Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Israel, and what her district wants

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Members of Congress can be both national and local politicians. Those roles don't always coincide. 

Paul Sancya/AP
Rep. Rashida Tlaib speaks to constituents in Wixom, Michigan, Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019.

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Michigan Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib is fast becoming a famous name in national politics. She’s one of the four members of the self-named “squad,” the group of young and progressive Democratic women that also includes Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. One of the first Muslim Americans elected to Congress, she’s become an outspoken advocate for Palestinian causes. This week Israel, pushed by President Donald Trump, barred her from visiting the country. She declined a subsequent offer to visit her grandmother in the West Bank due to conditions Israel would have imposed on the trip.

But will national attention help her win reelection back home? That remains an open question. Michigan’s 13th Congressional District is solidly Democratic – and also majority African American. Representative Tlaib squeaked into office in 2018 in part because four black candidates split the African American vote in the primary.

Brenda Jones, president of the Detroit City Council, looms as a possible opponent. Ms. Tlaib barely beat Ms. Jones last time around. But there are indications she’s solidifying her position. One recent poll put Ms. Tlaib’s district favorability rating at almost 70%.

“She’s really got to get out here and sell herself and meet the people,” says Kevin Quinn, a diesel mechanic and constituent of Representative Tlaib.

To J. Thomas, soul food means eating what you want, when you want it. His restaurant in northwest Detroit, J’s Cafe Soul Food, specializes in soul food breakfast, which means catfish or pork chop entrees with eggs, grits, and toast. 

Mr. Thomas hasn’t changed his menu during the 36 years he’s been in business, which he sees as proof of his success. The same thing could be said for politics, adds Mr. Thomas: Politicians need to know their jobs and do them well.

“Why would I start trying to offer Chinese food?” says Mr. Thomas, throwing his hands up in the air with a laugh. “Stay in your lane.”

One local politician in particular should perhaps stay in her lane and focus on the basics, according to J’s Cafe diners. That’s Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who was elected in 2018 to represent a slice of greater Detroit, including the stretch of Grand River Avenue on which J’s sits.

Beginning with her inauguration night, Representative Tlaib has had far more national attention than is typical for a freshman member of Congress. Her membership in the self-named  “squad,” a group of four first-term, progressive, minority congresswomen, has made Ms. Tlaib a target of President Donald Trump and some of his supporters, and a beacon of hope for some of his opponents.

Her latest burst of widespread media coverage came on Thursday, when Israel, at President Trump’s urging, barred Ms. Tlaib and fellow squad member Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota from visiting the country. Both women have been outspoken in support of the Palestinians and the boycott-Israel movement.

Ms. Tlaib later spurned an Israeli offer to allow her to visit her grandmother in the West Bank if she agreed in writing to not promote the Israeli boycott during her trip.

Her outspokenness has made her a hero in the pro-Palestinian movement. But at home in Detroit, almost halfway through the congresswoman’s first term, the response to Ms. Tlaib’s fame is more nuanced than the national reaction.

Many constituents are proud of the work she is doing in Washington. Others don’t know who Ms. Tlaib is. Some, including diners at J’s Cafe, think her priorities are off. They say Rep. Rashida Tlaib is trying to expand the menu without mastering the basics. She’s trying to cook kung pao chicken, say the men at J’s, but she doesn’t know how to cook grits. 

“I wish she was talking about the district she was elected to represent,” says Booker Fullilove, a retired police officer who comes to J’s every morning for an ice tea. “Poverty, crime, bringing money to Detroit: If you represent the 13th district, that’s what you should be thinking about.” 

Symbolism and service

As one of the first Muslim women to be elected to the U.S. Congress, Ms. Tlaib has been balancing between symbolism and service since before her general election, as the Monitor reported last November.

She has long been outspoken about her heritage (a grandmother lives in the West Bank) and political victory has not changed her. At her campaign events Arabic songs thump alongside hip-hop. She has a shirt that says “Unapologetically Muslim.”

Paul Sancya/AP
As a freshman congresswoman, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, shown here in Wixom, Michigan, on Aug. 15, 2019, is still learning to manage the dual pull of her duties in Washington and the needs of her constituents.

