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Rashida Tlaib’s primary victory was a win not just for the ‘Squad’ but for progressives everywhere 

click to enlarge Rashida Tlaib at a rally for Sen. Bernie Sanders at Detroit's Cass Tech High School. - ERIK PAUL HOWARD
  • Erik Paul Howard
  • Rashida Tlaib at a rally for Sen. Bernie Sanders at Detroit's Cass Tech High School.

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib is not as divisive as the mainstream media would have you believe. Hell, even The New York Times reported she was “fighting for her political life” ahead of last week’s primary election, a rematch against Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones.

“I felt like, do they know something I don’t know?” Tlaib tells Metro Times. Polls showed her far ahead of Jones this time.

“But even Bernie (Sanders) told me to throw my polls away,” she says. “He was like, ‘Keep working.’”

In reality, Tlaib, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, has proved to be a unifier, receiving 66% of the vote to Jones’ 34%, a much wider margin than she earned in 2018 for the seat vacated by longtime Congressman John Conyers, who retired following sexual harassment allegations. (In a somewhat confusing pair of elections for both the remainder of Conyers’s term and his empty seat held on the same day, Tlaib lost the first but won the other by just a few hundred votes.) This time, Tlaib even earned endorsements from such diametrically opposed sources as the conservative Detroit News (who said that though her “socialist screeds are becoming wearisome,” conceded she “brings passion and energy to her work,” and anyways none of the three Republican challengers returned the paper’s request for comment) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top establishment Democrat in Washington who once dismissed Tlaib and the three other progressive Congresswomen affectionately known as the “Squad” as not wielding any real power. (In her endorsement, Pelosi said, “Representative Rashida Tlaib is a tireless advocate for the residents of Michigan’s 13th Congressional District. ... I am proud to endorse her for reelection.”)

“I think the commonality is that they really respect hard work,” Tlaib says. “We don’t all have to go along with various styles, but I think my hard work and my passion shines through, and I know Speaker Pelosi can tell I’m there for the right reasons.”

Many in Michigan have known about Tlaib for years, thanks to her crusades as a state rep and later, through her work with the social justice attorneys at the Sugar Law Center, against nuisances in her Southwest Detroit community like the Moroun family, Marathon Oil, and even the powerful Koch brothers. (As local lore tells it, she allegedly snuck onto one of their properties to snag a sample of a byproduct called petcoke and had it tested, proving it was toxic; because of her, they covered up the mounds of the stuff stored along the Detroit River.) She was buoyed further when she was elected in 2018 along with three other progressive women — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar, with Tlaib, a Palestinian-American, and Omar becoming the first two Muslim women elected to Congress — who earned their nickname when Ocasio-Cortez posted a photo on Instagram with “Squad” in the caption, becoming a symbol of diversity.


And Tlaib’s profile was catapulted even further when, on her inauguration day in January 2019, she said of Donald Trump, “We’re gonna impeach the motherfucker!” making her a household name overnight.

Tlaib earned further headlines for speaking out against Israel, planning to lead the first-ever congressional delegation to the West Bank, but reversed course on principle after Israel said it would only allow her to visit if she promised in writing not to promote an Israel boycott while on the trip.

The thing about Tlaib is no matter how “divisive” or “radical” she may be deemed, she’s often vindicated in time. Last year, she caught flack in a battle over Detroit’s controversial facial recognition surveillance technology after pointing out that the technology has a racial bias. Detroit Police Chief James Craig later went on Fox News to suggest that it was Tlaib who was racist, but later, Tlaib was proven right when it was revealed that at least two Black men erroneously flagged by the system had been arrested.

(And, lest we forget, they did indeed impeach the motherfucker.)

“I think it’s easy for that narrative to stick to someone like me,” Tlaib says of the “divisive” label. “You know, my words get policed, and it’s not even just about my potty mouth. It’s my bullhorn-carrying and protesting, not only out in the streets but to organize on the floor at the House. ... I don’t think Congress is ready for someone like me, but I work really hard. That’s one thing my Republican and Democratic colleagues appreciate — that I put the work into it.”

Tlaib’s journey to Capitol Hill hasn’t been easy. She had to greatly reduce her hours at the Sugar Law Center to campaign in 2018, and was forced to draw money from her campaign fund in order to make ends meet. Though federal law allows congressional candidates to pay themselves out of campaign funds to make up for lost income while running for election, Tlaib drew the funds as back pay after she was elected, which was technically a violation. Last week the House Ethics Committee ordered her to pay back $10,800, though it cleared her of wrongdoing, saying it was a case “of bad timing and not ill intent.” When the ethics probe into the issue was first launched, Tlaib used the opportunity to raise awareness about how hard it is for people who aren’t already wealthy or tied to wealthy donors to get into politics.

“It is our duty to ensure that Congress becomes a place that is made for people like me and everyday people who want to have a seat at the decision-making table,” she said at the time.

