A Race That Has Big Biz Sweating

Why it's working to reelect corporate gadfly John Dingell

America's carmakers have no better friend on Capitol Hill than Big John Dingell of Michigan. As the top Democrat on the powerful House Energy & Commerce Committee, Representative Dingell has doggedly guarded Detroit's interests for decades, blocking tougher fuel-economy standards and clean-air laws.

That hasn't stopped Dingell from being a large thorn in the side of the rest of Big Business, however. Recently, he voted against terrorism insurance, opposed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and put accounting firms on the hot seat. Last year, he voted with Corporate America just one-fourth of the time. But now, Dingell is running for his life in a newly created district against a determined liberal--and he's counting on business support to pull him through.

His strategy might just be working. As Dingell braces for his biggest campaign fight in decades--an Aug. 6 primary against fellow incumbent Lynn Rivers--he is swimming in corporate money and industry endorsements. Sweaty-palmed executives concede they aren't particularly enamored of Dingell, who was first elected in 1955 and is the longest-serving House member. But they are terrified of the man who sits to Dingell's left on Energy & Commerce: Representative Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.). A fiery antagonist of corporate interests, Waxman is first in line to take the panel's top Democratic seat if Dingell loses. Even worse, should Dems win control of the closely divided House, Waxman could become chairman.

If you believe corporate lobbyists, Waxman has never met a regulation he didn't like. And about a third of all legislation flows through Energy & Commerce. "Nobody has to convince business that it's better off with John Dingell than with Henry Waxman," says Bernadette A. Budde, senior vice-president of the Business-Industry Political Action Committee, a fund-raising group. On May 2, BIPAC took the unusual step of jumping into a primary race, backing Dingell against Rivers.

Dingell, who was elected to the House the year before Rivers was born, finds himself in this quandary because Michigan lost a congressional seat in the 2000 census. The Republican-led state legislature eliminated one Democratic seat by throwing incumbents Dingell, 75, and Rivers, 46, into the same district. The new district remains strongly Democratic, but as home to both blue-collar Detroit suburbs and the left-leaning college town of Ann Arbor, it is ideologically fractured.

Conventional wisdom had Rivers bowing out in the face of Dingell's stature and well-oiled political machine. Instead, she's taking him head on. Rivers figures she has the edge--over half the new district's Democrats are her constituents, vs. 45% for Dingell.

Rivers' legislative record is weak: She has never had a bill of her own pass. But she's running as the anti-Dingell, championing stronger clean-air laws and gun safety. Now, as Rivers pounds on abortion rights, gun control, and the environment--issues she hopes will resonate with primary voters--she is forcing the socially moderate Dingell to demonstrate his progressive bona fides.

On May 23, Dingell teamed up with antigun activist Representative Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) on legislation to boost the accuracy of instant background checks of gun buyers. Dingell aides say the bill has been in the works since 1999 and has nothing to do with Rivers. Political observers think otherwise. Dingell is a onetime National Rifle Assn. board member who won points with auto workers and NRA members by taking on the gun-control lobby. "This year, Dingell is going out of his way to play up some positions and beliefs that he never did before," says Ed Sarpolus of Michigan-based polling firm EPIC/MRA.

Dingell's clout and connections are not to be discounted. He has endorsements from union brass and Michigan Democratic Party officials. He also has financial support from the likes of GM (GM ), Blue Cross Blue Shield, BellSouth (BLS ), Ford Motor (F ), and the National Association of Broadcasters. The NAB, whose contributions tend to favor Republicans over Democrats 2 to 1, has given $7,000 to Dingell this year. "He has not voted with us on all the issues, but he's somebody we do respect enormously," says NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton. One lobbyist whose company is supporting Dingell was less tactful: "Am I nervous about Waxman?


Dingell has raised $1.2 million so far, with over half of that flowing from corporate and Big Labor political action committees. That's more than the $1.1 million he raised in the entire 2000 election cycle--and almost twice Rivers' $633,000. Even Republicans are writing checks. Suzie Mitchell, a West Bloomfield (Mich.) GOP strategist who collected some $100,000 for George W. Bush's Presidential bid, is raising money for Dingell. That's fine with the Rivers camp, which predicts that Dingell's corporate and GOP ties will rally the Left. Says Rivers campaign consultant Chris Sautter: "Big Business wants to make sure that legislation has his stamp rather than Henry Waxman's stamp."

Still, organizational skills often trump money in primary races, and the four-term Rivers has shown that she can turn out the vote. And while Dingell has the support of union officials, Rivers hopes to woo the rank and file. She has the backing of the Sierra Club and other greens, as well as Emily's List, a PAC that supports women Democrats. A March poll by Emily's List gave Dingell an eight-point advantage, but with 4% of voters undecided, Rivers is within striking distance.

That should worry Big Business, and at this point, it is clearly concerned that Big John will go down. The question is: Will shoveling money into Dingell's war chest be enough to keep the devil it knows in power?

By Lorraine Woellert in Washington

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.