Outspoken Progressive Rashida Tlaib Is Facing A Major Primary Challenge

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Detroit congresswoman said she’s “laser-focused” on helping her constituents.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib was only elected to Congress in 2018, but she is already something of a household name. 

Tlaib, one of the first two Muslim women to ever serve in Congress, is a member of the “Squad” of four freshman women of color ― a kind of left-wing sub-caucus within the Congressional Progressive Caucus with celebrity to boot. The Michigan Democrat arrived in the House with a bang, calling for the impeachment of President Donald Trump, whom she labeled a “motherfucker,” on the day she was sworn in wearing a traditional Palestinian thobe dress.

Now Tlaib might be facing a formidable primary challenge from Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones on Aug. 4. Tlaib won in 2018 partly thanks to a crowded field of contenders who split the vote in a Detroit area district that is 54% Black. An early April poll showed Jones, who is Black, within striking distance of Tlaib, despite spending a minuscule amount of money.

In a Thursday interview with HuffPost, Tlaib skirted around the upcoming contest, focusing instead on the work she and her team are doing to address the needs of constituents suffering in one of the metropolitan areas that the coronavirus has hit hardest.

“I don’t want to become numb,” the congresswoman said. “I see a lot of my colleagues lacking that sense of urgency to move quickly to help people or not fully understanding the current pain and hurt that’s on the ground right now.”

Tlaib also discussed her work to contain the damage from COVID-19 in her district, her feelings about former Vice President Joe Biden’s stance on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, why House Democrats’ response to the pandemic has disappointed her, and why she wants Biden to visit her district. 

The interview below has been edited for length and clarity. 

Rep. Rashida Tlaib is being challenged in the Democratic primary by Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib is being challenged in the Democratic primary by Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones.

What is a typical day in the life of a member of Congress representing a city where COVID is raging?

Because we can’t physically go into offices, I check in with my team at 9:30 a.m. every morning. We go through what’s going on at my office’s four neighborhood service centers. The caseworker that manages the constituent services programs does a report on what’s happening on the ground. 

I would describe it almost like triaging where all kinds of emergencies are coming in. One person will say, “I can’t get unemployment benefits,” or even one senior said, “Is there a chance anyone can drop off Depends for me?” Another asked about what else we could be doing right now to get masks into nursing homes.

We’ve also been in constant contact with our steelworkers. We expect hundreds to be on a call today at 1 p.m. about what they need to know, [and we’ll try to] answer any questions they have.

I have a House Democratic Caucus call around 2 p.m. We’re doing a lot of those where we check in and go over what we just passed and what is the state of the HEROES Act, and what do we need to be looking out for and how can we work with outside organizations to get more support for it.

Later today, the freshman class is going to be having a call with our municipal leaders.

In between all of that, we’re doing these wellness check-in calls. My team gave me 50 to do. We all split it and we check in on neighbors. And at the end of the call, we ask them to check in on three other neighbors to make sure everyone is doing OK and that somebody out here cares about their well-being. That’s where we also hear about what the needs are ― from water shutoffs to folks worried about, “Hey, what are we doing to make sure Memorial Day weekend is not going to lead to more spread of COVID.” 

And in the middle of all of this, you’re also running for reelection. There have been polls that suggest that it’s close. How do you make time for that? What has your strategy been to address the lingering sense from some residents that the district should be represented by a Black person in Congress?

One of the things I center around is being rooted in community. What I mean by that is I come home every week. Unless there’s voting and committee hearings, I’m here at home and staying as close to my residents as possible. I actually think that it makes sure that I don’t become numb. 

I don’t want to become numb. I see a lot of my colleagues lacking that sense of urgency to move quickly to help people or not fully understanding the current pain and hurt that’s on the ground right now.

We’re trying to be as accessible as possible. When we show up for each other, we save lives. 

We were already doing that work, but now we’re laser-focused on it.

It sounds like you’re not doing traditional campaigning for reelection. It’s really just full-time service as a member of Congress and hoping it shines through to people.

Well, I hope it saves lives.

One of my team members sent a text message today and said, “Hey, it’s Carolina from Rashida for Congress. We just want to make sure you have the resources you need. Is there anything you need help with?” The woman said, “Thank you, you all were the only ones to call me back about who to call for my unemployment benefits.”

