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A high-stakes rematch is taking shape in Wayne County for the Democratic primary for Congress, where U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib is defending her seat against a challenge by Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones.

Jones, 60, accuses Tlaib of chasing celebrity instead of policy reforms in Washington and spending energy “other places than the 13th District.”

Tlaib, who turns 44 on Friday, points to the lawsuits that Detroit is facing on Jones’ watch over water shut-offs, the overtaxing of city residents and controversial facial recognition software used by the police.

“Our residents shouldn’t have to file lawsuits to get protections from our city government,” the freshman lawmaker said. 

The dynamics and tone of the contest shifted since 2018, when the pair were among five candidates vying to succeed former U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. representing parts of Detroit and western Wayne County in Michigan's 13th District.

Tlaib, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, made history as one of the two first Muslim women elected to Congress. But Jones' surrogates are pitching their candidate, who is African American, as a better choice to lead the majority-Black district amid a national movement for racial justice. Blacks comprise nearly 54% of the district's population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Four former rivals — including former state Sens. Ian Conyers (grand nephew of the late congressman) and Coleman Young II and Westland Mayor Bill Wild — this summer endorsed Jones. So did a bevy of prominent black clergy leaders, including the Rev. Wendell Anthony, head of the Detroit NAACP, and the state Democratic Party Black Caucus. 

The district needs a rep with a history of leading in Detroit and a candidate with a "Black agenda," said Young, son of Detroit’s first African American mayor.

“You don’t have to be Black to serve Black people. You just have to be informed and you have to make it a priority,” Young said. “That’s why I’m supporting Brenda Jones.”

Union support has coalesced behind Tlaib this cycle, as well as local and national environmental, progressive and anti-poverty groups, the Wayne County Democratic Black Caucus and the13th Congressional District Democratic Party organization. 

The organization's chairman, Jonathan Kinloch, said Tlaib is responsive to the needs of her district and vocal — taking on President Donald Trump and policy. 

“She’s the type of elected official who actually exists to serve the people,” Kinloch said. 

Although Jones has long fought for residents in Detroit and supports various social causes, she doesn’t outshine Tlaib, Kinloch added.

“When you compare her to the strong voice and energy that has been displayed by our congresswoman, there’s no match,” he said.

“Brenda has served on Detroit City Council, but at the end of the day, there is nothing that stands out that warrants us making a change in our congresswoman.”

Some big-name pols are choosing to sit out the race including Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan — who endorsed Jones two years ago — and state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, chair of the Legislature's Detroit Caucus.

Tlaib sets priorities

Two years ago, Jones narrowly won the special election to finish out John Conyers' term after he left office. But she lost her bid for the full 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.

Tlaib and her supporters hold up the congresswoman's record of fighting for working families, environmental justice and anti-poverty measures, guided by legislative work groups made up of constituents who weigh in on bills such as tackling auto insurance rates or reducing debt on credit reports. 

"These are real life challenges that my residents come to me with, and I respond with legislation. I respond with various town halls, so people understand how we can push back and make government about them," she said.

Tlaib secured bipartisan support this month for a $22.5 billion amendment authorizing the replacement of lead service lines. Her measure to prohibit water shutoffs and provide aid for low-income households to pay for drinking water during the pandemic passed the House in May. The Republican president signed her bill establishing criminal penalties for pension fraud. 

Tlaib stressed that she's surrounded herself with advisers and activists, many of whom are Black. She said she listens to their experiences with structural racism and takes action, such as her "Breathe Act" bill to divest from prisons and police departments.

"As long as I'm surrounding myself with those that are African Americans dealing with a lot of these challenges, really listening and following their direction, I can effectively represent (them), but I also make sure I understand it's their lens that has to be present in all the policy," she said. 

The former state lawmaker has sharply criticized Detroit police for using "racist" facial recognition software and has introduced two bills to ban the technology. Police Chief James Craig has defended the technology as a tool among many that aids in identifying criminals. 

Jones' Detroit record

Through a spokeswoman, Jones declined interview requests from The News. But on Facebook, she wrote she does not support the use of facial recognition as a law enforcement tool. "I don’t feel the technology is reliable enough for use," she wrote.

On City Council, she has taken the lead on legislation to strengthen Detroit's dangerous animal ordinance in the wake of multiple maulings involving young children.

She also was a vocal supporter of a community benefits ordinance to ensure Detroiters have a voice in certain development projects in their neighborhoods and has fought for hiring guarantees for residents and city-based companies. 

Young said Jones is passionate about putting people back to work, dealing with issues of poverty and public health and the city’s schoolchildren.

