Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: AP, Shutterstock)
DETROIT, MICHIGAN—At 3 a.m. on August 8, hours after the polls had closed in the Michigan primary, Rashida Tlaib was still at her campaign office in the Old Redford neighborhood of Detroit, revving up her staff and volunteers. Tlaib, a former Michigan state representative, was running to replace John Conyers, who had resigned last December on the heels of numerous allegations of sexual harassment after 52 years of representing the state’s 13th district, which in its current, gerrymandered incarnation runs from downtown Detroit to its surrounding suburban cities. The race was still too close to call between Tlaib and her main opponent, Detroit city council president Brenda Jones. As there was no Republican running to challenge the winner of the Democratic primary, whoever won the primary, barring unforeseen and unlikely developments, would win the general election in November.
As she was in the midst of sharing how one of her brothers, alarmed by the tightness of the race, had quit his job and bought a golf cart—a golf cart!—in the last few weeks of the campaign in order to help turn out voters, someone came up to her and whispered in her ear.
She had won. Cheers erupted; Tlaib covered her face with her hands. As her mother draped a Palestinian flag on her shoulders and engulfed her in a hug, her staff and volunteers began chanting her name, three syllables that make for a perfect rallying cry. RA-SHI-DA!
Tlaib began speaking. “I want you to know, my mom, who’s from a small village in the West Bank, they are literally glued—it’s like 5 o’clock or 6 o’clock in the morning, and now it’s more than that—but they’re glued to the TV, my grandmother, my aunts, my uncles in Palestine, are sitting by and watching their granddaughter.” She paused, her voice cracking. “I want them to know, as I uplift the families of the 13th congressional district, I’ll uplift them every single day being who I am, as a proud Palestinian American and woman.”
“I won!” she yelled out, egged on by a supporter. Then she added, without missing a beat: “We won.”
The prevailing political winds are finally catching up with her
Almost immediately, Tlaib’s victory was hailed as part of a new wave of unabashedly leftist women of color who are challenging the establishment wing of the Democratic Party—from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York City to Ilhan Omar in Minnesota—and winning. But this narrative only captures part of Tlaib’s story.
Tlaib isn’t a newcomer to the political scene, nor is she new to the brand of progressive politics that is increasingly gaining traction, much to the dismay of centrist Democrats. As Medicare for All and a $15 minimum wage become banner policies for more Democrats, the prevailing political winds are finally catching up with her.
Tlaib is an activist-legislator whose defining, reputation-making moment was taking on the Koch brothers by trespassing onto private property to get a sample of petrocoke dust—a byproduct of extracting oil from the tar sands—to test for toxicity. Months before the 2016 presidential election, she and other women had disrupted Donald Trump while he was giving a speech in Detroit. She called out Immigration and Customs Enforcement years before #AbolishICE was part of the mainstream political debate; far from being inspired by Bernie Sanders’ presidential run in 2016, she has long clashed with local business elites while railing against the city- and state-level tax incentives being handed out to developers like so much candy; and years before the hashtag #MeToo drew widespread attention to workplace sexual harassment, she publicly alleged a prominent Arab American civil rights advocate had sexually harassed her on the job, leading him to resign.
In her race, Tlaib had received the endorsements of a slew of Bernie Sanders-affiliated groups, from Justice Democrats to Our Revolution, as well as the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, of which she is a dues-paying member. Glowing media coverage has praised her civil rights bonafides and her ambitious plan for a green economy. No profile of Tlaib fails to note that she will become the first Muslim American woman in Congress (along with Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar if she wins, as she is likely to do), and the first Palestinian American woman. There is an excitement surrounding her candidacy that is wholly warranted—“Rashida Tlaib is the left’s way forward,” proclaimed Politico, days after her primary victory. (Some of this is not new: In 2016, she was included on a list of Democrats who, looking ahead to the 2024 presidential campaign, “just might be poised to break out eight years from now.”) It is clear that America’s progressives are ready to anoint Rashida Tlaib as one of the new national faces of the left flank of the Democratic Party.
