Rashida Tlaib is poised to make history.
If she wins the current race in Michigan’s 13th congressional district to fill the seat held for over 50 years by the recently retired Rep. John Conyers Jr., Tlaib will become the first Muslim American woman ever elected to the U.S. Congress. But before that can happen she needs to overcome two big challenges: The Democratic establishment and Islamophobia. And both are very powerful.
Tlaib is everything you could want in a congressional candidate who can have an impact on day one. She served in the Michigan state legislature from 2008 to 2014, so she understands both the nuance and human impact of government policies.
For example, as a Michigan state representative, one of her accomplishments was establishing a neighborhood service center where she saved families from foreclosure, helped seniors obtain grants to save on their energy bills, passed out thousands of books to local kids and more.
Since leaving the legislature, Tlaib has remained active in the community, fighting for social justice as an attorney and advocate at the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice.
And when it comes to the nuts and bolts of politics, this mother of two young kids is out there day and night meeting the people of the district. She even bested her rivals in terms of fundraising by raking in nearly $600,000 in the first quarter of 2018 alone, far more than her Democratic opponents. And she’s doing that by not taking one cent from corporate PAC money, a pledge her Democratic rivals have still not matched.
Tlaib has understandably drawn comparisons to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who recently made national headlines with her stunning upset of ten-term House member Joe Crowley in New York’s Democratic primary. Both were endorsed by The People for Bernie and the very progressive Justice Democrats. Both are championing an agenda that calls for bold, progressive ideas.
And both Ocasio-Cortez challenged the Democratic establishment. The open question is whether Tlaib can follow in Ocasio-Cortez’s footsteps and defeat the Detroit version of New York City’s Democratic machine, which has lined up behind Brenda Jones, the president of Detroit's City Council.
In addition to that, John Conyers’s nephew, State Senator Ian Conyers, is also running, meaning others in the Democratic establishment have lined up behind him. That leaves Tlaib, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, on the outside looking in.
That’s why Tlaib is out there daily taking her message directly to the people. And she’s not holding back, even when it comes to fellow Democrats, explaining, “I'm not afraid to call out my Democratic colleagues when they're not working hard enough to make people's lives better, or when they're schmoozing with corporate lobbyists, because a label doesn't make you a representative of the people.” (No wonder the establishment doesn’t like her!)
Tlaib ticked off the issues that motivate her to knock on door after door: “We're talking about things like raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and passing universal healthcare, ensuring women and minorities make equal pay for equal work, and free public college. Because these are things that can change people's lives.”
It’s her “change people’s lives” comment that the national Democratic Party especially needs to champion. After all, it’s the Democratic Party that has delivered so many programs that have changed people's lives for the better from Social Security to Medicare and from Medicaid to the ACA and the list goes on.
But beyond the Democratic establishment, Tlaib also has to contend with anti-Muslim bigotry, which exists even in Michigan, which boasts one of the nation’s largest Muslim populations. When Tlaib was a member of the state legislature, she encountered countless anti-Muslim barbs. One of the most common baseless smears leveled against her, and against all visible Muslims Americans including myself, is that we want impose sharia law.
In fact, one of the Democratic candidates in Michigan’s race for governor this year is Muslim American Abdul El-Sayed, who was recently targeted by a big time Trump supporter claiming that El-Sayed wants “to turn the entire state of Michigan into sharia-compliant communities like Dearborn, Michigan.”
The response of the City of Dearborn on Twitter to this Trump troll was priceless: “There is no sharia law or ‘sharia-compliant’ law in Dearborn. We are proud of our diversity, our community, the State of Michigan, our country. We invite you here to visit the real Dearborn!”
As Tlaib explained, she even had a Republican tell people to vote for anyone but her, including voting for “Santa Claus,” because this GOPer claimed that as a Muslim she would blow up the Michigan state capitol. But the most painful part of anti-Muslim hate for Tlaib is when her young children ask about anti-Muslim comments made by people like Trump or others.
Even if Tlaib defeats the Democratic establishment, anti-Muslim bigotry isn’t going anywhere especially with Trump in the White House. But her victory would play a big role in helping accurately define who we are and push back against the fact-free caricature some on the right have painted of Muslims.
Michigan’s Democratic primary is only three weeks away on August 7. Between now and then, Tlaib plans to knock on as many doors and meet as many voters as possible in the hopes of convincing people that she’s the right person to represent them and their families.
And from there, Inshallah (God willing), Tlaib will make history and take a seat in Congress—and I can’t think of a better time for that to happen then when the most anti-Muslim President in our nation’s history sits in the Oval Office.