That’s how we show up for each other and that’s how we expose what we should be doing right now. In the midst of all of that, we are actually learning more about what our priorities on policy should be. That’s where I hear folks saying, “Did you know 60% of firefighters in Wayne County have COVID?” 

This is, again, triaging and bringing in these critical services to our residents that need help now. And they don’t have time to wait for [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell and others to understand how much pain is on the ground right now.

I just have this connection of what’s happening in Detroit and what’s happening in Palestine. Rep. Rashida Tlaib

Biden’s plan for the Jewish community includes a promise to “firmly reject the BDS movement, which singles out Israel — home to millions of Jews — and too often veers into anti-Semitism, while letting Palestinians off the hook for their choices.” Do you have a reaction to that language on his website?

When I hear about various statements like that, I think of my grandmother, my sity, in occupied Palestine. 

Right now, during COVID, this is not helpful. This is not about choosing sides. I wrote an op-ed with [California Rep.] Alan Lowenthal, one of my colleagues, about making sure we do not leave Palestinians behind during COVID relief. You see the president of the United States not providing adequate funding, even drawing it back ― almost like they’re disposable. 

There’s a huge fear that we continue to brush them aside, that somehow Palestinians’ voices, their lives, are disposable. It is something that really puts my grandmother’s life in danger, when we’re so eager to choose a side instead of focusing on equality and freedom and these values that I really do think if we were centered around that, we would actually have peace there. People would have some sort of human dignity. And I’m talking about everybody ― Israelis, Palestinians, others. No one should live in fear, but no one should be told that they exist less because of who they are.

A majority of my residents who are African American don’t have access to equal testing, to quality health care. They live in polluted communities and neighborhoods where they have respiratory issues and asthma. So add the pandemic on top of it, and they are going to die at a higher rate. Even though a significantly lower number of African Americans live in Michigan, 40% of the deaths from COVID are African American. 

I feel like that is how I connect my roots as a Palestinian and hearing my grandmother and my cousins saying, “Who is out there really fighting for us?” 

These are incredibly strong people and I just have this connection of what’s happening in Detroit and what’s happening in Palestine. And for me, it just makes me more of a warrior when it comes to these issues and speaking the truth about it.

Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones poses with then-Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) in April 2016. Conyers' resignati
Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones poses with then-Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) in April 2016. Conyers' resignation opened up the House seat that Tlaib now occupies.

You were a supporter of Bernie Sanders. Why do you think he fell short?

I don’t know. But I know this much: He put movement work on the national stage ― on “Medicare for All,” on immigration, on poverty. We talk about the middle class so much but nobody talks about the “p-word.” Nobody talks about poverty or the economic divide. Nobody says, “You know what? There’s something wrong where this many people are making more money than the majority of our neighbors.”

This is a person that finally spoke that kind of truth, where everybody else doesn’t want to speak that truth ― even though that is increasingly popular among so many people across the nation. 

Bernie showed us ― many people, myself and others ― that you can do it without selling out. People are talking about issues now that they never would have if he hadn’t run for president. That is something that I continue to draw that motivation and inspiration from. 

Is the Congressional Progressive Caucus effective? Would you like to see it act more as a bloc?

If you went to my district, in every single corner of my district, they wouldn’t be able to tell you who the Freedom Caucus, the New Dems caucus are or anything. They wouldn’t even understand it.

That’s the issue: There’s this dynamic that happens in the capital that’s very much disconnected from what’s happening in various communities. People don’t know these dynamics are happening and these dynamics are the reason that there’s a lack of urgency.

I don’t know all of these labels. I don’t understand them. Before I got to Congress, I never heard of them. 

OK, have progressives, have House Democrats done everything in their power to demand that urgency?

When you say “House Democrats,” it’s like we’re all under one umbrella. I don’t see it that way. You say you’re a progressive caucus member but there are also New Dems. You see that? We have people that say, “Oh, I’m a Democrat,” but they really vote with Republicans. There’s a lot of that I think.

I’m just saying ―

Oh, I know what you’re saying. 