But is Tlaib’s district ready for her? She won her primary by less than 900 votes. In Detroit, the heart of the 13th district, Jones, her closest opponent, received 5,000 more votes than Tlaib. Seen from another angle, far from being handed a mandate to push her progressive agenda, the vast majority of Democrats in the 13th district, based on the total number of votes that went to Jones and Democrat Bill Wild, instead opted for a more centrist, less in-your-face candidate. (Both Jones and Wild, the two runners-up, spoke often of the need to bring civility back to Washington.) The party establishment, and Detroit’s political class, were almost uniformly united against her. If there had been just one or two fewer candidates in the race, there’s a good chance we wouldn’t be talking about Rashida Tlaib at all.
So what happens now?
“For my district, it was getting the person that hasn’t bowed down to the big corporations, to the billionaires downtown,” Tlaib told me in late September. We were sitting in her campaign office, several weeks after her primary win. In person, she has a warm air about her, and possesses a magnetic, easy charm, like a favorite aunt who’s not afraid to say “fuck” sometimes. “When people talk about Detroit coming back, there’s a whole sector of the city that’s like, ‘No, our neighborhoods still look the same.’”
Tlaib, 42, was born in southwest Detroit to immigrant parents from Palestine (her father, who passed away last December, had immigrated from Jerusalem to Nicaragua before coming to the United States). Her roots are decidedly working class—her father worked at a Ford assembly plant, and her mother stayed at home to care for their 14 children. The oldest of her siblings, Tlaib attended Southwestern High School before going to Wayne State University and then Cooley Law School in Lansing, the state’s capitol. After graduating with a law degree, she worked for the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services in Dearborn, then went on to work as an aide for then-state representative Steve Tobocman.
“When people talk about Detroit coming back, there’s a whole sector of the city that’s like, ‘No, our neighborhoods still look the same.’”
When Tobocman stepped down due to term limits, he urged her to run for his former seat. She did, and won. As a state representative, she became known for challenging corporate interests, from the Moroun family, the billionaire owners of the Ambassador bridge between the U.S. and Canada (in 2009, a political consultant tied to the Morouns’ company spearheaded an unsuccessful effort to try to recall Tlaib from her seat) to the Marathon oil refinery in her childhood neighborhood. Her personal story will be familiar to other working class Detroit natives—her former high school is now closed, a victim of the spate of the closures that have hit Detroit’s public school system in recent years, and her childhood home was razed as part of the city’s anti-blight efforts.
So when she says that she wants to, in her words, “kick ass” and fight against corporate greed, you really believe her—a rarity for politicians. And while much has been made of her ethnicity and her religion, Tlaib credits her victory in large part to her message, pointing out that less than five percent of her district is Arab American. “It was people that were tired of the same old politics and tired of the same kind of people getting elected over and over again,” Tlaib said.
If there is any district whose residents would have reason to gravitate towards a candidate with Tlaib’s politics, it’s the 13th. The 13th Congressional district, which splits Detroit with a neighboring district and spans the city’s downtown to its surrounding suburban areas, is more than 50 percent black. It’s also one of the poorest in the nation: residents have a median income of less than $30,000. Detroit, which makes up the heart of the district, is the most American of cities—once held up as a paean to industrial capitalism, then pointed to as the symbol of American decline. These days, the city has the feel of a playground in which billionaires like Dan Gilbert, the founder of Quicken Loans and the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Ilitch family, the owner of the Little Caesar’s pizza chain and two professional sports teams (the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Tigers) can make and remake the city in their own image, all with the eager backing of the political class. As Linda Campbell, the director of the grassroots group Detroit People’s Platform, put it to me, “The city is changing. The arrangement of power feels different in the city now. A lot of folks believe that the future of Detroit is tied to a successful downtown renaissance, and that means bringing money into the city.”
