The anti-Trump, left-leaning candidate is known for grassroots politics
Rashida Tlaib on course to become first Muslim American Woman in Congress
For those taking notice, Rashida Tlaib has been making waves throughout her political career.
In 2008 she became the first Muslim woman to serve in Michigan's state legislature, in 2013 she exposed a major sexual harassment case at an Arab American organisation, in 2016 she was arrested after disrupting a Donald Trump rally, and on Wednesday she defied polls and the political establishment in winning the Democratic primary for Michigan’s District 13.
The 42-year-old Ms Tlaib is projected to win Wednesday’s crowded Democratic race to replace John Conyers in Michigan, pulling ahead with 33.2 per cent of the vote.
She will now run unopposed in November to become the first Muslim and Arab American women in US Congress.
“You don’t have to change who you are to run for office, and that is what this country is about”, Ms Tlaib told supporters on Wednesday morning. “I want people across the country to know that you don’t need to sell out”. In the era of right-wing conservatism, she ran a leftist grassroots-driven platform focused on a pro-immigration and anti-discriminatory message.
Ms Tlaib is a vocal voice against sexual harassment, fighting her own battle in 2012-2013 when she accused Michigan Director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) Imad Hamad of sexually harassing her in 1999. In an open letter to ADC’s headquarters in Washington, Ms Tlaib came out publicly as a victim of Mr Hamad, and expressed dismay at how the organisation’s leadership handled her complaint.
Despite not getting the support of ADC's board of directors and being accused of slandering the organisation, public pressure and more women speaking up against Mr Hamad, forced him to to early retirement later that year.
But while Ms Tlaib’s victory is being framed around her Palestinian and Muslim identity, people familiar with her journey saw it very differently.
Maya Berry, the Executive Director of the Arab American Institute, who has known Ms Tlaib since the 1990s, told The National that her win is much more than identity politics. Rather, it is a testament to her vigorous door-to-door campaign that ultimately gave her a lead of 3,462 votes.
“It’s her field operation, her hardwork and commitment to public service… no one does constituent services like Rashida does”, said Ms Berry, citing her work as a state legislature between 2009 and 2014 serving largely a Latino community.
“Foreign policy had nothing to do with it”, argued Ms Berry. Still, her win as a daughter of Palestinian-American parents who immigrated from Beit Hanina and Beit Ur al-Fauqa, is the “icing on the cake… and is inspiring in 2018”, she said.
Rebecca Abou Chedid, an Arab-American advocate and a fellow with the Truman National Security Project said, “there was always going to be a ‘first’ Muslim woman elected to Congress but the fact that it is Rashida Tlaib is particularly meaningful for Arab and Muslim Americans.”
Ms Abou Chedid, who also worked with the Congresswoman-to-be, said: “Rashida is a proud Palestinian who will continue to advocate for the freedom and dignity of the Palestinian people in the halls of Congress.”
A recent Pew Poll showed growing divide among Democrats and Republicans on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. The report found 79 per cent of Republicans say they sympathize more with Israel than Palestinians, compared with just 27 per cent of Democrats.
But in Congress, both Ms Berry and Ms Abou Chedid expect Rashida Tlaib to work across the aisle and primarily focus on local constituencies. “From the beginning of her career, Rashida has been a fierce advocate for her local community, fighting to remove toxic waste and championing anti-poverty programs”, Ms Abou Chedid told The National.
The Detroit native is also likely to support an anti-Trump platform. During the campaign, she announced her willingness to push for Mr Trump’s impeachment, and her arrest in 2016 at his rally was after she shouted: "our kids deserve better" and told the US President to read the Constitution.
She has also drawn support from other left-wing candidates seeking to upset the status quo and take seats in Congress, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who unseated Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley in primaries in June.
“My grandmother told me never to let a bully tell me, ‘can I do this?’ or ‘you can’t do this’”, Ms Tlaib told her supporters on Wednesday.
Her win, Ms Abou Chedid said, gives a chance to Arab and Muslim American parents to now “tell their children that they can be anything they want when they grow up… even a member of the US Congress.”