This time around, Tlaib raised a hefty $3 million for her re-election efforts — far surpassing Jones, despite Jones’s support from prominent Detroit developers and the powerful pro-Israel lobby. While Tlaib did capitalize on her new fame by raising some money selling “Impeach the MF” T-shirts, she credits the bulk of it coming from national progressive organizations like Democracy for America, MoveOn, and IfNotNow for throwing their support behind her, as well as the other members of the Squad.

“AOC, as soon as she was done, she sent all her volunteers my way,” Tlaib says, referring to Ocasio-Cortez’s June primary victory. And of course, there’s Sen. Bernie Sanders, who, after suspending his campaign for president in April to support presumptive nominee Joe Biden, began using his massive mailing list to endorse down-ballot candidates like Tlaib who share his progressive agenda.

The bulk of Tlaib’s fundraising, she says, was similar to one perfected by Sanders over his decades in politics: an emphasis on small-dollar, grassroots support instead of the big-money corporate donors that have a stranglehold on the political system. Tlaib says her average donation was about $25, and came from people across the country.

“For them, it’s not just my name, but Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, fixing our immigration system, and pushing back against the hate agenda,” Tlaib says. “That was what it was about. They understand that it’s not just who’s in the Oval Office, but it’s also the coequal branches of government in Congress.”

Tlaib says until legislative action is taken to pull big money out of politics, this is how real progressive change can happen.

“I mean, people are against corporations, right? They want to repeal Citizens United,” she says. “Well, practice it. Don’t wait until it happens — practice it. I think there’s such a distrust and disconnection between Congress and [the] American people right now. That’s why they’re so angry. Some just voted for Trump because they’re so angry, and I feel it’s because they’ve lost hope that the government’s going to be about them, and they feel so much that they’re being drowned out by special interest groups.”
Tuesday marked another victory for progressives, with St. Louis activist Cori Bush defeating a long-term incumbent, just as Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley did, becoming the newest member of the Squad. Tlaib says that she’s spoken with Bush via livestream.

“She’s still in shock,” Tlaib says. “I told her you still will be, even when you walk on the House floor. I’m still sometimes in shock.”

Since the district is solid Democrat territory, Tlaib is expected to beat her Republican opponent in November. She says in her next term, she’s going to focus on anti-poverty work, especially now with the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The majority of my residents can’t pay their rent or mortgage, and they don’t have a job to go back to,” she says. “So I’m going to make sure that the continued COVID relief packages include them. … We’ve got to fight real hard to make sure that these packages are not only about airlines and banks and big corporations. We give them money, and then they turn around and lay off our residents anyways.”

When asked what she’s learned about her time in Congress so far, Tlaib says it’s that she used to visualize who the legislation was intended to help. Now, she says, she tries to visualize how the Trump administration can pervert that.

“Who are the small-business loans going to?” she asks. “In my mind, it’s the small mom-and-pop shops — but that’s not what happened. We turned around and [found] out the big corporations got it, not the mom-and-pop shops. So it’s also really important that we are watchdogs afterward, that we get reports back from the administration about where the money’s actually going. It’s our money, and if it’s not going to our people, then it’s not working.”

click to enlarge ERIK PAUL HOWARD
  • Erik Paul Howard

When asked if Congress was what she thought it would be like, Tlaib says not in the ways she thought.

“I knew it was going to be difficult, and I knew not all my colleagues’ lenses were similar to mine — you know, my lived experience growing up in Detroit, being the eldest of 14, both of my parents are immigrants, my dad only went up to fourth-grade education. And so I knew my lived experience wasn’t very similar to a lot of my colleagues.

“However, I didn’t realize the tremendous lack of urgency there. That was what surprised me. There’s this constant waiting, and they’re reacting versus being proactive — they’re reacting to the pandemic, they’re reacting to the federal shutdown. I called for impeachment because I knew Trump was doing pay-to-play, he was not divesting from his companies. We shouldn’t have waited. And there are all different opinions in my district, and I know I may not reflect every single person’s [viewpoint], but I can tell you, we can smell corruption from afar. We can smell something that’s wrong, and we react and proactively try to speak up about it, speak the truth about it. And [what’s lacking] there is this urgency. It’s constant waiting, and my residents don’t have years or days to wait. They’re suffering right now.”

To that end, Tlaib says she’s going to continue to strengthen the service centers in her district, where she takes calls from her residents, helping them with issues like navigating unemployment and dealing with the courts.
“These are the everyday things that they’re going through right now,” she says. “I tell them not to wait to call me to vote yes or no on something, call me about what you’re going through now, because that really does translate sometimes into really meaningful legislation. Actually, some of my greatest ideas come from the challenges and issues that come through the service center.”

Being “#RootedInCommunity,” as Tlaib often says on Twitter, is her biggest asset. “The way we’re going to be effective is getting members of Congress that are close to the pain,” she says. “The further away from the pain they get, the more disconnected they become.

“I feel so blessed that I’m able to be so free, that I’m not beholden to special interests,” she says. “I’m beholden to real people.”

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