Tlaib pointed out that at the same time new developments Are being built, Detroit’s schools have been decimated, families have endured water shutoffs, people’s homes are still being foreclosed
And that often means tax breaks. The Little Caesars Arena, which opened to the public in 2017, received $324 million in public funding. Today, Ford Motor Company is angling for $250 million in tax subsidies to rehab the decrepit Grand Central train station in Detroit’s gentrifying Corktown neighborhood, despite having more than $16 billion in cash on hand. Earlier this May, Dan Gilbert received $618 million in tax incentives for four separate projects that combined will redevelop more than 3 million square feet in new commercial and residential space, including an almost 1,000-foot tall skyscraper. And while Detroit lost its bid for Amazon’s second corporate headquarters (Dan Gilbert, naturally, chaired the committee leading the city’s push), what the city and the state of Michigan were willing to give to the company—$4 billion in tax sweeteners —is staggering.
While city and state leaders applaud these efforts, subscribing to the often-repeated though often-debunked theory that all economic development that leads to the creation of jobs is good development, Tlaib is skeptical. She pointed out that at the same time that these new developments were or are being built, Detroit’s schools have been decimated, families have endured water shutoffs, and people’s homes are still being foreclosed. She described an “imaginary fence” around these projects. “They call it the ‘impact area.’ That’s code for, ‘Here’s the island.’ Gilbert does it, so does Ilitch,” she said. “If you go two blocks outside of that line, all you see are poverty and decay.”
The tax incentives, which Tlaib pointedly referred to as “corporate welfare,” are “money we’re not collecting for city services and for schools and all the things that we need.” Consider cities like Seattle or San Francisco, both headquarters to two of the largest, most powerful corporations in the world, both struggling under the weight of record homelessness and increasing unaffordability for the people living outside those bubbles of corporate prosperity. There is a clear appetite to create wealth in Detroit, just not to share it.
She told me a story about a voter she met while canvassing. She recalled that they started talking about politicians who had “turned their backs” on Detroit’s residents. “And I looked at her, and I said, ‘Jobs don’t fix cancer,’” Tlaib told me. “And her eyes lit up, and she went, ‘Right! That’s what I’ve been saying!’” Tlaib added: “Why can’t we think about sustainable development?”
On a mild, overcast fall day in Detroit, I rode the QLine, a gleaming new bullet-like streetcar that opened in 2017 (and was largely funded by private donors), along Woodward Avenue, past Wayne State University, the city’s art museums, and its first Whole Foods, which opened in 2013. The streetcar’s purpose, as far as I could tell, is to transport out-of-towners or suburbanites a scant three miles from the Motown Museum on one end to the Little Caesars Arena on the other. (Dan Gilbert bought naming rights for the system for $5 million—the “Q” is for Quicken Loans—and he is vice chairman of its board of directors.)
Nothing about the QLine—its path (in some places, the tracks cut across lanes of traffic), the short distance it travels, its very existence along a route already serviced by city buses—makes any sense, unless you see its purpose as yet another branding tool for the city’s billionaires and a project that local elected officials can point to as another data point that reportedly shows Detroit is “revitalising.” One report noted that its backers own large amounts of land along the QLine’s route, property which has increased in value since the QLine’s creation.
When I mentioned how odd I found the QLine to Campbell of the Detroit People’s Platform, she made a strangled sound of frustration mixed with a sort of weary bemusement. To Campbell and other activists, it represented yet another misuse of public money. “The community was outraged, and was like, ‘What, they’re going to take public money to build a streetcar?’” she told me. “The community said, ‘Oh no, nuh uh. We need to do something.’ A lot of our public money is going to these neighborhoods in downtown and midtown, and we’re not benefiting.”
Since 2010, the population of Detroit has shrunk by almost six percent, a total loss of about 40,000 people.
Campbell first moved to Detroit in 1972, in her early twenties. Even as white residents continued their post-WWII flight to the suburbs and the decline of the automobile industry decimated the economic livelihoods of an increasing number of black Detroiters, she remembers the city at that time being vibrant, with “everyday working people living in these wonderful neighborhoods.” She moved to New York City in 1988 but came back to Detroit ten years later. She was shocked to see how the city had changed: “Those vibrant neighborhoods that had once been there, I cried when I drove through some of those neighborhoods.”