I came in and these structures were in place. On the floor, all I do is bring my district into my room and I demand action based on that, versus based on calculations, based on political relationships, based on things that I feel like can get away from the need of the people on the ground. 

I used to always wonder why every time I hear Congress is not popular. Now that I’m there, I can see. You can get anybody off the street and they would feel very much like they don’t have this strong connection to those that actually vote in D.C. on issues that are impacting their lives.

It’s very difficult sometimes when we’re saying, ‘We’re being bold, we’re being big in how we approach this,’ but we always seem to fall short when it comes to direct help for people. Rep. Rashida Tlaib

There are a number of primary races left in the election cycle where progressive candidates are taking on incumbents, including Jamaal Bowman in the Bronx against Rep. Eliot Engel. It’s a majority-minority district with a white representative. Are you interested in backing any of those candidates to bring more urgency to Congress, including Bowman in the Bronx?

Right now, I’ve been very much focused on local electeds, some of them running for the first time, that are incredibly important. They’re just really important to the service center work that I’m doing. 

You voted first to defer a vote on the House’s most recent COVID relief bill, the HEROES Act, and then ultimately voted for the bill itself. Why did you do that?

I wanted to be bolder. Having recurring relief payments ― that’s the one issue that has overwhelming support. It’s ironic how much bipartisan support outside of Congress there is for recurring payments. 

In my bill it says, “Let’s do recharged debit cards,” because 25% of our neighbors are unbanked and even more are probably underbanked. We need to acknowledge and go to people where they’re at. Neighbors of mine are disconnected from these systems. 

These corporate bailouts, the corporations hoard them. But if you give it to my residents, they’ll pay down their debt, because one-third of folks across the nation couldn’t pay their rent in April.

I was very upset not to see recurring payments. I spoke to Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi about it. And I was taken aback by it.

I voted for the HEROES Act because there was $1.5 billion for water shutoffs. This is historic. I fought so hard prior to the pandemic and then now during the pandemic to create a permanent fix for a water shutoff. Fifteen million people are affected by water shutoffs right now. During a pandemic, they can’t wash their hands. It was important to me to see that work through and continue to fight for it in the Senate.

It’s very difficult sometimes when we’re saying, “We’re being bold, we’re being big in how we approach this,” but we always seem to fall short when it comes to direct help for people. I described it to leadership and others: There’s human dignity when you give people money. Let them decide. Direct payments work. Even small businesses have been advocating for it because they know that when folks are able to take care of themselves and their home, then they are able to take care of their community and their neighborhoods.

The Squad, from left: Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Tlaib, res
The Squad, from left: Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Tlaib, responding to President Donald Trump's disparaging remarks in July 2019.

If you had an audience with Joe Biden, what would you tell him about what agenda he needs to run on and what he needs to do to win in Michigan?

Sen. [Elizabeth] Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders both did a “toxic tour” of my district. They came and they smelled what my residents smell. They talked to a mother who had a sick child because they live in the shadow of the steel companies and Marathon petroleum refinery. They talked to community advocates who said, “Guess what? Flint still doesn’t have clean drinking water.”

I welcome anybody that wants to lead our nation to come to the third-poorest congressional district. To talk to workers who haven’t seen a wage increase but have seen their health benefits decrease. To talk to a mother, Carly, in Redford Township in my district who has a daughter with all these conditions ― she’s this beautiful young child ― and they struggle every single month to get access to the prescription medications she needs to live.

For me, it’s not telling, it’s showing. I want to show whoever wants to be president of the United States the sense of urgency my residents have and do it now.

Do you think having a less war-oriented foreign policy is also something that resonates in your district? 

It’s so interconnected. When we allow one group of people to be completely oppressed and not feel like they can equally exist with others, that alone leads to this culture we create within our own country.

Go to the Department of Defense website every single day and watch the billions of dollars that are being pumped into defense, to wars. It’s billions of dollars, and you look at what goes into health and human services and you wonder why people are dying at a higher rate from COVID in the United States of America compared to any other country? 

The way we put our budgets is so reflective of our values. And I continue to see us giving a blank check to the Department of Defense, giving a blank check to these wars, but they don’t want to give any checks to residents.



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