History-making Rashida Tlaib set to be 'activist legislator' rooted in her district

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Rep.-elect Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., pauses to speak to media as she walks from member-elect briefings and orientation on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 15, 2018.

Washington — What’s Rep.-elect Rashida Tlaib taking to Washington?

“My bullhorn! I’m joking. No, actually, I’m bringing it,” she said. "It just comes with me everywhere."

Before her election to Congress, the bullhorn sat on Tlaib's mantle at the Detroit law firm where she worked as an environmental justice attorney.

It represents the fights the Detroit Democrat has taken on in the past, but also her intent to be an activist legislator who won't set aside her "movement work" while in office. Indeed, Tlaib was arrested by police a month before Election Day during a pro-labor rally in Detroit.  

The 42-year-old Palestinian American is part of an energized group of progressive Democrats elected this fall who endeavor to shake up the status quo in the U.S. House. She is among four new Democrats joining Michigan's congressional delegation.

The former state lawmaker plans to push Medicare for All health coverage, a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage and an update to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. She also says lawmakers have a responsibility to hold the executive branch accountable. 

To underscore the point, Tlaib gave each newly elected member of Congress a book arguing for the impeachment of President Donald Trump.  

"I have been very open from the beginning that this is about electing the jurors to impeach this president — in many ways holding him accountable," said Tlaib, who was escorted from the audience of Trump's August 2016 Detroit Economic Club speech after disrupting it. 

"I wanted make sure my new colleagues to understand we have a duty and responsibility in the balance of government, and we have to hold him accountable and have to have a transparent process."

Achieving two "firsts"

With her swearing-in this week, Tlaib will clinch two historic "firsts": The first Palestinian woman elected to Congress and one of the first two Muslim women in the House or Senate.

When she takes the oath of office Thursday, Tlaib plans to place her hand on the Quran and wear her mother's hand-embroidered thobe, a traditional Palestinian dress.

"From the beginning, many Muslims have helped build this country," she said. "For me, I want our young people to understand that no matter how high the hate and negativity around our faith right now, this is very much our country."

Tlaib will take over the 13th District seat held for nearly 53 years by U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Detroit. 

The first bill she intends to introduce will be the Justice For All Civil Rights Act, which she says would restore the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to its original intent.

It would, among other things, allow victims to file civil rights lawsuits based on disparate impact that she expects to help end, for example, the practice of “red-lining” in auto insurance.

Tlaib is working out how to spend as little time as possible in Washington. A mother of two school-age boys, she said she will come home every week and stay "engaged in the neighborhoods that have been neglected for far too long.”

She's basing her legislative and case-work staff in the district and planning to open three neighborhood service centers to focus on "every-day" needs.


"There’s constituent casework which is important. That’s people calling you," Tlaib said. "I want to do what I call preventative outreach — reaching out to people before they fall into foreclosure crisis, for instance."

The incoming freshman legislator also plans to build her legislative coalitions out of the district, rather than D.C. 

"This is where the work is," she said. "I think when the work gets done there (in Washington), that’s where the disconnect happens, and that’s where it doesn’t change people’s lives. I want to do it differently."

Rep.-elect Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., right, walks with a reporter between sessions during member-elect briefings and orientation on Capitol Hill in Washington,  Nov. 15, 2018.

'I don't like bullies' 

Tlaib grew up in Detroit, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants and the eldest of 14 children. All of those siblings help explain her sense of responsibility to take care of others, said Anne Rashid, her best friend.  

"She’s just hyper-responsible and compassionate and wants to swoop in and solve all the problems. She calls herself a social worker more than a politician. That really is her way of being. She can’t help but help people," Rashid said. 

Tlaib became the first in her family to graduate from high school and then college. At Wayne State University, she held a job on campus and went home at night to work the counter of her father's store, said Rashid, who met Tlaib their freshman year of college. 

After law school, Tlaib was working as an immigration attorney for the nonprofit group ACCESS (Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services) when state Rep. Steve Tobocman, D-Detroit, recruited her to his staff as a policy adviser.

Not long after, Tobocman encouraged her to run for his term-limited seat. She declined at first.

"She said this kind of role is for somebody who's more articulate and educated, and 'I’m someone who supports leaders. I'm not a politician. I'm not someone who's going to sugarcoat things or say it the right way,'" Tobocman recalled. 

