Rashida Tlaib keeping it real

Mar 14, 2018 at 1:00 am
Rashida Tlaib. - Jacob Lewkow
Jacob Lewkow
Rashida Tlaib.

Ask your average candidate why they want to go to Congress, and you are likely to hear them gas on about making a difference.

When I ask Rashida Tlaib for the No. 1 reason she is running, she doesn't hesitate. "I think this is about electing the jury that will impeach him, and I would be a heck of a juror!"

No need to ask who "him" is. Tlaib is running in the Democratic primary in the 13th district, which takes in, roughly, the bottom half of Detroit and then twists up, down, and hooks to the west — a successfully gerrymandered Republican creation designed to corral as many Democrats into one place as possible.

No Democrat ever needs to campaign here in the fall; whoever wins the primary on Aug. 7 will be the next member of Congress. This district is unique in several ways. It is not only the poorest (by far) congressional district in Michigan, it is the third poorest in the nation, or was at the time of the last census eight years ago.

It is also the only Congressional district in the state that is contained entirely within one county (Wayne) and the only one that doesn't have a congressman — not since the disgraced John Conyers quit, allegedly because of his health, on Dec. 5.

Normally, when a congressperson dies or resigns, the governor of the state sets a special election within a few weeks, so the people won't have to go too long without representation.

Republicans, however, weren't eager to add another Democratic vote to the House, and so Gov. Rick Snyder decided the people of the district could get along without a congressman until November. This is the first time this seat has been vacant in a long time, and at one point, it seemed that the number of primary candidates might rival the number of voters. You don't have to live, or even pretend to live, in a district to run for Congress there.

For example, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters didn't live in the district that elected him to Congress in 2008. Tlaib didn't originally, but took her two sons, Yousif, 6, and Adam, 12, and moved when she decided to run. "It just seemed right, you know?" she tells me in a quirky post-industrial little place called Anthology Coffee, next to Ponyride west of downtown.

There are, as I write these words, at least 10 Democrats trying to get sent to Congress from this district, which frankly needs more help from Washington than, oh, just about anywhere.

There's not only a Conyers for Conyers connoisseurs, there are two: State Senator Ian, the congressman's grandnephew, who is 29, and has worked in politics since he was 16; and the congressman's son, John III, who doesn't seem to have done, well, much of anything.

Brenda Jones, the city council president, is running. So is Godfrey Dillard, who Democrats put on their ticket to run for secretary of state last time — and then gave him next to no support.

William Wild, the mayor of Westland, is running; in a field this crowded, that's a shrewd move. If he gets the lion's share of the more than one-third of the voters who are white, he's in.

General Motors used to have a slogan, "a car for every purse and purpose." This primary has a candidate for everybody — even Matty Moroun, the 90-year-old troll who owns the Ambassador Bridge; he gave Shanelle Jackson a job after she term-limited, and now he is presumably, knowing Moroun, trying to give himself a congresswoman. Michael Gilmore, who used to work as a staffer fo U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow is in the race — and so is State Senator Coleman Young II, fresh from his humiliating defeat for mayor.

If those aren't enough candidates for you, there is also one Kentiel White, a former Detroit Police community service officer.

And then there is Tlaib, who is openly proud of her heritage as a Muslim (potentially the first Muslim woman in Congress) and prouder of her heritage as a Detroiter, and she vows to stay one.

"I've been looking at the schedule, and I found out I'd only have to be in Washington nine days out of each month," she tells me.

Not only is she promising not to "go Washington," she clearly doesn't want to. "These are my people. They are who I care about. This is where I belong," she tells me.

She's always been hands on. Five years ago, huge ugly black piles appeared along the Detroit River.

It was petcoke, or petroleum coke, from Canada — a byproduct of extracting oil from the tar sands. Sometimes the winds blew vile dust from the piles all over everything.

Tlaib went to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ — the same folks who would be soon lying through their teeth about the water in Flint.

They told her it was fine. She knew better; she trespassed, got new samples, and had them tested.

Bingo. Well, what do you know: Breathing petroleum coke dust isn't so good for you after all. The city passed an ordinance, and the piles disappeared. Tlaib is rightly proud of that.

She did other things, too, pushing hard for community benefits for the people who live where the new Gordie Howe International Bridge should be rising by the end of this year. She fought for laws to combat scrap metal thieves and mortgage fraud artists.

When she was term-limited out of the house after six years, she took on the now-infamous Virgil Smith Jr. in a state senate primary and gave the future jailbird a tough race, but ultimately lost.

Well, nobody ever said the voters always get it right. So Tlaib went to work for the legendary Sugar Law Center as a public interest lawyer, and bided her time, until now.

Yet what chance is there that the black, Hispanic and Anglo voters of her district are going to send a proudly Muslim daughter of Palestinian immigrants to represent them in Congress?

Perhaps better than you think. There weren't many Muslims back in her state house district in 2008, when she ran to succeed her boss, State Rep. Steve Tobocman. She won, solidly but not overwhelmingly, with 44 percent. "I didn't get a majority of African-Americans or white voters the first time I ran," she says. "But then they got a flavor of my public service, my approach, and my uniqueness, and I blew it out of the water the second time around."

That she did, getting 85 percent in her next primary. She knows very well how much her constituents need help from Washington; she intends to get it for them.

Nor is she likely to forget where she came from; she grew up here, in Detroit, where she was born on July 24, 1976 — 20 days after the nation's bicentennial. She was the eldest of 14 kids, and grew up babysitting her siblings while her parents scrabbled to make a living.

Somehow, she got through Wayne State and Cooley Law School. She's as Arab and Muslim and American as they come.

Full disclosure: Tlaib was my student for several courses at Wayne, more than 20 years ago. She told me I was hard on her writing and scared her out of journalism and into political science and law.

I don't remember that, though I remember her as earnest and hard-working.

But if I was in any way responsible for launching her career, well, I guess I've done something worthwhile with mine.