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The first Muslim congresswoman could come from Detroit

Mar 5, 2018

Rashida Tlaib
Credit Rashida Tlaib for Congress / via Facebook

Nobody gave Rashida Tlaib much of a chance when she decided to run for the legislature ten years ago. She was a Muslim whose mother had been born in Palestine.

Most of the voters were Black or Hispanic. Very few were Arab or Muslim. The outgoing state representative had been Jewish. But Tlaib worked hard, knocking on doors, sometimes with her toddler in tow. She won a solid victory in the Democratic primary.

But not a majority -- and that bothered her.

“Afterwards, they got a flavor of my public service and my approach, and I blew it out of the water the second time.” That she did, getting 85 percent in the primary. She was term-limited out after 2014, and lost a tough state senate race.

But then, last December, John Conyers’ career crashed in disgrace. The 13th Congressional district was left without a Congressman after he resigned December 5. This is one of the poorest and most solidly Democratic districts in the nation.

It starts with roughly the southern half of Detroit, hooks north and shoots out to the west and south, to take in some poor blue-collar suburbs and pack as many Democrats into one district as possible. No Republican candidate has any chance here.

Republicans are in no hurry to send another Democrat to the House, and Gov. Rick Snyder didn’t set a special election to fill the seat until November, the same day as the general.

Yet there’s enormous enthusiasm and fierce competition among Democrats, and there’s a candidate of every flavor you can imagine in the primary August 7th, which will, in fact, be the real election. There are two Conyers, one Coleman Young, Detroit’s city council president, a current legislator, and a former one who has been working for Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun.

There is William Weld, the mayor of Westland. And Rashida Tlaib, who, if she makes it, would be the first Muslim woman in Congress. “I’m a proud Muslim, a Detroiter, and as American as they come,” said Tlaib, who was born twenty days after the nation’s bicentennial.

She’s tenacious; she vows to knock on every one of the 41,000 doors in the district. When she was in the legislature five years ago, Marathon Oil piled huge mounds of pet coke along the Detroit River, and the winds coated homes with black dust.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality told her it wasn’t toxic. She snuck onto the property for samples, which she had independently tested.

It was toxic. Soon, the giant piles were gone. Tlaib isn’t always subtle. She’d only give Mayor Mike Duggan a grade of “C” because the poor are still getting poorer. When asked the biggest reason she is running for Congress, she said she believes “this is about electing the jury that will impeach him.”

There’s no need to ask who she means. If she wins, she told me, she intends to continue to live in Detroit with her two young sons. “I think I only have to be in Washington nine days a month,” she told me. She’s probably an underdog here.

Yet with this many candidates, who knows? I have known Rashida since she was in a journalism course I taught half her lifetime ago. I don’t know who will win.

But I wouldn’t bet against her.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.