In 2013, she helped found Detroit People’s Platform, partly in response to the governor’s appointment of an emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, who took control of the city’s finances and began aggressively finding ways (including cuts to retiree pensions) to reduce the city’s debt, and the city’s subsequent filing for bankruptcy. Orr also ramped up efforts to force people to pay delinquent water bills by shutting off their water supply. It’s estimated that one hundred thousand Detroiters were affected, leading to what one activist called a “life-or-death situation” for many residents. These water shutoffs, which Orr had once described as “a necessary part of Detroit’s restructuring,” continue to this day. Campbell believes the shutoffs were part of a larger strategy to push people out of the city. “Not only do you disrupt neighborhoods and displace people through foreclosure, but you shut the water off,” she said. Since 2010, the population of Detroit has shrunk by almost six percent, a total loss of about 40,000 people.
While Tlaib was at the city’s Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice, she and Campbell worked together as part of the Equitable Detroit Coalition to push for an ambitious community benefits ordinance that would require developers of projects whose costs exceeded $15 million and who received at least $300,000 in public subsidies and other incentives to negotiate with community residents on benefits ranging from from affordable housing to jobs to environmental protections. Importantly, any agreement that resulted from the process would be legally binding. Tlaib helped draft the ordinance, which she described in an op-ed from 2015 as “a different model” that would provide accountability and address “the crisis in our neighborhoods.” After being introduced in the city council by Brenda Jones, by then the president of the council, in 2014, the ordinance languished in committee. Frustrated by the delay, in 2016, the coalition formed a committee, Rise Together Detroit, to gather more than 5,000 signatures to get the ordinance, known as Proposal A, on the ballot.
Almost immediately, opposition, which had already blasted the council bill as a “shakedown tax,” coalesced to defeat the ballot initiative. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan came out against the proposal, warning it would be “devastating” for the city’s redevelopment efforts. Pro-business groups and trade unions joined him, with one union leader describing it as a “jobs killer.” Opponents with ties to Duggan, trade union leadership, the Moroun family, and the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce collectively spent more than $1.5 million to defeat the grassroots proposal; it ultimately lost by a narrow margin. A weaker ordinance, proposed by a city council member that gained the backing of opponents to the community-driven plan ended up passing in its place.
Tlaib, while pointing to the passage of the watered-down version of the ordinance as an important first step, also named its flaws; in addition to raising the trigger mechanism for a project’s size to $75 million, any agreed-upon benefits aren’t enforceable. Before its passage, she had called it a “fake” community engagement bill. “We know it’s not going to result in any kind of accountability,” Tlaib said in 2017. Those concerns have been borne out: in its first year, as the public radio station WDET reported, the “ordinance yielded almost no community benefits that the city can enforce.”
Campbell has been increasingly disenchanted by what she described as “the traditional black leadership” in Detroit, which, she noted, “did not support the community in the CBA fight.” Tlaib, Campbell said, “fought with us. She took a lot of political heat for that.” While Brenda Jones had supported the original community benefits ordinance, some activists felt that Jones had not done enough to push the bill through council, and Jones has voted to give Gilbert hundreds of millions in tax breaks for yet another of his mega-development projects. “Sometimes you have to have an oppositional voice, you have to go against the status quo,” Campbell said of Tlaib. “She represents that.”
The traditional black leadership that Campbell is referring to also includes people like Bishop Edgar Vann II, the pastor of Detroit’s Second Ebenezer Church, a former member of the Detroit police department’s civilian oversight body and a member of the executive committee of the Downtown Detroit Partnership, a public-private partnership that has worked hand-in-hand with business leaders and local elected officials to reconfigure the downtown landscape.
When I asked Vann if he believed Tlaib’s win showed that residents in Detroit were on board with her brand of politics, Vann pointed to the crowded field. The four black candidates, he said, split the black vote, opening the door for Tlaib to eke out a victory. (Vann also expressed alarm over her unabashedly left politics, telling me, “My concern, personally, I would say, is that I am not a socialist. I have concerns about certain factions of the Democratic Party that are becoming ultra-left.”)
