Michigan Democratic Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib had been in office for a matter of hours when she was seen on video telling supporters that she and other Democrats were going to impeach President Donald Trump, using an expletive rather than Trump’s name.
The room full of activists cheered, but some people back home – and in Democratic leadership – were not pleased.
It was not the last time Tlaib’s approach to governing – an unapologetic fighter, taking aim at the status quo alongside three other first-term congresswomen of colour who make up “the squad” – would make her a target, both of the Republican (GOP) and her own party.
And every time, Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones said, agitated constituents would call and encourage her to challenge her fellow Michigan Democrat to a rematch of their 2018 battle for the party’s congressional nomination. Now, Tlaib is the squad’s most vulnerable member, as she and Jones are set to square off again in Michigan’s August 4 primary.
In a sign that Tlaib’s troubles are gaining wider recognition, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has tangled with Tlaib in the past, issued a statement in her support.
“Representative Rashida Tlaib is a tireless advocate for the residents of Michigan’s 13th Congressional District,” Pelosi said in the statement. “Rep Tlaib never stops fighting for her district, which she is proud to represent. And I am proud to endorse her for reelection.”
The contest points to the broader debate in the Democratic Party between the establishment and largely younger, more progressive activists, as well as the racial dynamics of a heavily Democratic Detroit-area district at a time when racial injustices are getting renewed attention.
To Jones, it all boils down to one thing for a district that is among the country’s poorest: who can “bring home the bacon”.
“There are things that I might feel, but I just don’t say in public and an example is ‘impeach the M-F’ on the very first day,” said Jones, 60. “Not to say you’re going to always agree, but you have to be able to work with those people because you never know who you’re going to need in order to get things done that need to be done.”
The two candidates have a history. In 2018, Jones finished a close second to Tlaib in a six-person primary for the seat long held by Democratic Representative John Conyers, who stepped down amid sexual harassment allegations. But Jones defeated Tlaib in a two-person special election to finish the final weeks of Conyers’ term – which she did, spending five weeks in Washington before Tlaib was sworn in for the full term in January.
Tlaib said that she has legislated exactly the way she promised and that she has gotten results by pushing back against those who are too cosy with corporations and big developers.
She noted that Trump signed into law a bill she sponsored to protect retirees’ pension benefits, even if she did not get invited to the White House for the signing, and that she has gotten amendments approved with bipartisan support, including a measure that provides billions to replace lead pipes and prioritises low-income communities.
“I’m pretty tenacious and it’s resulting in actual things getting done,” Tlaib said. “It’s not just about me as a person, but all of the various social justice issues that I’ve been standing up for for the last year and a half that have not been popular among the wealthy.”
Race and religion are also factors in Tlaib’s diverse district, where more than half of the residents are Black, while the rest are a mix of white, Arab American, Latino and other races. Tlaib, a Palestinian who was born and raised in Detroit, was one of the first two female Muslim members of Congress; Jones is Black. Conyers was also Black and was the longest-serving Black member of Congress, holding office for more than five decades.
Ian Conyers, whose grandfather was the former congressman’s brother, said the district was drawn to ensure a voice for Black residents, and he believed it should continue to have a Black representative, particularly following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the elevation of racial justice issues.
“Folks are wanting someone to make their case in their own words,” said Conyers, who also ran in the 2018 primary. He said other candidates of colour should look to gain political power in white districts, “and not simply look at urban areas and the African American community as a place to win a seat.”
Some Black voters who plan to support Tlaib said race did not matter. William Clark, 74, thought Jones is too conservative.
“Black, white, Hispanic, Martian, I don’t care who is in power, just do what you say you’re going to do,” he said. “Rashida will speak. She is real.”
Branden Snyder, who leads the grassroots organisation Detroit Action, called Tlaib a “visionary” and praised her candour and willingness to fight, saying she is not beholden to “the same old status quo”.
“Right now politics as usual ain’t been working for our communities,” Snyder said during an event announcing the organisation’s endorsement of Tlaib.
Tlaib has a huge financial advantage over Jones, having raised more than two million dollars, and she has backing from the political action committee Justice Democrats and other progressive groups.
Jones has brought in about $140,000 but was far outraised in 2018 and lost by only 1 percentage point. The four other candidates are now backing Jones.
Besides the racial issues, Conyers said Tlaib has been too focused on issues outside the district. Jones pointed to moments like last summer, when Tlaib booed Hillary Clinton at an event for Clinton’s former rival, US Senator Bernie Sanders, in his 2020 presidential bid.
Tlaib remains unapologetic.
“I didn’t have to change who I am” to please voters, Tlaib said. “I didn’t sell out. That’s one thing I promised them, that I wouldn’t do it. And I didn’t.”