Tlaib wins rematch with Jones in Michigan's 13th District

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

In one of Michigan's most closely watched contests, U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib has  defeated Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones in the Democratic 13th District primary, according to unofficial results.

The first-term incumbent had 66% of the vote to Jones' 33% with about 98% of precincts reporting.

Tlaib declared victory Wednesday morning in what she said was a victory for her democratic socialist or progressive ideals. The Associated Press projected her as the winner.

U.S. Representative Rashida Tlaib talks about the late John Dingell and John Lewis during the eleventh Annual MLK Legacy Awards.

"Voters sent a clear message that they’re done waiting for transformative change, that they want an unapologetic fighter who will take on the status quo and win," she said in a statement released by her campaign.

"We have a resounding mandate to put people before profits. Let it be known that in the 13th District, just like in communities across our country, we are done with establishment politics that put corporations first. If I was considered the most vulnerable member of the Squad, I think it’s safe to say the Squad is here to stay, and it’s only getting bigger."

Tlaib is a member of "The Squad," a group of four freshmen female Democratic lawmakers that includes U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.

The Jones' campaign could not be immediately reached for comment. 

It was expected that returns would be delayed as clerks worked to process a record number of absentee ballots filed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. 

In addition, some Detroit election workers didn't show up at the polls by 7 a.m. and had to be replaced later in the morning by state worker volunteers.

MORE: Get full election results 

The rematch between Tlaib, a freshman lawmaker, and Jones has drawn national headlines as they vie for the seat long held by the late U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. 

The women ran against one another in the 2018 primary in the district, which covers parts of Detroit and Wayne County suburbs including Highland Park, Inkster, River Rouge, Ecorse, Westland and part of Romulus. 

Several Detroit voters at the Detroit Service Learning Academy on the city’s west side said they supported Tlaib because of her passion.

LaToyia Mack, 44, an entrepreneur and mom of two boys, said she respects Tlaib for “rolling up her sleeves and getting into the community” and taking on President Donald Trump.

“She’s fearless,” Mack said. “I think she’d take on Mike Tyson if she had to.”

Carla Bowers, 37, who works for the U.S. Census Bureau, felt similarly, saying she “stands up for the people.”

“Action has to match your words,” Bowers said.

But Michelle Webb, 48, an asbestos journeyman who also voted at the Detroit Service Learning Academy, said she supported Jones because of her experience on the Detroit City Council.

“She's the one I am more familiar with,” Webb said. “I just feel like she fights for us. I have faith in her.”

Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones uses protective gloves as she conducts council business during a regular meeting on Tuesday, March 17, 2020.

Jones, 60, has accused the incumbent of not adequately supporting the needs of the country's third poorest congressional district and spending too much attention on national issues. 

Tlaib, 44, and her supporters say Jones has misrepresented the congresswoman's record, noting Tlaib's creation of four community service centers that have returned over $925,000 to residents and her advocacy on issues such as auto insurance rates, utility shut-offs and environmental justice.

During the campaign, Tlaib criticized Jones for not living in the district, though she’s not required to reside there to qualify as a candidate for the U.S. House.

Tlaib also points to the lawsuits filed against Detroit during Jones' tenure over water shut-offs, the overtaxing of city residents and controversial facial recognition software used by the police.

Redford Township resident Clarissa Roberson cast her ballot for Tlaib Tuesday, noting that the congresswoman’s office is always responsive to her concerns.

“If I call your office and you call me back, then I think you are looking out for what I’m saying and trying to help me,” the 61-year-old home health care worker said after voting at Jefferson Elementary School.

“She hasn’t been in there long. She deserves a few more years.”

Roberson, a former Detroit resident, added that she’s not connected with Jones.

“I just know that she’s been in there, and I haven’t seen much or heard much of her doing stuff,” Roberson said.

Lifelong Detroit resident LaWanda Gray-Anner did not participate in the in-person voting but dropped her absentee ballot off at the clerk's office, saying Tlaib got her vote.

“I think Rashida Tlaib is very present. She is not absent, and she is very vocal," said Gray-Anner, a retired Detroit school teacher.

“She makes herself visible and available to the people," she added. "Nobody from Brenda Jones reached out to me.”

Voter Terry Carter said he wants to see someone new representing him in Congress.   

“I’d like to see someone who is really going to do their job. I think Rashida is outspoken, but we need someone who is more familiar with the people,” he said Tuesday after voting at Henry Ford High School.

At the polls at Henry Ford High, Detroiter Anthony Vassar said he voted for Jones for a lot of reasons but "most importantly, I think she will represent the people of Detroit better." 

Unions largely backed Tlaib this cycle, as well as local and national environmental, progressive and anti-poverty groups, the Wayne County Democratic Black Caucus, the 13th Congressional District Democratic Party organization and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. 

Jones got the endorsements of several prominent black clergy leaders, including the Rev. Wendell Anthony, head of the Detroit NAACP. She also had the backing of the state Democratic Party Black Caucus and the other Democratic primary rivals from 2018.

Andrea Stewart, 58, a registered nurse from Detroit, said Tlaib had to "step up her game," but she felt Jones was the better candidate.

"I’ve seen some of the things she has stood behind to try to promote the state of Michigan, the city of Detroit," Stewart said. "I really do appreciate it and hopefully she will be able to do even better with this vote this time."

Treshall Ross of Detroit said she supports Tlaib, describing her as brave and a fighter for the people.

“She fights for the less fortunate, the people who don’t have a voice,” said Treshall Ross, 53.

Jones, Ross contended, hasn’t impressed on city council. “What makes me think she’s going to do something in Washington?” she said.

Two years ago, Jones narrowly won the special election to finish out John Conyers' term after he left office. She lost her campaign for the two-year term to Tlaib by 900 votes — 1 percentage point. 

Jones launched a write-in campaign for the general election that year but was unsuccessful. She went on to serve a brief five weeks in the U.S. House at the end of 2018.

This campaign, Tlaib blew away Jones in fundraising, raising more than $3 million through July 15 to Jones' $165,000, according to disclosure reports.

Tlaib, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, made history as one of the two first Muslim women elected to Congress in 2018.

The group Emgage PAC Michigan — a Muslim-American political action committee — had a team of 11 working to promote her reelection in Michigan for the last two months, executive director Nada Al Hanooti said. 

"She speaks up not only for the Muslim community but all marginalized people and people of color," Al Hanooti said. "Her race is the most important race for us in the primaries."

Emgage PAC made over 70,000 calls, sent 400,000 texts and bought both digital and traditional mail ads boosting Tlaib, Al Hanooti said.

"She doesn’t come to this as politician but as an activist," Al Hanooti said. "She came in there with her voice speaking for community members she saw who were in pain, that were suffering because she had first-hand experience working on the ground. That’s what’s missing from a lot of politicians."

The winner of the Democratic primary will face the victor of the Republican primary, whose candidates include Alfred Lemmo, a retired mechanical engineer from Dearborn, and David Dudenhoefer of Detroit, who has chaired the 13th Congressional District Republican Committee since 2013. 

Dudenhoefer was ahead in returns early Wednesday with 48% of the vote, followed by nurse Linda Sawyer at 34% and Lemmo at 18%.

Both Lemmo and Dudenhoefer have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars each, but the 13th District is considered a Democratic stronghold that is highly unlikely to flip to the GOP in November.

Staff writers Christine Ferretti, Christine MacDonald, Jasmin Brown and Kalea Hall contributed