her driveway. She said he told her she was going to hell to be with her husband.

“It’s gotten worse since Trump came after me,” she said.

The president’s attack, and the way it was received by some of her constituents, was a lesson in the conflicting emotions and priorities of being a Trump supporter. At the Rotarian dinner on Saturday night, Ms. Dingell was embraced by an old friend, a retired utility company manager named Bill Jasman, who was disturbed by what the president had said about her husband. “Generally, I do like the things he is attacking, like China,” Mr. Jasman said, but not in the case of the late Mr. Dingell.

Still, Mr. Trump’s vitriol against his friend won’t change his mind come November, he said, when he plans to cast ballots for both the president and Ms. Dingell. “Ninety percent of it is good,” Mr. Jasman said of the president. “Ten percent of it is toxic. So you don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”

About 10 miles further north at a Lebanese restaurant in Dearborn, where two Dingell yard signs greeted patrons out front, a group of about two dozen Muslim men debated the merits of Mr. Sanders and Mr. Biden as the potential Democratic nominee, and Mr. Trump as president. One of the men, Ali Jawad, the owner of an oil and gas distributor, said he thought Mr. Trump had been doing a good job and was considering voting for him in November. The economic progress made in Michigan since the Great Recession, he said, was hard to argue with.

Mr. Jawad believes Mr. Trump could outperform expectations in Michigan again, just as he did in 2016. He said he realized there was a groundswell of support building after driving south through the Downriver communities on his way to Toledo. “There were Trump signs everywhere,” he said. “And four years before I didn’t see one Romney sign there.”

Wages are indeed rising, and there are more jobs. But wage increases for lower earners are being eaten up by inflation. And job growth in the Dearborn area has been small. Economists say Michigan may never regain all the jobs it lost when the auto industry collapsed during the last recession.

Mustapha Hammoud, an engineer who is just a few years out of college, said he wasn’t at all surprised that there were Muslims who would vote for Mr. Trump in Dearborn despite the president’s history of making disparaging remarks about their religion and his attempt to deny certain Muslim immigrants entry at the border. For many, immigration is an out-of-sight, out-of-mind issue, he said.

“We hate the fact that we don’t have health care,” he said. “We hate the fact that we don’t have jobs. And we hate the fact that our parents are always telling us that we’re lazy,” he said.

Osama Siblani, the publisher of a local newspaper called The Arab American News, said he wanted to see Mr. Trump voted out but thought the Democratic Party was shooting itself in the foot because it was “so murky on so many issues.” His newspaper had just endorsed Mr. Sanders in a glowing editorial, saying, “We share Senator Sanders’ maxims of protecting the weakest in our society.”

Ms. Dingell worries about fighting apathy among Democrats in November. “In my mind, I have to get them to vote,” she said as she made her way from table to table at a banquet at the Islamic Center of America on Saturday evening. “That’s one of the biggest challenges.”

Dressed in all black, with a scarf covering her head, Ms. Dingell said she understood that she and the more independent-minded politicians in her party weren’t always giving progressive Democrats enough of what they want. “Take climate,” she said, describing a plan she supports to get to zero net emissions. “I’ve got the bill that does it by 2050. They want it by 2030.”

“People just feel like they can yell more now — even progressive Democrats,” she said.

As an example of the variety of views she encounters, she described a recent visit to a United Automobile Workers union hall. When the issue of environmental regulations came up, she said someone referred to Mr. Sanders as “a communist.”

After her stop at the Islamic center she hit a Biden event in Dearborn where John Kerry, the former senator and secretary of state, was speaking. She ended the night at the Rotarian dinner in Downriver Detroit, the most pro-Trump part of her district.

Mike McCullough, the city treasurer of nearby Trenton, which is home to a large Chrysler engine plant, gestured toward Ms. Dingell and declared himself “a Dingellcrat” when asked what his political affiliation was. He refused to vote Democratic in 2016 and said he would probably follow suit in November.

Ms. Dingell recalled how she happened to be at an event with the same group right before Christmas after Mr. Trump insulted her and her husband. “Everybody was really kind,” she said. “And they just wanted to know how I was doing.”

She seemed deeply appreciative and solicited their support. Then her moment of poignancy was over and she snapped back to reality. “Some of them,” she added with a knowing smile, “will still vote for him.”

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