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Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell on forming the Heartland Caucus of Democrats in the House

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Does the National Democratic Party have a problem in heartland America? Representative Debbie Dingell of Michigan, who ran and lost for a caucus leadership position in the House, displayed a map that shows the home states of caucus leaders. They're all from coastal states - New York, California, Massachusetts, Maryland. Representative Dingell is forming what's called the Heartland Caucus of Democrats, concerned their party isn't concerned enough with issues felt deeply in the Midwest. Representative Dingell joins us from her district in Michigan.

Thanks so much for being with us.

DEBBIE DINGELL: It's good to be with you.

SIMON: Republicans often call Democrats the coastal party. Is that true?

DINGELL: No, it's not. Would I be a member of Congress and a lot of my other colleagues if we did not have representation from the heartland? Though I think it's important at times that we need to make sure that our voices are heard. We are not going to win the majority back in the House without members of Congress from the heartland. But I think that our new leadership knows that and understands that.

SIMON: And what issues would you like to press?

DINGELL: Well, there are a number - I mean, manufacturing, union workers, trade. We're going to have reauthorization of the agricultural bill next year. There are very significant rural areas in our heartland. And their issues are - have different perspectives than California does. But we are a mosaic. We're just making sure that our perspective is heard and that we're educating people and that we're out there making sure that those in the heartland know that we do care.

SIMON: Representative Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, your colleague's been quoted this week saying she couldn't get fellow Democrats on the Special Committee on Economic Fairness to even mention the Midwest in their final report. Does that happen one way or another when Midwestern Democrats try to get attention to problems in their part of the country?

DINGELL: So I think it's important that we made our voice heard. But I can tell you that Hakeem and Katherine and Pete have all made it very clear that it is very important that the heartland be included. Hakeem has called me and said - all three of them - Katherine and...

SIMON: We should explain. Hakeem Jeffries, of course, is the leader of the House Democrats.

DINGELL: No, I'm sorry. Katherine Clark'll be the whip, and Pete'll be chair of the caucus. They have all said, we want to be supportive. What are the different things that we can do? And I have to say that they know that it matters. But, you know, the other thing I want to point out to you is that the same time this was all going on, the president made a decision on the presidential primaries that it needed to be more reflective of the country.

And it's been a 30-year fight to make sure that we have a presidential nominating system that includes a diversity of our country in those early states. And the president himself said there is no road to the White House that doesn't go through the heartland. So we just have to be intentional and deliberate.

SIMON: What do you think about the administration's plan to forgive, which after all, means to cancel billions of dollars in student loans? Did it somehow make an implicit statement that the party considers college more valuable than the working class?

DINGELL: You know, everybody wants to pit people against each other. I know many union workers who have children with college debt, have it themselves. I think this president has worked very hard to let the working men and women who are members of the union know that he cares for them and fights for them. We do have to talk to them. We cannot take them for granted. I had some of the toughest union town halls, quite frankly, this year than I had in '16. But I stay there. I talk to them. We have to make sure that they understand what is being done for them. And we've got to do a better job of communicating how we are helping them.

SIMON: What made those town halls rough, Representative Dingell? What did people say to you?

DINGELL: They were very much listening to Fox, as I heard some of those talking points. They didn't think that people cared. They saw money going to a lot of people. People were worried about inflation and gas prices. And they hear what's happening in California and think that they don't matter. Well, they do matter. And President Biden has made it very clear and has been fighting for those working jobs.

Quite frankly, I think it took the pandemic and people to see for real how we had shipped jobs overseas. Our supply chain had gone overseas. We're making very concerted efforts now to bring that supply chain home. Not only is it economic security, but it's national security.

SIMON: Has the Democratic Party sometimes seemed to favor high-tech over factory jobs?

DINGELL: You know, the Republican Party does that, too, sometimes. By the way, we spend too much time pitting people, pitting issues against each other. What we have to do is to make sure all the issues are heard and not make false choices but figure out a way that we bring everybody to the table.

Quite frankly, I'm very proud of what I did with the unions and the environmentalist groups, talking about electric vehicles. It was a table that we worked on for six months that resulted in the announcement that the president made last August at the White House. That had UAW, environmentalists' and the auto companies' themselves buy-in because people talked to each other, listened to concerns, found common ground. That's what we need to do more of.

SIMON: Representative Debbie Dingell of Michigan.

Thanks so much for being with us.

DINGELL: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF DESERTSHORE'S "INTERMEZZO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.