Tlaib: Brother's golf cart helped her become first Muslim woman elected to Congress

Rashida Tlaib is congratulated by a supporter after she was interviewed by local media on Wednesday, August 8, 2018 in Detroit about being the first Muslim woman elected to Congress.

Detroit — Fresh off her historic congressional win, former state Rep. Rashida Tlaib is crediting her campaign mission of "direct human contact" for securing the victory.

Tlaib made history in Tuesday's primary as she is poised to become the first Muslim woman elected to Congress following the November election, where she does not currently face a Republican challenger. She won the Demcratic primary in the 13th Congressional District where resigned U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. had been representing a majority-black district.

But she said Wednesday she didn't underestimate the power of reaching out to those she intends to serve and addressing their concerns from water shutoffs to high car insurance rates, leaky fire hydrants and safer neighborhood intersections. 

"My families are now entrusting me to be a voice for them in Congress. I plan to do exactly what I told them I'd do, fight very hard for them on the floor of Congress as well as here at home in the community," Tlaib told The Detroit News in a Wednesday interview.

Her comments came as members of the Arab-American and Muslim communities in Michigan celebrated her historic achievement.

The feeling of representation is what drew high voter turnout in Dearborn and Dearborn Heights, said Amer Zahr, a comedian, activist and adjunct professor of law at the University of Detroit Mercy, who has known Tlaib for 20 years.

Zahr said he is currently in the area of Palestine and her victory is being reported in Israel and Palestinian areas.

Rashida Tlaib, who is running for Congress in the 13th District, speaks to volunteers at campaign headquarters in Detroit's Old Redford neighborhood on Sunday, Aug. 5, 2018.

“That’s how monumental this is,” Zahr said. “She is an Arab-American, Palestinian-American who can win while fully embracing her identity and not having to backtrack on her beliefs. It shows she can be genuine to her culture and values and still win a seat in Congress.”

Oussama Siblani, publisher of Dearborn-based The American Arab News, said Tlaib’s victory is a “significant event” for the community. Siblani and other supporters stayed until 3:15 a.m. Wednesday at Tlaib’s watch party in Detroit as the results came in.

“Muslim Americans are facing a lot of hate and discrimination, especially after Sept. 11 and most importantly after the election of Donald Trump,” he said. “Rashida Tlaib’s victory speaks volumes of our state and the people in our state. It’s a slap on the right cheek of Mr. Trump."

Siblani knew Tlaib as an advocate in the community and began supporting her when she ran for state representative. He said many supporters are immigrants because they know what it costs to earn a seat at the table.

"She feels for the poor and believes these people are under-served,” he said. “She is a fighter; she is tough. She can be emotional, and that’s okay. We need to have emotions on these topics and people who can fight and stand up for them.”

Ghassan M. Saed, an assistant professor in obstetrics and gynecology at Wayne State University, contributed $250 to Tlaib's campaign because he said he wanted her to be the first female Arab Muslim in Congress.

“I like to support females, minorities and different religions,” Saed said. “We have to be representing everybody in this society. I think it’s very important because it will kill the Islamaphobia that is simply going on. Our voice will be heard.”

Golf cart outreach

Tlaib emerged at the top of a field with five other well-known Democrats vying to replace Conyers in the seat he'd held for more than a half-century. 

Unofficial results from early Wednesday showed Tlaib prevailed in the race to serve a two-year term with 31.18 percent of the vote over Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones, who had 30.18 percent. It was a margin of 887 votes.

The campaign, Tlaib said, spent countless hours since February knocking on more than 50,000 doors, speaking to families across the district from Romulus to Detroit's east side.

Tlaib's brother, Rachid Elabed, also took an active role in the efforts. He bought a golf cart online and rode it around neighborhoods to reach more than 4,000 Arab-American voters from the Warrendale area, which has many Iraqi families, to the Yemeni population in southwest Detroit and Lebanese Americans near where she's grown up. 

"My brother grew up with me, watching me go through four elections," Tlaib said, adding Elabed took two weeks off of work to conduct the outreach after a poll showed her and Jones were tied. 

"It's actually a joke in the family among all of us. Rachid and his golf cart helped us. It was a crazy idea, but it worked."

Tlaib said the heart and soul of her campaign was its grassroots approach. The 42-year-old said anyone can promote their campaign with billboards, robocalls and mailers.

"All of those do not equal the power of just speaking to someone on their porch," she said. "My directly calling them at  home and being available to answer questions, it's that direct human contact that's the center of all that we did in the campaign."

Knocking on 50,000 doors

Tlaib's campaign manager Andy Goddeeris said a poll the campaign conducted early on revealed that people highly favored Tlaib when they knew who she was.

"They liked her, but not many in the district knew who she was because she's running against people who just have longer histories in the city and better name recognition," he said. "So, we knew coming into this that we were going to have to raise her name recognition substantially."

To tackle the challenge, Goddeeris said, the campaign centered its efforts around door knocking. Tlaib herself knocked more than 5,000 doors in the race and was aided by a field team of about 10 diverse young people, he said. 

"The act of having someone who is running for office come to your porch and ask you what matters to you ... is so powerful," he said, adding the campaign identified tens of thousands of people they wanted to contact for the months-long process and sent out postcards alerting them of planned visits.

Tlaib's mentor, former State Rep. Steve Tobocman, executive director of pro-immigration Global Detroit, instilled in her that doors matter, Goddeeris said. "Focusing on anything else is a distraction," he said.

Arab-American voters have been more interested in getting involved in politics since  Trump's victory in 2016, Goddeeris said, and Tlaib's campaign recognized the need to get these nontraditional voters out to the polls.

"... People were really eager to have their voices heard," he said. "I'm thrilled people came out the way they did."

The daughter of Palestinian immigrants spent the weekend and Tuesday rallying campaign volunteers and pounding the pavement in her final efforts to get out the vote. Tlaib said Wednesday that she even brought her eldest son Adam along. He'll be turning 13 Thursday, she said.

"He was like 'vote for Rashida Tlaib to fight corporate greed,'" she said. 

Tlaib has said she was motivated by others who wanted a candidate who looks like them and she believes Abdul El-Sayed's Democratic candidacy for Michigan governor also helped her gain support.

"People like me don't run for office and I think that's a problem with Congress right now and all levels of government. Whatever identifiers you want to put with me, a woman of color, a child of immigrants, a Detroiter, a Muslim," Tlaib said.

"The fact is, half of the people in Congress right now are millionaires. So many of them are disconnected from what the needs are of the American people."

Tlaib said she wants to create neighborhood service centers throughout the district, much like she did as a state representative, to provide residents with access to resources and opportunities. The sites, she said, would be in Detroit, western Wayne County and Downriver.

In a separate race, Jones won a special primary election to finish out the last couple months of the unfinished term for Conyers, who resigned in December. 

In unofficial results, Jones prevailed 37.75 percent to 35.85 percent over Tlaib. Jones and her campaign spokeswoman could not be reached Wednesday for comment. 

Although she currently doesn't have a Republican opponent in the November election, Tlaib said she intends to "hit the ground running" and will continue visiting district families and hosting community conversations. 

"I love that the 13th Congressional District is majority African American and they made history," she said. "That really is a nice powerful message that uplifts all of us."