November 05, 2001 12:00 PM

In the ninth of People‘s series on the 13 women currently in the U.S. Senate, we profile Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow. A career politician who first held office at 24, she won a razor-thin victory in 2000 and has since become one of the most visible members of the freshman class.

On a September afternoon in Flint, Mich., Debbie Stabenow works the room—more precisely, the GM Powertrain-Flint V6 Engine Plant. Looking sharp in protective goggles, escorted by a phalanx of union reps and plant managers, she greets some of the 1,600 employees. Stabenow, 51, is hugely popular here; a few workers greet her in “Debbie” T-shirts from last year’s campaign, when she became the first woman senator in her state’s history, edging incumbent Republican Spencer Abraham, now Secretary of Energy. But the festive mood is tempered by anxiety over the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. “Is it okay for me to fly to Florida on Wednesday?” asks one GM executive. The senator nods. “Can you call my wife and tell her that?”

“People need to see me now,” Stabenow says. “They need to be reassured.” Certainly one secret of her success is a comforting accessibility. Auto worker Ron Winters, 43, recalls a Fourth of July parade where “little old ladies would come running off the curb and hug her like they’ve known her their whole lives. She can seduce a crowd with her eyes.” Cloaking a tough interior shaped by three decades in politics, her warm, fuzzy persona has won over Senate colleagues as well. “She has an extraordinary affability,” says Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. “Everybody loves Debbie Stabenow.”

Indeed, she moved seamlessly into the Senate club. At a party retreat last year, for instance, the divorced mother of two—who helped put herself through college singing folk songs in ’60s coffeehouses—dusted off her guitar to perform songs parodying fellow politicos with California Sen. Barbara Boxer. “We have to get all the new people used to calling her Debbie, not Senator,” says longtime staffer Teresa Plachetka, 41. “That’s what she’s most comfortable with.”

If the Founding Fathers never envisioned a Senator Debbie, they might still be impressed with her. Since the defection of ex-GOP Sen. James Jeffords shifted control to her party, Stabenow has wielded unusual influence for a rookie. Her pet causes have been lowering the cost of prescription drugs for senior citizens—the issue she rode to the Senate—and preventing oil and gas drilling in the Great Lakes. But it has been on the Budget Committee that Stabenow has made her biggest mark, becoming the first freshman ever to manage the budget resolution on the floor, shepherding along the $1.8 trillion process. On the Banking Committee she is working on an anti-money-laundering bill that would compel banks to exercise “due diligence” in recording transactions and sharing the information with the CIA and law enforcement.

“It’s part of the antiterrorism bill,” she says of the measure, which should soon reach a vote. “We know, for instance, that Osama bin Laden is very heavily involved with a bank in the Sudan that deals with banks that do business in the U.S. We haven’t done a good job of tracking that.” While giving President Bush high marks for his handling of the terrorist crisis, Stabenow has criticized his plans for education, health care and the environment. She bills herself as a moderate, but not everyone buys it. “She’s very liberal,” says Tripp Baird of the conservative Heritage Foundation. “She’s lockstep with the unions and has to be in Michigan—if you’re a Democrat, pro-car and pro-union, it’s pretty tough to get you out of there.”

Politics were nowhere near her radar screen when Stabenow was growing up in rural Clare, Mich., the oldest of three children born to Robert Greer, a car dealer turned insurance agent who died in 1982, and his wife, Ann, now 75, a retired RN. The close-knit family formed a kind of house band, with Debbie on piano, Robert on sax, and brothers Lynn (guitar) and Lee (drums). “I would sing with them, and we still love to do that,” says Ann.

A clarinetist in the Clare High School band, Debbie was also a majorette, cheerleader, yearbook editor and top student. “She came home with every book in her locker every night,” says Lynn, 49, a salesman.

An honors student at Michigan State, Stabenow graduated in 1972, earned her master’s in social work and became a school counselor. By that time she had wed Dennis Stabenow, now 52, who later did PR for the speaker of Michigan’s House of Representatives. (The 17-year union produced Todd, now 26, and Michelle, 21, and ended amicably in 1989. “Without going into details,” Lee, 42, a UPS driver, says, “I don’t think it was all Debbie’s fault.”) In 1974 Stabenow grew incensed when she felt a county commissioner was threatening to shut down the only Lansing nursing home that took Medicaid patients. Her husband made a suggestion: Why not run for commissioner herself?

She did, winning in a landslide, and has remained in politics ever since. Stabenow served 11 years in the Michigan House and spent three years in the State Senate. A 1994 gubernatorial bid failed, but in 1996 she won the first of two terms in Congress. Her Senate race against Abraham—who mockingly called her Liberal Debbie—went down to the wire. She displayed some showmanship, trumpeting the drug-pricing issue by sponsoring bus tours to Canada for senior citizens so they could get and fill prescriptions more cheaply. In the end Stabenow captured 49.5 percent of the vote. “Anytime a senator comes in by beating an incumbent, they’re going to get a little more respect,” says Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Especially a woman who had to battle very hard to eke out a victory.”

Not that there haven’t been rough patches. When Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, appearing before the budget panel in March, took a condescending tone when answering Stabenow’s questions, “I had to take a deep breath and count to 10,” she said at the time. Of course, the exchange seemed trivial on Sept. 11. Stabenow tears up recalling that night, when she and her colleagues met on the Capitol steps, joined hands and sang “God Bless America.” “There was such a feeling of unity,” she says. “I’m hoping that the goodwill will transfer to other issues. People talk about getting back to normal. I’m hoping what we do is go forward to a new normal.”

Richard Jerome

J. Todd Foster in Washington, D.C., Lorna Grisby in Chicago and Amy Mindell in Flint

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