Rashida Tlaib poised to be first Muslim woman in US Congress

Ms Rashida Tlaib is a former Michigan state legislator and the daughter of Palestinian immigrants. Her calling card is the no-holds-barred way in which she has engaged voters from traditionally marginalised backgrounds.
Ms Rashida Tlaib is a former Michigan state legislator and the daughter of Palestinian immigrants. Her calling card is the no-holds-barred way in which she has engaged voters from traditionally marginalised backgrounds.PHOTO: NYTIMES

DETROIT • By the time Ms Rashida Tlaib finished speaking, there was not a dry eye left in the room.

"I want people across the country to know that you don't need to sell out," Ms Tlaib said.

"You don't have to change who you are to run for office - and that is what this country is about."

Ms Tlaib is poised to become the first Muslim woman elected to Congress after she narrowly defeated Detroit City Council president Brenda Jones in a Democratic primary race on Wednesday to succeed long-time Representative John Conyers Jr, a Democrat, in Michigan's 13th Congressional District. She will run unopposed in November.

In a separate Democratic primary contest for a special election to decide who serves for the remaining months of Mr Conyers' term, Ms Jones prevailed over Ms Tlaib on Wednesday afternoon, Associated Press reported.

Ms Tlaib, a former Michigan state legislator, Detroit native and daughter of Palestinian immigrants, was so cautious about celebrating her victory that she waited until every vote was counted - and long after the Associated Press had called the race in her favour - to begin her celebrations at almost 3am.

That meant the crowd had thinned significantly from the dozens who attended her earlier results party, but those who stayed until the early morning saw a special sight - a room full of largely Arab-American immigrants emotionally celebrating an American democracy that has, in their view, been hostile to their existence and identity.

"A lot of my strength comes from being Palestinian," she said at one point. Ms Tlaib's mother draped her in the Palestinian flag as she spoke."I will fight back against every racist and oppressive structure that needs to be dismantled," Ms Tlaib said.

The eldest among 14 children, Ms Tlaib campaigns with a raw energy rarely seen by candidates across either party. More than any singular policy position, her calling card is the no-holds-barred way in which she has engaged voters from traditionally marginalised backgrounds.

She said voter interactions are her "comfort zone", where she feels most free to rail against "corporate political action committee money", and the uselessness of traditional representatives. "I'm going to push back against everything that's so un-American that's coming out of this administration," Ms Tlaib promised the audience. "My grandmother told me never to let a bully tell me, "can I do this?" or "you can't do this".

Her win on Wednesday rounded off what was a mixed evening for many Muslim voters in Detroit and Michigan.

Mr Abdul El-Sayed - the former Detroit health director who was supported by Senator Bernie Sanders and the insurgent New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez - lost heavily in the Democratic primary race for governor, which was won by establishment favourite, Ms Gretchen Whitmer.

More than 90 Muslims - mostly Democrats - have entered races for local, state or national public office, according to Jetpac, a non-profit group that advocates civic engagement across the country.

With Ms Tlaib, the group has now notched its most high-profile victory, which comes complete with a stunning visual - sending a Muslim woman, who in 2016 heckled then presidential candidate Donald Trump during a speech in Detroit, to the House of Representatives.

"I won!" Ms Tlaib exclaimed at one point, seemingly in disbelief. She soon, however, corrected herself. "We won," she said.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2018, with the headline 'Rashida Tlaib poised to be first Muslim woman in US Congress'. Print Edition | Subscribe