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SOUTHGATE, Mich. — Rep. John Dingell, a master legislative deal-maker and champion of the Detroit auto industry who is the longest-serving member of Congress in history, announced today that he won’t seek another term.
The Michigan Democrat, who was elected to his late father’s seat in 1955 and has held it ever since, said during a speech to a Detroit-area Chamber of Commerce that he couldn’t have met his own standards if he had been elected to another term in November.
“I put myself to the test and have always known that when the time came that I felt I could not live up to my own personal standard for a Member of Congress, it would be time to step aside for someone else to represent this district,” the 87-year-old Dingell said. “That time has come.”
He fueled speculation that his wife, Deborah Dingell, 60, might run for his seat, saying she would have his vote if she does. After the speech, Debbie Dingell, as she is commonly known, repeatedly deflected questions about whether she would run, saying, “I am only talking about John Dingell.”
Dingell became the longest-serving member of Congress ever in June when he broke the record held by the late Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia.
As a congressional page, years before he took over his father’s seat, Dingell watched firsthand as President Franklin D. Roosevelt called on Congress to declare war on Japan in his “Day of Infamy” address.
As a congressman and former chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, Dingell played a role in several landmark pieces of progressive legislation, including the passage of the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, President Barack Obama’s federal health care overhaul and the creation of Medicare.
“Presidents come and presidents go,” former President Bill Clinton said in 2005, when Dingell celebrated 50 years in Congress. “John Dingell goes on forever.”
Dubbed “Big John” for his imposing 6-foot-3 frame and sometimes intimidating manner, a reputation bolstered by the wild game heads decorating his Washington office, Dingell has served with every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Dingell was a congressional power broker and staunch advocate for the U.S. auto industry, and was known as a dogged pursuer of government waste and fraud, helping take down two top presidential aides while chairman of a powerful investigative panel.
Dingell also was accused of stalling the Clean Air Act to help auto interests. His hometown, the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, was home to a Ford Motor Co. factory that was once the largest in the world.
One of his proudest moments came in 2010, when he sat next to Obama as the $938 billion health care overhaul was signed into law. Taking up his father’s cause, Dingell had introduced a universal health care coverage bill in each of his terms.
For 14 years he chaired the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees industries from banking and energy to health care and the environment. He also led its investigative arm, which produced several high-profile cases.
He often has used his dry wit to amuse his friends and sting opponents. Even when he was in a hospital in 2003 following an operation to open a blocked artery, he maintained his humor.
“I’m happy to inform the Republican leadership that I fully intend to be present to vote against their harmful and shameless tax giveaway package,” he said from the hospital.
His critics called him overpowering and intimidating. And the head of a 500-pound wild boar looking at visitors to his Washington office only boosted that reputation, as did the story behind it: Dingell is said to have felled the animal with a pistol as it charged him during a hunting trip in Soviet Georgia.
Yet the avid hunter and sportsman, whose office was decorated with big game trophies, was hard to typecast. He also loved classical music and ballet — his first date with his wife, Debbie, a prominent Democratic activist whom he affectionately introduced as “the lovely Deborah,” was a performance of the American Ballet Theater.
Born in Colorado Springs, Colo., on July 8, 1926, John David Dingell Jr. grew up in Michigan, where his father was elected to Congress as a “New Deal” Democrat in 1932. After a brief stint in the Army near the end of World War II, the younger Dingell earned his bachelor’s and law degrees from Georgetown University.
Following the sudden death of his father in September 1955, Dingell, then a 29-year-old attorney, won a special election to succeed him.