“Brenda Jones is the leader who is willing to take the shirt off of her back for so those who don’t have, can have,” he said.

Jones does not live in the 13th District, but it is not a requirement to qualify as a candidate. Her campaign has noted that for years she has represented 270 Detroit precincts within the 13th District as a member of city council.

She argued on WDET Wednesday that Tlaib's constituents "are not getting the help they need from their member of Congress."

Detroiter Francisco Colano, a former police officer, disagreed, saying residents flock to Tlaib's four neighborhood service centers for aid with utility shutoffs or accessing federal benefits, unemployment or foreclosures.Her office says the centers have returned over $925,000 to residents.

"You have people who come into her district to go to the community-based centers because they can't get that help in their own districts," Colano said. 

Tasha Green, the first African American elected to Westland City Council in 2017, said Tlaib helped her secure masks and other personal protection equipment for Black seniors on the city's north side in the early weeks of the pandemic. 

Green said she understands the desire for a leader from the Black community, but Tlaib's actions in supporting African Americans matter more than her skin color. 

"I want someone who is going to show up and fight with me. It's evident that's what she's doing," Green said. "That's why she's taken a lot of flak." 

Who has money advantage

Like in 2018, Tlaib is outpacing her opponent in fundraising, bringing in $2.87 million through June 30 to Jones' $135,250, according to disclosure reports.

In a Democratic stronghold, Jones has raised far less for her campaign than two of the Republicans running for the seat: Alfred Lemmo, who has reported nearly $641,000 in receipts, and David Dudenhoefer, who has raised over $356,000. 

Reaching voters amid the coronavirus pandemic is harder without money, said Mario Morrow, a Detroit-based political consultant. Jones' campaign has decided to conduct a virtual campaign due to the virus. 

“COVID-19 has caused a tremendous amount of campaign difficulty for everyone,” said Morrow of Mario Morrow and Associates. 

Tlaib’s team has continued with its aggressive face-to-face canvassing, knocking doors with masks on to distribute literature to voters while respecting social distancing guidelines.

With 15 years on Detroit’s council, Jones is a well-known name in the district’s communities, particularly Detroit, but Tlaib’s well-financed operation and door-to-door, grassroots strategy gives her an edge, Morrow said.

“This election is going to come down to who can win Detroit, and if the out-county vote can be split,” Morrow said. 

He predicted that Tlaib's “style and tactics” would be controversial among some voters, dating to the day of her 2019 swearing in when she issued a profane cry to impeach President Donald Trump during a Washington party. The video went viral. 

Jones has said when Tlaib made that remark and booed the mention of Hillary Clinton on stage at a Bernie Sanders event, she got callers telling her, ‘You’re more professional than this,’” Jones told the New York Times.

“I’m not interested in being a rock star. I’m just interested in bringing home the money, working for the people of the 13th District and uniting the community," Jones said. 

Political consultant TJ Bucholz said he knows Tlaib "can be a lot for some people." 

"I get it. She is a larger-than-life figure. But she is exactly what you see," said Bucholz, who consulted on Tlaib's 2018 campaign. "She's an absolute genuine person. She can relate to the issues of the 13th District because she's lived them." 

Tlaib's national profile skyrocketed as a member of the progressive "squad" of friends, freshman Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.

They have sparred on social media with Trump, who last summer said the four Democratic congresswomen of color should return to their countries, including the Detroit-born Tlaib. 

In an interview, Ian Conyers dismissed Tlaib's fundraising advantage, noting Jones was able to secure 30% of the votein 2018 when she also didn't raise much from donors.

“It speaks volumes,” he said. “In a district like the 13th, where the needs are very high and the opportunities low, she gets it, and she enjoys the work for the right reasons." 

“When you market yourself the way that Congresswoman Tlaib has, it’s difficult for anyone, even your fellow Democrats, to work with you,” Conyers added.

“It makes it so difficult to do that when you have just gone above and beyond to bring attention to yourself.”

That's not how Tlaib's colleagues in Washington regard her, including Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat, whose job it is to consult with members and set the chamber's legislative agenda. 

Hoyer this week called Tlaib is an "outstanding representative" for Michigan's 13th.

"I'm proud to serve with her in Congress. She works tirelessly with her colleagues to advance legislation to help families in Michigan," he said.

"Congresswoman Tlaib is an important voice in our caucus, who works hard each day to make life better for her constituents."

mburke@detroitnews.com

13th Congressional District

The district includes parts of Detroit as well as Wayne County communities including Highland Park, Redford Township, Inkster, River Rouge, Ecorse, Westland, Garden City and part of Romulus.  

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