Talking With Rashida Tlaib, the Ceiling-Smashing Detroit Activist Headed to Congress


This piece is part of Splinter’s series The New Guard, where we interview progressive candidates who are running in 2018 midterm races across the country to shake up the Democratic Party establishment.

As we inch ever closer to the 2018 midterm elections, one thing’s for sure: it’s going to be a big election for milestones.

There’s New Mexico’s Deb Haaland and Kansas’ Sharice Davids, both of whom, if elected, would be the first Native American women to serve in Congress. Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams could become the first black female governor in American history and Vermont Democrat Christine Hallquist could become the United States’ first openly trans governor. And just last week, Ayanna Pressley delivered a shocking primary upset over a ten-term incumbent House Democrat, and is all but guaranteed to become the first black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts.

Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib is among those breaking barriers.

Last month, Tlaib, a former state representative, beat out a crowded field of Democrats to win the primary in Michigan’s 13th Congressional District, a district that contains parts of Detroit as well as some its suburbs. Tlaib will run unopposed in the November general election, which means her win is essentially a lock. With it, she’ll very likely become the first Arab-American Muslim in Congress and likely one of the first two Muslim-American women in Congress, along with Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar.

Tlaib is a single mom, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, and previously made history as the first Muslim woman ever elected to the Michigan Legislature. Tliab is also a self-described democratic socialist, and her platform includes Medicare-for-All, abolishing ICE, a $15 minimum wage, fighting for environmental justice, rolling back Trump’s executive orders targeting Muslims, and tuition-free college.

I spoke with her recently about knocking on doors, how women could change Congress, corporate pollution in Detroit, and what her family thinks of her work.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

To start, can you tell me a little bit about how you got into politics and public service, and what made you decide to run?

In 2007, I was working for Steve Tobocman, who was a state representative—he was my predecessor. He was an extremely progressive state representative for southwest Detroit and he sort of planted the seed, but it took several different people to say “you should do it.” I think for us women, we always need to find some sort of permission to run for office or seek leadership positions. In this case, it took a friend of mine, Shelli Weisberg from the ACLU of Michigan, who said, “people like us never think about running for office and that’s the problem with government.” And knowing her and knowing how progressive she is, all of a sudden it was like, “Yes, I can do this.” So I filed to run [for the state legislature] with the hope of fighting back against corporations and others that were polluting the neighborhoods in southwest Detroit, and addressing some of the challenging issues with working families around poverty and access to healthcare. And that led me into being kind of a community activist-slash-public servant. And when the opportunity came about when Congressman Conyers retired, I knew it was important for me not to be on the outside anymore, just to jump in and run for office.

You were born and raised in Detroit. What do you see as the biggest issues facing Michigan’s 13th Congressional District and the city as a whole right now?

It’s about economic justice issues and equity in education right now. It’s about the fact that I have one city within the 13th Congressional District that doesn’t have a school district anymore. Less than half of my families don’t own their own home. I have car insurance redlining at an extremely high rate of discriminatory practices. We need to stand up to corporate greed. We need to stand up to those structures and knock down the structures that are in place that don’t allow people access for us to thrive. Those are the issues that seem to resonate most with people. From going door to door, it was pretty evident that my proposal, the Justice for All Civil Rights Act, was something that spoke to a lot of the families in the 13th Congressional District. We’re the second or third—some say the second or third—in regards to the concentration of poverty with any other congressional district.

I think for us women, we always need to find some sort of permission to run for office or seek leadership positions.

Environmental justice is a big part of your platform, and we’re seeing more and more how environmental justice, public health, and economics are all inextricably linked. It’s definitely made itself evident in southeast Michigan. I’m wondering what your concerns and objectives are when it comes to the environment and its impact on the community.

Right now, it isn’t even about new laws—it’s about being able to enforce the current law. Right now, we have a number of polluting industries that are not following the Clean Air Act. They’re not in compliance with local ordinances. They seem to not be held accountable. They act above the law. So for me, a lot of these corporate polluters, the Detroit incinerator, the Romulus injection well, the expansion of landfills in Romulus—Melvindale just had an ooze of something toxic coming from the ground—to me, these are violations of current laws and various policies on the federal, state and local level. No one seems to have the courage to stand up to them and push back against those violations that really do hurt our public health and our environment.

Speaking of pushing back, I think a lot of country probably first met you in 2016 when you were thrown out of a Trump event

—yeah it’s become a very famous video, but it wasn’t just me, it was a ton of other women. I think seven women interrupted him before I did.

I’m curious, now that it’s been a few years, and as you look ahead toward a future in Congress, I wonder what you’re thinking about your role in confronting Trump.

Well to quote my mother, what did she tell the New York Times again? Oh yeah, she said: “Let God take care of him.” But I think for me, realistically, what I can do as a member of Congress is hold people accountable. Doing the pushback, the information gathering, and asking the questions that need to be answered because so many people—including Democrats—don’t want to talk about impeachment. I think we’re at that moment in our country where this is getting worse than Watergate. This is hurting the American people. You know, I’m really good at the second half of Law & Order shows. There’s the crime and the arrest, but then the second part of the show is always the accountability and the fact finding. And for me, you know, I have that courage. We should not be fearful of using the “I” word, which is impeachment. We need to put a mirror up to the Trump administration and say that they’ve violated various ethics and have not put the best interest of the American people at the forefront.

