Kildee embraces role as dean of Michigan House Dem delegation

By: - February 7, 2019 1:08 pm
Rep. Dan Kildee and House Democrats

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) speaks at a press conference featuring House Democrats at the U.S. Capitol April 20, 2016, in Washington, DC | Win McNamee, Getty Images

Updated, 2:10 p.m.

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) hasn’t just ascended to leadership on Capitol Hill as chief deputy whip for the new majority Democratic caucus.

He’s also the senior member of the Michigan House Democratic delegation after the Dean of the House now-former U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit) stepped down amid a sexual harassment scandal in 2017 and now-former U.S. Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Royal Oak) didn’t run for re-election last year.*

John Dingell

Kildee’s role had been filled for decades by now-former U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-Dearborn). Dingell, who remains the longest-serving member of Congress in history, retired in 2015 and was succeeded by his wife, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn).

After the Advance‘s in-depth interview with Kildee, John Dingell’s health took a turn for the worse and he entered hospice care. Kildee asked people on Wednesday to keep the Dingells “in your thoughts.”

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph), who’s been in office since 1987, is the dean of Michigan’s entire 14-member House delegation.  

Kildee already had a national profile while battling the Flint water crisis and fighting for the release of former Marine Amir Hekmati from an Iranian prison. He hails from a political family in Flint and was first elected to office at age 18.

While he shocked many insiders by taking a pass on running for governor in 2018, Kildee said he made the right choice to stay in Congress and is relishing serving in the majority in key positions. He complimented the Democrat who did win last year, Gretchen Whitmer, and noted she’s already been up to Flint.

Michigan used to have one of the most senior delegations, but its grip on power loosened with the exits of John Dingell, Conyers, Levin and Kildee’s uncle, U.S. Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Flint).

The Great Lakes State has made a comeback in the 116th Congress, with members moving into key committee slots. Dan Kildee also serves on the Budget Committee and the powerful U.S. Ways and Means Committee, which Sandy Levin once chaired.

Kildee praised the four new Michigan members of Congress, who are all Democrats, noting that none are “shrinking violets.”

Known for his razor-sharp quips on Twitter and cable news shows, Kildee recently torched President Trump for taking a “defeat lap” after a deal was reached on the partial federal government shutdown. In this interview, he gave Trump an “F” on his job performance.

Not surprisingly, Kildee defended U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) for her declaration that “we’re going to go in there and impeach the motherfucker,” but said he doesn’t expect her to use that “colorful” language again.

Kildee also talked to the Advance last week about what still needs to happen in Flint, what to watch in the 2020 election, how to prevent future government shutdowns, and more. That will run on future editions.

The following are excerpts from the interview:

Michigan Advance: There were a lot of new members of Congress and there is a lot of the ideological diversity in your caucus. How do you think House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is doing with keeping Democrats unified?

U.S. President Donald Trump, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence looking on, delivers the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives on February 5, 2019 | Doug Mills, Pool/Getty Images

Kildee: Well, I think if the first month of her speakership is any indication, I would say she’s doing very well. Our unity is … I’m quoting her, but something that she said all the time, which has proven to be true: ‘Our diversity is our strength. Our unity is our power.’ We are diverse. We have lots of different points of view. That is a strength. But when that diversity coalescence into a united position, that makes us really strong.

As tough as she is and as smart as she is, the fact that she also had  — with very, very minor exceptions — a unified caucus behind her when dealing with the president, when dealing with [U.S. Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell, that contributed to the fact that on day 35 [of the federal government shutdown], the position that we had on day one was the position that prevailed.

Elissa Slotkin, Andy Levin, Haley Stevens and Debbie Dingell at the 2019 North American International Auto Show in Detroit | Nick Manes

Michigan Advance: There are four new members of Congress from Michigan and they’re all Democrats: Haley Stevens, Elissa Slotkin, Rashida Tlaib and Andy Levin. How do you see them fitting into both the Michigan delegation and the Democratic caucus?

Kildee: None of them, not a single of them, feels like they’re freshmen to me. I’m just really proud of our delegation, because in different ways, each one of them came here and just hit the ground running. They bring a lot of great experience. They are diverse in terms of the communities they represent. The path that they have taken to Congress is different for each one of them. That’s a real strength.

It’s just been really cool. I’ve had a lot of members of Congress — as now I’m strangely the senior member of a Democratic delegation now — but I’ve had a lot of my colleagues in Congress say how great the new members from Michigan are. They’re unafraid and they’re really smart. Those characteristics go a long way here.

Michigan Advance: You’re obviously no stranger to pointed rhetoric. You recently said that Trump took a ‘defeat lap’ after reaching a deal on the shutdown. What did you think about Congresswoman Tlaib’s impeachment remarks?

Kildee: Well, a lot of people have very strong views on Donald Trump. The person I hold most responsible for that is Donald Trump. He evokes those emotions. In a moment of candor when she perhaps felt she was just among friends, she used rather colorful language to articulate the point that she was trying to make. I told her this. It’s not language that I would use publicly. It’s certainly not anything I would encourage her to do. But it’s not like I don’t understand the emotion that this guy evokes. He does.

