DETROIT — State Rep. Rashida Tlaib didn’t go to the fancy meeting of Detroit’s business and political elites last week on Mackinac Island. For one thing, the Legislature was in session. For another, well, there was simply too much to do in Lansing and her home district, a strip of Southwest Detroit and the neighboring suburbs of River Rouge and Ecorse bordering the Detroit River.
She’s got some bills she really wants to see passed, especially one that would regulate shady scrap metal dealers. “We need to hold them accountable! They are contributing to the destruction of this town,” she says over lunch at El Barzon, a popular Hispanic restaurant not far from the vacant lot where Tiger Stadium stood for more than a century. “We need to outlaw selling burnt copper,” she said, explaining that thieves—many desperate for drug money—burn down houses to make it easier to root out the valuable metals inside.
“You just try to make a difference, you know,” she said, before being interrupted when the restaurant’s owner emerged from the back room to give her an enthusiastic hug.
Nobody in her district is among the wealthy, “one percent.” It’s doubtful if very many of her 85,000 or so constituents exceed the poverty line. But, it is a community, nonetheless.
And, when not in Lansing, Rashida (everyone calls her “Rashida”) spends much of her time trying to fight neighborhood predators and straighten out people’s problems. On one recent night, “Representative Rashida” was with a neighborhood watch group patrolling nearby corners with a bullhorn, trying to chase local street prostitutes and their customers away.
“You should be ashamed of yourself!“ she bellowed at one man she knew. “What are you doing? Go home!” This, after all, is her home too. “I feel a personal relationship with Detroit’s riverfront and with these people. I grew up here,” she says.
That she did, but her ethnic background is a little different than most of her constituents, nearly all of whom are African-American or Hispanic. The former Rashida Elabed is an Arab, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, and the first female Muslim ever elected to Michigan’s Legislature.
Her voters don’t seem to care. She grew up in anything but a world of privilege. Her parents were young, struggling immigrants when she came into the world in July 1976, a few days after the nation’s bicentennial. Thirteen more children followed. Sometimes the family was on welfare and she was expected to help raise her younger siblings. Nobody in her family had ever completed high school until she managed to do so. She then went on to earn a college and Law degree.
But, Rashida chose to stay in the old neighborhood. Her husband, Fayez Tlaib, is an auto worker who she says does more than his share to help raise their two sons, one of whom was born after she was elected to the Legislature.
“I couldn’t do it without him,” she says. While going to school, she worked as a community organizer, which she says was tremendous training. “I’ve gotten more bills passed since we (Democrats) have been in the minority than I did when we controlled things,” she says, laughing. “Forget about [political] Parties; I look for things we have in common.”
Rashida wasn’t planning on a career in elected politics, but eventually began working as a staff member for then State Representative Steve Tobocman. He was a Jew, the grandson of immigrants who fled the Holocaust. She was a Palestinian Arab. Nevertheless, he was so impressed that he talked her into running for his seat when term limits forced him out of office four years ago. With his backing, she won the primary easily, collecting 90 percent of the vote that November. Two years later, she did better still.
She’s no stranger to controversy. Early on, she challenged her fellow Arab—Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun—and his plan to build another bridge next to the one he already owned. “The pollution is an environmental hazard,” she declared. Enraged, he supported a plan to try and recall her. It fizzled. She supports, instead, the proposed New International Trade Crossing (NITC) bridge the Governor wants, but only if there are some community benefits included for the citizens she represents.
She is currently fighting Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager Roy Roberts over his plan to close Southwestern High School. However, there is now a real question as to whether she’ll be back for a final term. Redistricting put Tlaib into a new district with another incumbent, State Representative Maureen Stapleton. Much more of this new turf has been represented by Ms. Stapleton, and both are campaigning hard.
“Some days I leave the house at 6 a.m. and don’t get back ‘til 10 p.m.,” Rashida Tlaib says. The voters she meets don’t often understand redistricting. “Why haven’t we seen you before now?” they ask her.
Others, confused, think she is running for Congress. What she would really like is to survive the August primary, see Democrats take back control of the house, and then become a Committee Chair. But, if not, “this is my neighborhood, and I’ll go on working to help people in any way I can” she says.
One wonders if—win or lose—the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce ought to think about inviting Tlaib to their Mackinac Island Conference next year. They could learn something about a slice of Michigan they might otherwise never know.
Originally published in Dome Magazine
Veteran journalist and national Emmy Award winner Jack Lessenberry teaches 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.