US Politics

Rashida Tlaib poised to become first Muslim woman in Congress

Rashida Tlaib celebrates at her campaign headquarters in Detroit after winning the Democratic primary race. Source: Anthony Lanzilote/The New York Times

Rashida Tlaib, who heckled Donald Trump during a speech in Detroit two years ago, has engaged voters from marginalised backgrounds.

By the time Rashida Tlaib was finished, not a dry eye remained in the room.

“I want people across the country to know that you don’t need to sell out,” Tlaib said early Wednesday morning. “You don’t have to change who you are to run for office — and that is what this country is about.”

Tlaib is poised to become the first Muslim woman elected to Congress after she narrowly defeated Brenda Jones, Detroit’s City Council president, in a Democratic primary race to succeed longtime Rep. John Conyers Jr., a Democrat, in Michigan’s 13th Congressional District. She will run unopposed in November.

In a separate Democratic primary contest for a special election to serve the remaining months of Conyers’ term, Jones prevailed over Tlaib on Wednesday afternoon, according to The Associated Press.

Tlaib, a former Michigan state legislator, Detroit native and daughter of Palestinian immigrants, was so cautious about celebrating her victory that she waited until every vote was counted — and long after The Associated Press had called the race in her favor — to begin her celebrations at almost 3 a.m.

"I want people across the country to know that you don’t need to sell out"

That meant the crowd had thinned significantly from the dozens who attended her earlier results watch party, but those who stayed until the early morning saw a special sight: a room of largely Arab-American immigrants emotionally celebrating an American democracy that has, in their view, been hostile to their existence and identity.

“A lot of my strength comes from being Palestinian,” she said at one point.

Tlaib’s mother draped her in the Palestinian flag as she spoke.

“I will fight back against every racist and oppressive structure that needs to be dismantled,” Tlaib said. “You deserve better than what we have today with our president.”

Rashida Tlaib embraces her mother Fatima Elabed, who wears a Palestinian flag across her shoulders, as they celebrate in Detroit after Tlaib won the Democratic primary race to succeed longtime Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) on Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018.
Rashida Tlaib embraces her mother Fatima Elabed, who wears a Palestinian flag across her shoulders, as they celebrate.
Anthony Lanzilote/The New York Times

The eldest child of 14, Tlaib campaigns with a raw energy rarely seen by candidates across either party. More than any singular policy position, her calling card is the no-holds-barred way in which she has engaged voters from traditionally marginalised backgrounds — calling voter interactions her “comfort zone,” where she feels most free to rail against “corporate PAC money” and the uselessness of traditional representatives.

“I’m going to push back against everything that’s so un-American that’s coming out of this administration,” Tlaib promised the audience. “My grandmother told me never to let a bully tell me, “can I do this?” or “you can’t do this.”

Tlaib’s win Wednesday rounded off what was a mixed evening for many Muslim voters in Detroit and Michigan. Abdul El-Sayed — the former Detroit health director who was supported by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and the insurgent New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — lost heavily in the Democratic primary race for governor, which was won by the establishment favorite, Gretchen Whitmer.

More than 90 Muslims - mostly Democrats - have entered races for local, state or national public office, according to Jetpac, a nonprofit that advocates civic engagement across the country. With Tlaib, the group has now notched its most high-profile victory, which comes complete with a stunning visual: sending a Muslim woman who in 2016 heckled Donald Trump during a speech in Detroit to the floor of the House of Representatives.

“I won!” Tlaib exclaimed at one point, seemingly in disbelief. She soon, however, corrected herself.

We won,” she said.

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