I don’t think Congresswoman Tlaib will speak about the president in quite those terms [again], but her point about impeachment — she has a point of view. She does not believe that he’s suitable for this office. I have real questions about that, and I’m withholding judgment until I get the result of Mr. [Robert] Mueller’s [Trump] investigation.

But I will say for myself — I’m not trying to speak for her — but if the pieces of the puzzle that we’ve seen so far, as they’ve been revealed one small piece at a time — if those pieces are confirmed by the rest of the pieces of this puzzle as we see it, then I think the president’s got some very difficult questions to answer.

Michigan Advance: How would you rate Donald Trump’s job performance so far?

Kildee: I would give him an ‘F.’

Michigan Advance: You didn’t really hesitate there.

Kildee: No. He’s not succeeded. The steps that he has taken are steps in the wrong direction. He believes that the tax bill [of 2017] is one of his shining successes. It’s a tax bill that gives 87 percent of the benefit to the top one percent of Americans and exploded our deficit. … Even the things that he thinks he should celebrate are policies that are counterproductive for the country.

The other area where he exudes certain pride is in eliminating regulations. I ask him, ‘Well, what regulations are you talking about? Do you mean the regulation to protect safe drinking water?’ Does he mean the regulation to go after polluters who want to continue this view of pollutants into our air? Does it mean the elimination of [former President Barack] Obama policies on clean power? Does it mean appointing a person who is essentially going to advocate for the banks as the chief consumer protection official in the United States?

This is starting with the two things that he points to as sources as pride. I think they’re really destructive for this country. I simply disagree with him on those policies. That’s the nature of the thing. He’s the president. He gets to make the policy choices that he makes. I’m a member of Congress. I offer my opinion on those, and I say he’s failed because I disagree with the policy.

Where I think he has failed in a more lasting way is degrading our institutions of democracy — degrading the importance of a free and independent news media, for example. Degrading the importance of the judicial branch of government by implying that somehow the decisions that they make are not credible, or are not justified.

The way he has insulted our allies and embraced dictatorial tyrants who killed journalists and tamped down democratic initiatives. His embrace of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. His love affair with Vladimir Putin. His romance with Kim Jong-un. This is dangerous.

Michigan Advance: Do you feel like you made the right decision to run for re-election for Congress and pursue caucus leadership instead of running for governor last year?

Kildee: I do. I do. At the point in time that I made the decision, I didn’t really have any doubt about it, because it was a decision that was very personal to me. When Donald Trump was elected, I felt like there was just this moment that I just looked at the options that were available to me, and I thought, ‘I can’t justify walking away from an opportunity to stand up against a president who I think needs somebody who will check him, needs somebody who will do the job that I am now doing in trying to rein him in.’

And I have the additional value now in retrospect of having seen a Democrat become the governor of the state of Michigan [Gretchen Whitmer], which was my biggest concern, and somebody that I know will do a very good job. In retrospect, I feel even better about it now than I did when I made the decision, especially in light of the fact that I’m now in a leadership position in the House and a member of the Ways and Means Committee. I’m in the majority. I’m a member of the Budget Committee.

If somebody would have told me a year ago that I’d be chief deputy whip in the majority, on Ways and Means and on the Budget Committee, I would have said, ‘How do I sign up for that?’

Michigan Advance: Especially among political observers, there is some concern about Michigan losing clout with so many senior members of our delegation retiring, like former Congressman John Dingell and former Rep. Sandy Levin. What does it mean for the people of Michigan to have you on Ways and Means, to have [U.S. Rep.] Brenda Lawrence on Appropriations, to have some representation on these powerful committees?

Kildee: It makes a huge difference. When you’re sitting at the table, your voice is guaranteed to be a part of the conversation. Whether it’s me on Ways and Means, Brenda on Appropriations, Debbie Dingell on Energy and Commerce, or even our new members who are getting very significant positions for freshmen — almost entirely getting their first choices — it makes a huge difference.

We know that we have big shoes to fill, due to the fact that we had full committee chairs and very senior members that we all, at one point or another, now have replaced. But Congress is changing, too. Seniority still makes a huge difference, don’t get me wrong. It’s one of the bigger factors. But with our delegation, you don’t have any shrinking violets in our delegation. We’re not letting our lack of seniority get in the way of us having a voice. I feel good about that.

Michigan Advance: Overall, how would you rate the job that Gretchen Whitmer has done so far as governor?

Kildee: So far, so good. I’ve been impressed with the appointments that she’s made. She’s been to Flint. I hosted her for a big community gathering where she was willing to sit down and talk with people. Obviously, I’m gonna do everything I can, as I always do, for everybody. Whoever the governor is, I want them to be successful. But I share values [with her]. So far, I’ve been happy with what she’s done.

* Clarified and updated with additional information.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 23-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on C-SPAN, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ people, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 100 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.