How Detroit's Rashida Tlaib will make history in Washington

September 7, 2018


It is Eid al-Adha, one of the holiest days of the Islamic calendar, and Detroit’s next full-term congresswoman — who in November is expected to become one of the first two Muslim women elected to the U.S. House — is rolling through southwest Detroit, snapping pictures of homes with her cell phone. 


“I’m texting these to the commander right now,” Rashida Tlaib says, tapping away.


Let’s just say it’s not your typical visit with a politician, with her doing the driving and no staffers or handlers around. But then, Tlaib (pronounced tah-LEEB), a 42-year-old social justice lawyer, activist and former state representative, is not your everyday office-seeker.

A couple of hours before, the divorced mother of two young boys rushed into her office in the Cass Corridor after Eid al-Adha prayers at the Islamic Center of Detroit on Tireman, late for a meeting, boys in tow, dashing on makeup before a photographer turned on a video camera (“I’m not a makeup girl!” she pleaded).


She then spent much of the morning checking on 7-year-old Yousif, who, after a mug for the camera and a hug from his mom, is set up with water and a game nearby, and trying to coax, cajole and jokingly cow her older son, 13-year-old Adam, not to pound quite so loudly on her office computer or make wry asides while she tries to answer a reporter’s questions about Democratic socialism. 


Later, after dropping Adam and Yousif off at an aunt’s home, following an impressive series of calls to relatives — she is the oldest of 14 siblings — the soon-to-be-congresswoman abruptly pulled into a driveway on Rathbone, in her old neighborhood, big dogs running around loose, and disappeared into a house to talk privately with an old friend. She came out with a short list of homes where neighbors had reported seeing drug sales and prostitution and said she planned to take pictures of them and send them to police. 


As in, she’s going to do this right now. 


With her election in November no more than a formality given the overwhelmingly Democratic makeup of her Detroit/Downriver/western Wayne County district  — and the lack of a Republican opponent — Tlaib, when she is sworn in Jan. 3, will make history, not only as a Muslim woman and the first Palestinian-American woman elected to Congress, but as the full-term replacement for U.S. Rep. John Conyers — a civil rights legend who ended a 53-year-long career amid scandal nine months ago. Given her district — and her willingness to make her voice heard — she also will become a national voice on poverty, civil rights, equality, crime and a whole range of urban issues, when she is sworn in on a 1734 translation of the Quran, apparently purchased by a curious Thomas Jefferson, that now resides in the Library of Congress.


Already, Tlaib has been the subject of interviews on CNN, MSBNC and elsewhere. The New York Times sent someone in to write up a profile. And while she has been criticized by some of her detractors as being more interested in publicity than in the compromises needed to get legislation passed — a criticism that her record does not necessarily support — and has demonstrated a propensity for crossing establishment forces  on both sides, she’s set to become one of the most visible members of the state’s congressional delegation in a U.S. House that could potentially be under Democratic control by the time of her swearing-in. She'll also be a foil for Trump — and a proponent of his impeachment. 

It’s worth mentioning as well that she’s talked about — along with Democratic nominees such as  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Ilhan Omar in Minnesota (the other female Muslim candidate who won a primary in the most Democratic congressional district in her state)  — as representing a new generation of Democrats who could remake the party in Congress.


Only now, on Eid al-Adha, driving around her old neighborhood, none of that matters: She’s ‘Shida — laughing, ebullient, talking enthusiastically and confidently about her plans to remain a near-constant presence at home, to continue fighting against whatever her constituents need her to fight, be it water shutoffs or sweetheart deals for developers — whatever it takes to make life better in a district that is the second most impoverished in the country and has lost more people than any other.


And despite being derided by some in her past as a “carpet-bagger” — or as not belonging because she is an Arab and a Muslim in a majority black city — she does this all as a true Detroiter would, deftly handling traffic in a black Chevy Equinox and zipping around trucks twice her car’s size, pointing out this corner lot or that, and who keeps up their property and who doesn’t. She gregariously waves to old friends and takes a call in the full presence of a reporter and photographer from someone who wants to read her the riot act about correcting an offhand criticism she made in an interview at some point about officeholders seeming to support sports arenas downtown in part to get better seats for themselves.


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