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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Will Rashida Tlaib be the First Muslim Woman in Congress?

March 16, 2018

DETROIT – On paper, Rashida Tlaib shouldn’t even be a factor in the Democratic primary to replace John Conyers in Congress. The district consists of about half of Detroit and a collection of largely working-class Wayne County suburbs. Slightly more than half of the population is black; most of the rest are blue-collar white folks, many of whom used to work in steel mills or other gritty manufacturing jobs.

Tlaib is a proud Muslim woman, with an infectious laugh and a winning personality, a divorced 41-year-old mom of two young sons, a Detroit native whose parents were refugees from Palestine. There are few Muslims or Palestinians in this hardscrabble district, ranked by the Almanac of American Politics as the third poorest in the nation. Yet she has beaten the odds before.  And she thinks she may be the first Muslim woman to serve in Congress.

“I’m also as American as they come,” she told me in a quirky Detroit coffee shop called Anthology last week, as a table of enthusiastic non-Muslims nodded approval.  “She’s going to win because nobody else cares about people the way she does,” said 27-year-old Andy Goddeeris, who is working as her voluntary campaign manager.

Ten years ago, she became the first Muslim woman elected to the legislature from a gritty legislative district, easily winning a crowded Democratic primary. Four years later, facing a single opponent, she won with 85 percent.  Now, she wants voters to send her to Congress. During her time in the legislature, Ms. Tlaib was all about serving those who lived in her district, successfully battling Marathon Corporation over piles of petcoke that blew “fugitive dust,” said to be toxic, across residents’ homes and yards.

She also won funding for a neighborhood service center that provided an array of programs to low-income families.  But when asked her biggest reason for wanting to go to Congress now, she doesn’t hesitate: “I think this (election) is going to be about electing the jury that will impeach him–and I would make a heck of a juror!” (No need to ask who she meant.)

Yet does she have a prayer of winning?

Matched against a single African-American opponent, maybe not. Four years ago, forced by term limits to leave the state house of representatives, she took on incumbent State Sen. Virgil Smith in a Democratic primary.  Smith was an intellectual lightweight who later was forced to resign after he assaulted his former wife and shot up her car. But he still managed to defeat Tlaib, a lawyer who then went to work for Detroit’s Sugar Law Center, which works mainly on behalf of the city’s downtrodden. 

When Smith went off to jail, Tlaib declined to run for his senate seat again, and some thought her elective career was over. Then, however, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, who had been in office since 1964, resigned last Dec. 5 after a spate of sexual harassment allegations.  Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder declined to call a special election before November, meaning that for nearly a year, 700,000 residents will be without a representative in Congress. 

Yet that doesn’t mean there aren’t an overwhelming number – and variety — of Democrats who want to succeed him. The district is different from most. First, it is the only one in the state that falls entirely within a single county (Wayne).  It is also one where the only election that matters is the August 7 Democratic primary.

This district was designed to be as solidly Democratic as they come, and was also, under the Voting Rights act, designed to be one of two districts with an African-American majority. 

But that doesn’t necessarily mean electing a black congressman, and here’s why: At least 10 candidates may be on the primary ballot.  Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones may be the front-runner, but the African-American community is anything but united. There are two candidates named Conyers – State Sen. Ian, the congressman’s grand-nephew, and the congressman’s 28-year-old son, John III.  State Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo is also in the race. So is Godfrey Dillard, the Democratic candidate for Secretary of State four years ago. Activist Michael Gilmore is running. So is another former state representative, Shanelle Jackson, who might be considered the candidate of controversial Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun, for whom she now works.

William Wild, the mayor of Westland, jumped into the race, perhaps on the shrewd theory that in a crowded field he can win by gathering most of the voters who are white.   Tlaib, on the other hand, thinks she has the edge, based on her track record of working for the people. “In Lansing I secured millions of dollars for free health clinics, lead abatement, programs for seniors and bilingual education,” she said, adding, “It’s not about me. I get my satisfaction as a public servant by empowering regular people to make the changes they want to see in their lives.”

Whether enough of those people turn out on August 7 will determine her future.  Given the crowded field, someone could win with as few as 10,000 votes.  If she does, Tlaib doesn’t plan to spend any more time in Washington than necessary. “I don’t think I need to be there more than nine days a month. This is my home.”  That may also sound hard to believe, but Rashida Tlaib—the oldest of 14 children who grew up partly on welfare—has a history of doing things nobody thought she could.

You might not want to bet against her doing it again.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

March 15, 2018 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 harvey bronstein // Mar 16, 2018 at 9:25 am

    I don’t know who will win, but I would not count Rashida out.


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