As November starts to approach, I’m curious what you think about the wave of progressive Democratic candidates like yourself who seem to be connecting with voters.

I think people like us are now running for office and we’re not waiting for people to ask us anymore. For me, I ran against the Democratic establishment. People actually told me, “It’s not your turn,” and I was like, “Oh, I didn’t know there was a line.” I think so many folks that are running now look and feel like a real person—that is what’s different and it’s organically happening. I don’t think it’s part of Bernie’s movement or whatever. I think every little piece somehow pushed a lot of these individuals to feel this calling to stand up and speak up. And for them, that meant running for office. For some, it’s starting nonprofit organizations or community advocacy groups. So many of my friends are starting these different kinds of coalitions and building movements to stop racism, police brutality, gun violence, and other things. I’m so thrilled that many of them are now thinking about running for office as well as a way of standing up and fighting back against the kind of America that Trump and some of those people are pushing for.

You talked a little bit at the beginning of this interview about women running for office, and you said in the past that Donald Trump’s presidency has been like a “bat signal” for women. And indeed, we’re seeing a record number of women running for office. How do you think that more women in politics could change things?

We are so unique with how we look at issues. Women have this lens where it goes beyond spreadsheets, and research papers, and analysis, and numbers. We look at how things are going to impact families on the ground….And we’re not just typical women. We’re women that are middle income and working class. Half of our colleagues in Congress are millionaires and you know, this is great that they have been able to get in that income bracket. That’s a blessing. But the majority of American people do not live in that income bracket. We’re sending our children to overcrowded classrooms. We’re seeing our neighbors losing their homes to foreclosure. This beautiful array of women that’s coming to Congress is really going to change that culture, hopefully. It’s gonna take awhile, but we’re hoping that the American people will be on our side as people try to dismiss our way of looking at policy or our way of trying to address issues like guns and education, and see that we do come at them from that unique lens. I do truly believe it is going to be a little bit shocking for people that have been there longest. But I also think it’s going to be a breath of fresh air.

Speaking of that sort of unique perspective, you’re on track to become not only the first Muslim woman elected to Congress, but the first Arab-American Muslim woman elected to Congress and I’m curious what it’s like for you to be making history in this way?

Well, I don’t see myself representing all of the Muslim community, but I think for me it’s a powerful message. It has been very clear to so many people that we’ve been living in kind of a dark time right now in our country. You know, this didn’t happen four or five years ago. This happened now, and I think that makes it even more spectacular. That it happened now. That we were able to make history now.

Can you talk a little bit about how your background has shaped your politics and continues to shape them?

I think when you’re a child of immigrants who had a very challenging childhood—my dad was one of those that constantly reminded us that it was harder for him—it creates this strong work ethic, but also empathy. My mother doesn’t look at that person in the corner that might be asking for a little bit of change in a judgmental way. She’s like, “I wonder what happened to him.” Growing up around parents and family members that grew up in a very war-stricken country or you know, my dad moving to Nicaragua and finding even more poverty there, the compassion I have now is with me because of those two people.

These are years I can’t get back for families. They’re struggling now and they need somebody to advocate for them now.

I know your mom was with you on election night and I saw a video of your grandmother reacting to your victory. What do they think of your work?

My grandmother is thrilled. She says she feels like she’s 10 years younger. She’s so happy. I mean, this is somebody that, you know, she never got to go to school. She comes from a very small village, just like 700 people live there. It’s very small. It’s 10 miles outside of Ramallah and they’re extremely humble and loving. She gets up in the morning and there’s media trucks in front of her house and she’s beyond thrilled and excited. But she says she’s been trying to tell people, you know, they think somehow me being elected, I’m going to liberate Palestine. I’ve been teaching a lot of my cousins the political process here in the United States—I think they don’t realize that I have like 400-plus other colleagues and you know, it doesn’t work that way.

But I remember every single story of struggle my grandfather, my grandmother, and my uncles and family have told me. I remember visiting as a child and hearing about my grandfather not leaving his land and his home and getting shot because of it. All of those stories help to humanize this complex issue. And I think it’s been missing. A lot of people just choose sides and move on and think that’s the solution. I want to help people see what these policies mean to people that live there and have lived there all their lives, and how it’s impacting people. And I think that’s important. I think it’s been missing. The more we talk about it did, the more people will actually truly be committed to peace in the region.

Is there anything else that you want me or our readers to know?

I think my approach to public office made me stand apart from a lot of my opponents because I’m going to create neighborhood service centers throughout the district. We’re getting families through everyday issues and trying to get them resources now. This is part of my goal as their member of Congress. I always tell people they shouldn’t have to wait for me to pass Medicare-for-All for them to get access to quality healthcare. They don’t have to wait for me to pass a $15 minimum wage to get respect at their workplace… These are years I can’t get back for kids. These are years I can’t get back for families. They’re struggling now and they need somebody to advocate for them now because there are resources that they’re not just not aware of that can help.

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