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Rashida Tlaib's reelection race: Here's what you need to know

Tlaib faces serious primary challenge from Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones next week
Rashida Tlaib (MEE)
Rashida Tlaib is surrounded by supporters after winning congressional seat in November 2018 (MEE/File photo)
By Ali Harb in Washington

Standing in her traditional Palestinian dress, a tatreez-patterned thobe, with a hand on the Quran and another pointing towards the sky, Rashida Tlaib was sworn into Congress less than two years ago.

History was made. Tlaib was one of the first two Muslim women in Congress, and also happens to be unapolegetically Palestinian and progressive.

Back in her hometown of Detroit, Tlaib has made a name for herself as a fierce environmental justice advocate focused on the local concerns of the southwest area of the city that she represented in the state legislature for six years. 

Still, at a time of heightened Islamophobia, Tlaib became a target for frequent attacks by President Donald Trump and his Republican Party, turning her into a national figure in an increasingly divided political landscape. 

She has also irked pro-Israel groups and centrist elements within her own party with her advocacy of Palestinian rights.

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Tlaib now faces a serious primary challenge from an opponent she defeated in the 2018 race - Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones.

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The challenger says she was driven into the race by residents who object to Tlaib's outspoken style, citing incidents where the congresswoman used a profane term to describe the president and booed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. 

Jones has pledged to "bring home the bacon" and focus on the issues of the 13th Congressional District. "I’m not interested in being a rock star," the candidate told the New York Times earlier this month.

But Tlaib's supporters stress that the congresswoman has been exemplary in her advocacy for constituents.

Since taking office in January 2019, Tlaib has opened four neighbourhood service centres to address the needs of constituents. She has also introduced several bills and amendments to bring resources to the district and resolve its most pressing issues, including efforts to avert water shutoffs, lower car insurance prices and secure funding to change lead pipes.

"I have known Rashida for decades, and I don't know any political servant that I respect more in terms of work ethic and effectiveness," said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute (AAI). "Thinking about what she's done in her first term is pretty extraordinary, and that's what I think the residents of Detroit care about."

A rematch

When John Conyers, a civil rights icon, announced his resignation from the House of Representatives after 52 years in Congress late in 2017, it was a rare opportunity for an open seat in the overwhelmingly Democratic district. Conyers died two years later. 

In August 2018, six candidates, including Tlaib, Jones, a suburban mayor and two former state legislators from prominent Detroit families competed to represent the district, which covers large parts of Detroit as well as some of the city's southern and western suburbs, a demographically diverse area and one of the poorest in the country.

Tlaib edged second-place Jones, who is African American, by just one percent of the votes. The City Council president also narrowly won a special election to serve the few weeks left in Conyers' term. 

That race, which had four candidates, was taken to be a sign that Tlaib may be vulnerable in a one-on-one match-up with Jones. 

'What she's done in her first term is pretty extraordinary, and that's what I think the residents of Detroit care about'

- Maya Berry, AAI

Despite initial questions on whether she could retain her municipal job while serving in Congress, Jones opted to head to the House of Representatives, completing a five-week term until Tlaib was sworn in early in 2019.

The City Council president comes into the rematch against Tlaib with the endorsement of all of her former opponents from 2018. 

Still, much has changed over the course of two years. Tlaib, once seen as a progressive outsider, now has the power of incumbency, which comes with institutional support - or at least institutional reluctance to back her challenger. 

Earlier this week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi endorsed Tlaib with a message focused on the congresswoman's dedication to her constituents.

"Representative Rashida Tlaib is a tireless advocate for the residents of Michigan’s 13th Congressional District. Her leadership has secured critical funding to stop water shutoffs and replace lead pipes," Pelosi said in a statement. 

"During the pandemic, she helped get the Federal Reserve Bank to assist local governments facing debt caused by this crisis. Rep Tlaib never stops fighting for her district, which she is proud to represent. And I am proud to endorse her for re-election."

'Champion for progressive ideals'

Tlaib also has the backing of several labour unions, including the influential United Auto Workers (UAW) and Michigan AFL-CIO.

Southeast Michigan's two major newspapers - the Detroit News and Free Press - have also endorsed Tlaib. The Free Press editorial board heaped praise on the congresswoman and dismissed the main charge by her critics - that she has not paid enough attention to her district.

"Her prominent national profile, elevated by her ongoing feud with President Donald Trump and her membership in 'the squad', a group of four progressive congresswomen elected in 2018, hasn’t turned her gaze from the district she represents, the third-poorest in the nation," the editorial said.

