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Race Takes Center Stage as Rashida Tlaib Faces Primary Challenge

2020-07-18 15:41:01

HIGHLAND PARK, Mich. — Representative Rashida Tlaib, one of Congress’s most famous members, is perhaps best known for her membership in the progressive group known as “the squad” and her strident attacks on President Trump.

But on a recent Saturday, she stood in a former manufacturing plant in one of America’s poorest districts, talking about power outages as she worked to beat back a stiff primary challenge that is threatening her political future.

“Where were the outages? Look at the map,” Ms. Tlaib told members of the Detroit chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, the influential Black sorority, as she railed against DTE Energy, the local power company. “Black and brown communities overwhelmingly have outages because they don’t fix the infrastructure in our neighborhoods. DTE, I don’t need you to issue a statement that says ‘Black Lives Matter.’ I need you to show me Black lives matter.”

The message drew raucous applause here in Highland Park, a city surrounded by Detroit where Black residents make up roughly 90 percent of the population, and where voters are less concerned with the latest Washington controversy than they are about coronavirus testing, neighborhood blight and losing power whenever thunderstorms strike.

Despite — or perhaps because of — millions of dollars in her campaign account and a national profile, Ms. Tlaib, 43, is likely the most endangered member of the so-called squad, the diverse group of progressive Democratic women who were elected to the House in 2018 and have come to embody the vanguard of the party’s majority.

Catapulted to national prominence by a profane call to impeach the president uttered on the day she was sworn in, and insulted with racist tropes by Mr. Trump, Ms. Tlaib has drawn plenty of headlines during her first term. Now her primary contest — a bitter rematch against a prominent Black leader — is testing Ms. Tlaib’s ability to ensure that her work outshines her celebrity.

It has also pitted two overlapping and often allied Democratic constituencies — Black Americans and the progressive left — against each other, making Ms. Tlaib, a symbol of the party’s growing diversity, into a target.

For more than a half century, Ms. Tlaib’s district was represented by John Conyers Jr., a co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus who died last year. Brenda Jones, the Black president of the Detroit City Council who is challenging her, has positioned herself as a more fitting successor.

Ms. Tlaib, who is of Palestinian descent, made history in 2018 as one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress.

Ms. Jones and her supporters argue that Ms. Tlaib has become too preoccupied with national issues to tend to her district, which snakes through portions of Detroit and a mishmash of suburbs in Wayne County. They say her outspokenness against Mr. Trump and centrist Democrats like Hillary Clinton, whom Ms. Tlaib booed at a rally in Iowa last year, has hampered her work in Congress.

“You can be vocal, but the things that were being done — like calling the president a ‘MF’ or booing Hillary — every time something like that happened, I was getting calls from people saying ‘You’re more professional than this,’” Ms. Jones said. “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.”

Two years ago, Ms. Jones eked out a 2-point victory over Ms. Tlaib in a special primary election to serve out the remainder of Mr. Conyers’s term after his abrupt resignation. But in a six-way primary held the same day, Ms. Tlaib defeated Ms. Jones to win the nomination for the race to succeed him, effectively ensuring she would win the election for the next full term in the solidly Democratic district.

The outcome left bad blood on both sides. Now, Ms. Jones has regrouped to challenge Ms. Tlaib in the Aug. 4 Democratic primary, drawing the support of all four of their former rivals, including former state Sen. Ian Conyers, the great-nephew of the late congressman, as well as a large contingent of influential Detroit ministers and Rev. Wendell Anthony, the president of the Detroit chapter of the N.A.A.C.P.

“I’m always for African-American leadership,” said Coleman Young II, a former state senator and one of the 2018 primary contenders who has endorsed Ms. Jones this time. “You don’t have to be Black to represent Black people, but you do have to be informed and it has to be a priority. And I just don’t see it being a priority for constituents of the 13th district right now.”

Ms. Tlaib and her supporters argue that her opponents are trying to caricature her, highlighting a few moments of less-than-polite behavior and overlooking her legislative accomplishments and personal connection to her constituents.

They note that a wide range of unions have endorsed Ms. Tlaib, who has opened four community offices, held more town hall-style events than most in Congress and ensured funding for her district in coronavirus relief legislation. She also successfully amended an infrastructure plan Democrats pushed through the House this month to add $22.5 billion to replace lead pipes that contribute to the poisoning of children.