"I assured her she was the right person, and that she didn't need to change who she is. Part of the attraction and why I thought she'd be such a great public official is she would maintain her integrity and her passion around serving people."

Tlaib ultimately ran and succeeded Tobocman in 2009. He said Tlaib doesn't get enough credit for her shrewd understanding of the legislative bargaining "game," noting a session during her time in the minority in which got more bills passed more bills than any other Democrat. 

"Rather than someone being righteous about her advocacy and saying this is the right thing so we’ll just lose the fight, she understood that sometimes you can seek out compromises," Tobocman said. 

During Tlaib's tenure, she led efforts to require community benefits in taxpayer-subsidized development deals and to mandate a Cancer Cluster Study requirement for an area of southwest Detroit affected by industrial pollution.

Much of Tlaib's first year in office was spent battling Matty Moroun's company over its portion of the $230 million Gateway Project, which ultimately removed thousands of trucks from city streets to an interchange with the Ambassador Bridge.  

That dispute included the now-storied standoff in which Tlaib knelt in the street to block trucks from reaching the construction site. 

"I don’t like bullies, and I like to show my kids that bullies don’t win. It’s something that’s embedded in all the work I’ve been doing the last two decades now," she said. 

A quest for justice 

Tlaib attributes her fighting spirit and sense of justice in part to her paternal grandmother, who influenced her the most growing up. 

"When there were these meetings of all men, she would walk in and pull out a chair. They’re like, what are you doing? She's like, what do you mean what am I doing? This is where all the decisions are made. I’m going to sit here," Tlaib said. 

"If she was alive, the things she would say about President Trump. I can just hear her. She didn’t like bullies. She didn’t like when people told her no."

Tlaib's relatives in Palestine and her visits there also informed her crusade for equality, wanting her family members to have access to health care and education without traversing checkpoints. 

She plans to lead an unprecedented delegation of House members to the Israeli-occupied West Bank in an effort to "humanize" Palestinians, including a stop in the tiny farming village where her maternal grandmother still lives.

"Beyond (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu's Israel that he’s trying to promote that’s so close to Trump’s America, there are real human beings: Palestinians and Israelis on the ground," Tlaib said.

"Everybody doesn’t understand the human impact that many of the decisions they make hurt them and make them feel 'less than.' For me, I want my grandmother to live her last years with some sort of human dignity."

Such a trip would pose a contrast to the annual delegation trip to Israel organized by an arm of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel group.

"I just know that trip is not going to go meet with my grandmother. I was going anyway because I want to go see her," Tlaib said. 

"You don’t get to really get to know the Palestinian people unless you go and share and break bread, and you sit down and see what it means to live the way my grandmother’s living right now." 

Protesting Israel

As she prepares to take office, Tlaib's position on the movement to boycott, divest and impose sanctions on Israel also has been dissected by the media and opponents.  

Asked to clarify, Tlaib said she supports the free speech rights of those in the movement and was taken aback by a bill under consideration in Congress to "criminalize" the economic boycott.  

"The movement to me is so much about who we are as Americans. We should be able to do economic boycotts, no matter the country," she said. 

In Congress, she won't be focused on Palestinian issues, Tlaib added. 

"People at home in the district just see me as Rashida — the one who’s going to take on corporate greed," she said.  

"I didn’t run to become first of anything, but I’ll tell you my priority is to highlight that I have the third-poorest congressional district in the country. The fact that I have Inkster that doesn’t have a school district right now. That over 60 of my schools in Detroit out of 80 that were tested don’t have clean water," she added. 

"There is so much work that has to be done here at home. But at the same time, if me being there and being Palestinian and very connected to my family in the West Bank helps tell a side of the story that hasn’t been told or shared, I think that’s important."

Her mother is worried about her safety, particularly with Islamophobic and other attacks against Tlaib on social media. 

Foreign Policy magazine reported that state-backed media in Saudi Arabia are denouncing Tlaib and Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, painting the Muslim-American women as extremists and secret members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

"Women like myself and Ilhan Omar are very much critical of governments like Saudi Arabia and others that don’t match the values that we have," Tlaib said. 

"I move forward and I serve my residents here at home. It reinforces that I’m doing something right if I become the target of a country that has high disregard for human rights and for democracy."