Her support of the boycott-Israel movement, designed to pressure Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, among other things, has infuriated the Israeli government and its U.S. supporters. On Thursday, after Israel blocked Ms. Tlaib from visiting, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David M. Friedman said in a statement that the boycott effort is “economic warfare” and Israel has “every right to protect its borders” against boycott proponents.

Yet during her short tenure in Congress, Ms. Tlaib has also introduced a bill that is the closest Congress has seen to a universal basic income. Earlier this week she penned an Op-Ed on how to reverse declining black homeownership

“She does a lot. She’s helping the homeless, the parks,” says Eric Crump, an aide at Detroit’s Western International High School, as he waits to get his hair cut at Kut-Em Up Hair and Nails Salon on Detroit’s Greenfield Road.

If Ms. Tlaib is visible at the national level that is both good and inevitable, Mr. Crump says.

“Right now everyone is talking about national stuff and Trump, so she doesn’t have a choice,” says Mr. Crump. “She’s a nice lady. She’s for the people.” 

Comparatively vulnerable

Ms. Tlaib’s initial 2018 electoral victory in Michigan’s 13th Congressional District was not exactly a resounding win.

The seat is reliably Democratic, meaning the Democratic primary is usually far more competitive than the general election. On August 7, 2018, then-candidate Ms. Tlaib won the primary with only 31% of the vote. 

Some pundits partially attribute Ms. Tlaib’s narrow win to the crowded race: There were five other candidates, four of them black. And in a district that is more than 53 percent black, the large field of black candidates likely split a block of African American voters. Brenda Jones, City Council president for Detroit, came in second, losing to Ms. Tlaib by only 900 votes.

Comparatively, the other squad members, Rep. Ayanna Pressley from Massachusetts, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York, and Rep. Ilhan Omar from Minnesota, won their Democratic primaries by larger margins.

And while all four members of the squad are unpopular nationally, most of them, particularly Representative Ocasio-Cortez, are incredibly popular in their districts.

Of the four, Ms. Tlaib is considered the most vulnerable. Political rumors are swirling that Ms. Jones will challenge Representative Tlaib for the seat again next year.

There are reasons to believe such a race could be competitive. In a separate special election to fill the remaining six weeks of former Rep. John Conyers term following his 2017 resignation from the 13th District seat, held concurrently with the multicandidate Democratic primary, Ms. Jones and Ms. Tlaib faced off in a direct one-on-one match-up. Ms. Jones won that contest by some 1,650 votes.

Solidifying her position?

But there are also indications Ms. Tlaib is solidifying her local position. A Targyt Insight/MIRS News poll in late July put her favorability rating with 13th District Democrats at almost 70%. In a theoretical match-up between Ms. Jones and Ms. Tlaib, the poll had the congresswoman ahead by more than 35 percentage points

Keith Williams, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus, says that Ms. Tlaib has done a good job of showing up in the district.

Her term was a little “rocky and chaotic,” in the beginning, says Mr. Williams, and she said some things she shouldn’t have said. But he believes she’s starting to find her political legs. 

“I think she cares about the district,” says Mr. Williams. “But once this stuff with Trump passes, I want her to focus more on small African American businesses, healthcare, education. The things that people in her district need.” 

Leaving J’s Cafe on his way to work, Kevin Quinn, a diesel mechanic, overhears Mr. Thomas and Mr. Fullilove and chimes in. He says he has questions for Ms. Tlaib, and problems that need to be fixed. He sees a lot of families foreclosing on their homes and getting kicked out, only for the houses to be occupied by squatters and then demolished. If Ms. Tlaib came to J’s Cafe, or anywhere nearby, he’d talk to her about that.

“I like how Trump doesn’t like her, but she doesn’t have any town hall meetings or anything,” says Mr. Quinn. “Even the governor does that.” 

But, he adds, it’s not too late for Ms. Tlaib to win his vote in 2020.

“She can turn it around,” says Mr. Quinn. “Being against Trump, she’s got a chance. But she’s really got to get out here and sell herself and meet the people. She’s got to do both.” 

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