Blue Wave: Meet Rashida Tlaib, the progressive lawyer poised to become the first Muslim woman in Congress

The Detroit-born daughter of immigrants from Palestine and self-described “fighter” has a history of taking on big business – and she’s running unopposed.

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This is the seventh in the series of New Statesman America profiles of the “Blue Wave” of new, young, progressive candidates in this year’s midterm elections. You can find the others here.

Rashida Tlaib, a lawyer, a former state senator and the Detroit-born daughter of Palestinian immigrants is running virtually unopposed in Michigan’s 13th district. That means that on 6 November she will almost certainly become the first Muslim woman elected to Congress. (She may well be joined by another, Ilhan Omar in Minnesota.)

Tlaib decided to run after her congressman, John Conyers, resigned last year over sexual misconduct allegations. He had represented this deep-blue, economically deprived district, which includes parts of the city of Detroit, for over 50 years.

“I had this moment where I said, ‘do I stay outside the ring or do I get inside the ring and fight from within?’” she tells me when we speak on the phone. “It was important for me to be somewhere where I can take my values, and my experience of how it feels to not have a seat at the table, and push forward to get elected to Congress so that my neighbours and residents in the 13th congressional district feel like they have a fighter.” In August she won in a competitive, close-fought primary, seeing off five other candidates.

Tlaib was born in Detroit, the eldest of 14 children. She went to public school in the city and then on to Wayne State University before going to law school at Western Michigan University. In 2008, she became the first Muslim woman to serve in Michigan’s state senate. When she reached her term limit in 2014 she began working as a lawyer for the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice, a non-profit advocacy organisation.

Like many of the diverse, left-wing first-time candidates profiled by New Statesman America ahead of the midterms, Tlaib is endorsed by the Progressive Caucus, one of the largest value-based caucuses in Congress and a group that is likely to emerge as a powerful force within the party should there be a blue wave. Tlaib is calling for Medicare-for-all, a $15 an hour minimum wage, the abolition of ICE, free university tuition and new leadership for the Democratic Party.

In 2016, Tlaib made headlines after she was forcibly removed from a Trump rally in Detroit for asking the presidential candidate to read the constitution. She says that her willingness to stand up to power is one of the reasons people voted for her. “People want someone like me who is not afraid and is courageous and has a moral compass. That’s why I think I got elected. People want someone that won’t back down,” she says.

Tlaib has a track record of challenging big corporations. For example, in 2013 when residents began noticing that the Marathon factory in Southwest Detroit, which is owned by the billionaire Koch brothers, was dumping an industrial by-product called petcoke by the Detroit river, Tlaib did not believe the Michigan state officials who tried to assure her that petcoke is not toxic. Instead, she collected up petcoke dust herself in Ziploc bags and sent them for testing. The test revealed the dust was potentially harmful, a discovery that eventually forced the factory to stop dumping petcoke in Detroit.

The 42-year-old mother of two says her own working-class upbringing and longstanding ties to her community mean that she is better placed to represent her constituency than many of members of Congress. “More than half of my colleagues in Congress are millionaires. They’re in an income bracket completely disconnected with the majority of Americans across the country. I think that’s why people supported someone like me in my district,” she says.

This year, a record number of Muslims ran for office in the US – almost 100 in all, compared to around a dozen in 2016, many of them in reaction to the Islamophobic rhetoric emanating from the Trump administration.

Tlaib told theNew York Times that she phoned her mother shortly after Trump’s victory in the presidential elections to check she was OK, and a man was heckling her mother in a grocery store, asking her to remove her hijab.

She says, however, that she has found that the Islamophobic abuse she has experienced since running for office tends to come from outsiders rather than from people in her district – and she points to her election in a predominately non-Muslim district as evidence that most Americans don’t think like Trump.

“In the 13th district I’m not known as, ‘oh, that’s the Muslim girl’ or ‘oh that’s the Palestinian’ or ‘that’s the Arab’,” she says, adding that people are more likely to know her for taking on the Koch brothers.

“A lot of the hatred that’s coming towards me is more on the national scale and not the neighbourhood that raised me. And that to me is alone what drives me and fuels me to push back against the kind of hate rhetoric that is coming from the administration and coming from really a community that is not reflective of the majority of Americans,” she says.

“I’m not going to focus on [Trump’s] twitter account. I’m not going to focus on someone from the south sending me emails saying I don’t belong to this country. I’m going to focus on the woman who emails me and tells me that her car insurance is way too high. That’s what I’m going to focus on,” she continues.

Tlaib says that one of her biggest priorities in office will be establishing what she calls neighbourhood service centres, district offices set up to help her recipients access healthcare and other government services. She says she is inspired by the Seattle Democrat Pramilah Jayapal whose constituency services offices last year saved $1.5 million for local residents by helping them resolve disputes with federal agencies.

One of Tlaib’s brothers is a former Bernie Sanders supporter who was so “angry” and “disappointed” that he voted for Trump in 2016. Tlaib might understand the psychology of some disaffected Trump supporters, but she doesn’t see her main job as helping them change their minds – instead her focus is on bringing more traditional non-voters into politics.

Like many of the candidates profiled by New Statesman America, she can point to the increase in turnout at this year’s primary as evidence that local Democratic voters are becoming more politically active. “That is how we win, by engaging people who haven’t engaged before and making sure they have access to the polls,” she says.

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.