Detroit is a city in which a developer once built an actual wall to separate the neighborhood he planned—and its intended white residents—from the city’s black population.
“Had one of those people not been in the race, then she wouldn’t have won the race,” Vann said. He noted that Jones had beat out Tlaib in the special election, held on the same day and with fewer candidates running, to fill Conyers’ vacated seat. “As historic as it was, when we look at the numbers, we recognize how it really happened,” he said.
It is impossible to discuss Tlaib’s historic victory without acknowledging the complicated role that race played during the primary. The district has had a black representative and a civil rights champion as its congressperson for more than half a century. Despite a growing perception that Conyers had stayed for too long, in Detroit, whose residents are more than 80 percent black, having a black representative still carries weight. Tlaib herself had grappled with the optics of running to replace Conyers. “I felt like, ‘Am I taking it away from my families?’” she recalled. Her decision to run was based on her sense that the district needed a candidate closer to the movements fighting for the city at the ground level.
The notion that the crowded field—which included Jones as well as Ian Conyers, John Conyers’s grandnephew, and Coleman Young II, the son of Detroit’s first black mayor—would split the black electorate had alarmed Vann and other members of Detroit’s black political establishment. In March, he and other clergy, as well as union leaders and Democratic Party activists, met and decided to collectively endorse Jones. Jones, who was the president of the local chapter of the Communication Workers of America before being elected to city council in 2005, was widely viewed as a capable and reliably progressive candidate who preached about reaching across the aisle (in her campaign, she staked out support for some of the same policy positions as Tlaib). As Jonathan Kinloch, the chair of the 13th District Democratic Party put it to the Detroit Free Press, the prospect of a non-black candidate replacing Conyers was “a very, very, very big concern.” One long-time political commentator and consultant, Steve Hood, expressed it more bluntly: “I’m not a racist, but I’d rather see an African American.”
Hood, who hosts a lo-fi YouTube show called “Wake Up With Steve Hood,” had railed against the four black candidates who ran in a video that aired the day after the primary. “All these people splitting the vote,” he said, repeatedly describing the outcome as “horrible.” “Look at you, you greedy knuckleheads. And you gave it to Rashida Tlaib. First time ever in the history of me that I can remember, [the person] representing the 13th Congressional District not being African American.”
Detroit is a city in which a developer, in order to secure federal mortgage loans, once built an actual wall to separate the neighborhood he planned—and its intended white residents—from the city’s black population. It mattered when John Conyers was elected to Congress in 1964 and shortly after co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus to build power in the House and advocate for the interests of black Americans. It mattered in 1973 when Detroit, by then an almost-majority black city and just six years after the riots of 1967, elected Coleman Young as its first black mayor, a position he would hold for two decades. “Black voters in Detroit in the beginning wanted black faces because black faces could stand for issues that blacks wanted,” Ronald Brown, a professor of political science at Wayne State University who studies Detroit politics, told me.
For Kandia Milton, the assistant coordinator of the Black Slate, a political action committee founded in 1973 to support Young’s mayoral campaign that has since (largely) worked to get more black candidates elected to office, Detroit continues to need strong black elected officials, whose life experience mirrors that of their constituents. “I think it’s beyond symbolism. It’s also about a collective experience,” Milton said. “The question I would see it as is: does black leadership matter? And I think it’s critically important to have black leadership in place, whether it be this race or any race.” This year, like Vann, the Black Slate had also endorsed Jones. (Last year, however, they endorsed Mike Duggan, Detroit’s white mayor, in his reelection bid, praising him for “getting things done.”)
Milton’s own political history is closely intertwined with that of former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who resigned in 2008 after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice in a case stemming from his attempted cover-up of an affair he had with an aide. Kilpatrick had been dogged throughout his six-year tenure by allegations of corruption (in 2013, Kilpatrick was sentenced to 28 years in federal prison for his role in a sweeping corruption case), nepotism, and a host of other scandals. In 2010, Milton, who served as Kilpatrick’s chief of staff, was sentenced to 14 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to accepting a kickback in a case involving the sale of city-owned land while he worked for the mayor. (Milton, who referred to his bribery conviction as the “incident,” told me he regrets betraying the public’s trust. “I knew the difference between right and wrong, and I made a bad decision,” he said.)