In Highland Park last weekend, Ms. Tlaib, dressed in Zeta blue and a worn-down pair of gray sneakers for a day of knocking on doors, worked the muggy room, hustling to pass out fliers to a crowd of mask-wearing voters, the sweat beading on their foreheads.

“I’m just Rashida here! At home, I’m just Rashida,” Ms. Tlaib said in an interview. “I was born and raised in Detroit. People try to take that away from me.”

She said she understands the desire for Black leadership, and has worked to elevate the voices of her Black neighbors and advisers.

“I surround myself with people that have the incredibly important lens of being Black in America,” Ms. Tlaib said. “If they’re not at the table guiding and leading, I’m not doing my job.”

The contest is not playing out neatly along racial lines. Tasha Green, the first Black woman ever elected to the Westland City Council, has endorsed Ms. Tlaib, who she said had been responsive to her pleas for help getting personal protective equipment like masks and gloves to seniors in her district to protect them from the pandemic.

“Rashida gave me an address and told me to go over there and get the P.P.E. I needed for my residents,” Ms. Green recalled. “If people would just set aside the racial component for five minutes and think about who is serving our community, it’s Rashida.”

Ms. Tlaib also says she can work with Republicans, pointing to her six years in the Michigan legislature, bipartisan support for her anti-lead amendment, and Mr. Trump’s signature on a bill she wrote to protect federal retirees from fraud.

“The president that I ran on impeaching signed a bill into law that I was the lead sponsor on,” Ms. Tlaib said.

A progressive in the mold of Senator Bernie Sanders, Ms. Tlaib burst onto the national scene after her win in 2018 when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York posted a photo of the two of them along with Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota — all representatives-elect at the time — with the caption “Squad.”

While Ms. Tlaib says she was at first reluctant about the name, which some see as exclusionary, she has since embraced it.

“We own it now, but we also make sure it’s an extension of other people,” she said. “We love that little girls come up to us and say, ‘Can we be part of the squad?’”

Mr. Trump has seized on the grouping as well, assailing Ms. Tlaib and the other lawmakers as unpatriotic and at one point telling them to “go back” to their countries of origin, although all but Ms. Omar are American-born. At Mr. Trump’s urging, Israel blocked Ms. Tlaib from entering the country last summer to visit her grandmother, before relenting.

Her three fellow freshmen have rallied to Ms. Tlaib’s side in the race, forming the “Squad Victory Fund” to pool their campaign financial resources. That could add to Ms. Tlaib’s eye-popping fund-raising advantage, having raised more than $2.8 million, compared to Ms. Jones’s $135,000.

A super PAC called “Concerned Citizens of Michigan” has formed to support Ms. Jones. It has raised $71,500, $50,000 of which has come from a dark-money group calling itself the Community Education Committee.

Had the 2018 primary been a head-to-head race, many believe Ms. Jones would have prevailed. But today, Ms. Tlaib is politically stronger, and the pandemic has severely hampered Ms. Jones’s campaign.

While Ms. Tlaib has been knocking on doors and attending events, Ms. Jones, who announced in early April that she had contracted the virus, is mostly ensconced in her Detroit home, participating in campaign and fund-raising calls via Zoom and remote council meetings.

“People don’t want people knocking on their doors. They’re not ready for that face-to-face interaction. People know me from the work that I’ve done,” she said. “Word of mouth works.”

Not all of it has been positive.

During recent council meetings, activists against police violence have called on her to support a resolution to drop all charges against arrested protesters, defund police and end the use of facial recognition software by city law enforcement. Ms. Jones has said she will not interfere with the legal system.

Ms. Tlaib has criticized Ms. Jones’s leadership, noting that Detroit has faced legal challenges over water shut-off policies, the use of facial recognition software and allegations of overtaxing residents by $600 million during her tenure.

Ms. Jones is hoping a surge in voting from Detroit, her political stronghold, will work in her favor. So far, more than 104,000 Detroiters have requested absentee ballots, far exceeding the 52,885 who voted both by absentee and in person in the 2018 primary.

She said she would take a different approach than Ms. Tlaib’s to representing the district in Washington.

“I’ll be forming a squad as well,” Ms. Jones said. “But my squad will be working with the poorest districts to ensure resources are sent to those districts so they will no longer be the poorest districts. I’ll be a part of that squad.”


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