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"She has been both a conspicuous champion for progressive ideals and a surprisingly successful agent of incremental policy reform."

Fundraising is another obstacle that Jones has faced. The City Council president has only managed to raise $165,000, with big contributions coming from real estate developers. Tlaib has raised about $3m for her reelection race.

In Minnesota, pro-Israel groups have helped Congresswoman Ilhan Omar's challenger raise millions of dollars, but they have largely avoided Tlaib's primary race. 

Jones has ties to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has made repeated antisemitic and homophobic comments.

A recent poll shows Tlaib leading Jones by about 30 percentage points. But with the unpredictable turnout during the pandemic, the large number of undecided voters and anticipated influx of absentee ballots, the outcome of the election on 4 August is far from guaranteed.

Race and politics

Although Michigan is home to sizeable Arab and Muslim communities, Tlaib's district is mostly African American and white. 

According to census estimates, about 54 percent of residents in the district are Black - a fact emphasised by Jones' supporters, who argue that their candidate, as an African-American woman, is better suited to represent the area.

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Ian Conyers, a 2018 candidate and the grandnephew of the late John Conyers, made this case bluntly in an interview with the Associated Press last week.

He said the seat should go to a Black representative, going as far as saying that candidates of colour who are not African-American should run in white districts, "not simply look at urban areas and the African-American community as a place to win a seat".

The Michigan Chronicle, an African-American weekly, endorsed Jones.

"Detroit accounts for 60 percent of the 13th Congressional District and Brenda Jones knows Detroit," the newspaper's editorial board said. "Tlaib, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, represents a majority-Black district."

Jones has also received endorsements from prominent Black church leaders, including Reverend Wendell Anthony, the president of the Detroit branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Othering Tlaib

While the role of the candidates' ethnic identities cannot be dismissed from the campaign, critics say it is not necessarily right to assume that all African-American voters will back Jones because she is Black. After all, the city of Detroit - which is more than 80 percent African-American - has a white mayor, Mike Duggan, who won re-election with ease in 2017 against Black challenger Coleman Young II, who had made race a central point of his campaign. Young also unsuccessfully ran for Congress in Tlaib's district in 2018.

Tlaib enjoys the backing of many prominent African-American activists and was endorsed by the Wayne County Democratic Black Caucus, as well as by Tasha Green, a Black councilwoman from the suburb of Westland.

Abed Ayoub, legal director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), said attempts to portray Tlaib, who was born and raised in Detroit, as a foreigner in the city are "racist".

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"These comments are racist in nature," Ayoub told MEE. 

"They are just trying to discredit Rashida by casting her as the other. She grew up in that district. The voters got that message when they elected her... I think it's kind of ironic that some people are saying that when her opponent doesn't even live in her district."

Jones lives in a part of Detroit that is in a different congressional district, a fact that Tlaib highlighted earlier this month.

For her part, Berry, of AAI, dismissed the critique that Tlaib's status as a national figure and a member of the group of progressive congresswomen of colour informally known as "the squad" takes away from her ability to address local priorities in Michigan.

"Rashida didn't show up to work and say I want to build a national profile and be a member of a 'squad'," Berry told MEE. 

"This stuff happened because regrettably she was targeted by the man behind the Oval Office; she was targeted by the president of the United States, who has the largest bully pulpit possible."

Trump has berated Tlaib several times, calling her a "crazed lunatic". He has also called for the Detroit-born congresswoman and her progressive colleagues to "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came" in a tirade last year.

The Biden controversy

Tlaib has said she will do everything to increase voter turnout in Michigan for the presidential elections in November to help Joe Biden beat Trump.

But the congresswoman, who endorsed Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries, has not formally endorsed the presumptive Democratic nominee - a fact that has been used by her critics to boost Jones.

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These attacks were fuelled by a Newsweek story published earlier this week with the headline: "Rashida Tlaib on Why She Won't Endorse Joe Biden".

In the article itself, Tlaib makes it clear that she will campaign for Biden against Trump. "One thing that I know is I'm going to be really focused on turnout in the fall. When I focus on turnout, we will deliver Michigan to Joe Biden," she said. "Trump only won Michigan by 10,000 votes. When I turn out my folks and my district, we'll be able to take back the state."

But Jones' camp seized on the perception stirred by the headline to push against the congresswoman, sending several tweets about the need to elect Biden.

Tlaib responded by suggesting that a formal endorsement would happen after her re-election race. 

"I support Vice-President Joe Biden defeating Donald Trump in November and I am going to do everything I can to ensure that Biden wins Michigan," she said.

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