Kilpatrick’s “saga,” as Milton put it, had led to a sort of existential crisis among Detroit’s black political class. “There’s a big gap between his not being mayor, since the day of his resignation, to now,” Milton said, pointing to the dearth of young black candidates in the pipeline. Tlaib’s victory had only reinforced the need to “take a look at how are we, and I say the collective we, how are we proactively developing black leadership?”
I asked Milton what kind of leadership he had in mind. “A person who is clearly in touch with the issues that are impacting our community, who is unafraid in addressing those issues and in talking about how they are impacting our community, and can get things done to resolve those issues,” he responded. When I mentioned that he could have been describing Tlaib, he chuckled. “Naturally, you want your candidate to win, so we were disappointed from that standpoint,” he said, referring to Jones’ primary loss. “But certainly after we licked those wounds, we said you know what, we’ve always supported Rashida because she’s been right on the issues.”
One lesson he drew from Tlaib’s campaigning? “We have to go back to the basics,” he said. “We have to meet people on the ground.”
I asked Campbell whether she agreed with Milton on the question of black leadership in Detroit. “It’s something a lot of us older black folks think a lot about,” Campbell told me. In the corner of her office, a stack of lawn signs that read “Majority-Black Detroit Matters” were propped against the wall. She paused for several seconds, gathering her thoughts, before she continued.
“I believe in coalition politics. I believe in building strong relationships based on values and a shared vision on power. And I believe in elevating the needs of black folks in this city. And their economic needs,” she said. “And I ally with politicians who share that vision.”
Brown, the Wayne State University professor, told me that Tlaib’s win represents a shift in public consciousness on what representative and accountable leadership really means in a city like Detroit, one in which merely having black officials in positions of power against a backdrop of continuing poverty, joblessness, and housing instability is no longer sufficient. “What counts more now is equity,” he said, adding, “The day that you run in Detroit using symbolic racial politics is over.”
Since the primary, Tlaib, a single mother to two boys (she and her husband divorced some years back), has been busy. Days after her own primary victory, Tlaib was in Minnesota canvassing for Ilhan Omar, and back home in Detroit, she has continued to door knock and campaign, not only for herself but for other candidates throughout Michigan. (On October 29, it was reported that Brenda Jones had filed paper work to run as a long-shot write-in candidate.)
But turning out voters on November 6 is only part of the work; Tlaib remains focused on her roots: the “activist, community organizer” approach that she sees as necessary to turn any electoral victories into movement victories.
During a time when identity politics has largely been emptied of its original, liberatory meaning, and women running for office are often celebrated for simply being women, without an interrogation of whether their policies support the real needs of other women, poor people, immigrants, and people of color, Tlaib’s expansive vision of an intersectional politics rooted in organized movements points to a way forward for the Democratic Party. “I know that if we don’t support the movement work, we’re never going to pass Medicare for All. We’re never going to pass the environmental justice protections that we need,” she said. “Going and pressing a button, great. But man, we need more than that.”
In the weeks since we met, Tlaib has shown what she means by “more.” When Marriott hotel workers in Detroit went on strike, demanding higher wages, she led the picket line. And on October 2, when more than 1,000 McDonald’s workers in Detroit and Flint affiliated with the SEIU-backed Fight for $15 campaign walked out, calling for higher wages and the right to form a union, Tlaib was there. In Detroit, she was one of 18 arrested at a McDonald’s on Woodward Avenue.
As she was led away by a police officer, her hands were cuffed behind her back but, she kept shouting. The same thing over and over again: “This is what democracy looks like.”
Update (12:16 p.m.): This piece has been updated to reflect that on October 29, it was reported that Brenda Jones plans on running against Tlaib as a write-in candidate.