Rep. Rashida Tlaib, an outspoken Michigan progressive, defeated Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones in the Democratic primary for Michigan’s 13th Congressional District on Tuesday. Her primary win in one of the most Democratic House districts in the country all but officially confirms that Tlaib will be returning to Washington.
“I’m confident in the movement that we started,” Tlaib told supporters on a video livestream as results came in Tuesday night. “Our country is ready ― is ready for someone like me and others that are saying, enough, enough with corporate greed, enough with the assault on our families.”
Tlaib’s victory dashes the hopes of some moderate Democrats, who were eager to humble the activist left by unseating a member of the progressive “Squad” of freshman House women.
The first-term congresswoman, a Palestinian American, also overcame some constituents’ skepticism that she could adequately represent a majority-Black seat held for decades by the late civil rights leader John Conyers.
“She’s smart, she’s a fighter and most importantly, she’s the incumbent,” said Dr. Jimmy Womack, a Detroit pastor, physician and former state representative.
Womack, who does not live in Tlaib’s district and counts both Tlaib and Jones as friends, noted that local Democratic Party institutions, including the 13th Congressional District Democratic Party, rallied to Tlaib’s side.
“Clearly they feel she’s served the community in a capacity that would allow them to endorse her reelection,” he said.
In two short years, Tlaib, an attorney and former Michigan state representative, has gone from an upstart contender who took advantage of a crowded 2018 primary field to an established force in local and national Democratic politics against whom future adversaries will likely think twice about running.
Tlaib barely won in the August 2018 Democratic primary that ensured her control of the seat. She bested Jones by a single percentage point, even as Jones won a special election on the same day to fill out the final weeks of Conyers’ term. (Conyers resigned in December 2017 amid sexual harassment allegations from former aides.)
But rather than keep a low profile, Tlaib almost instantaneously developed a reputation as an unabashed progressive brawler. The day she was sworn into office in January 2019, she made waves for declaring her intention to “impeach the motherfucker” ― a reference to President Donald Trump. More recently, she raised eyebrows with her refusal to explicitly endorse former Vice President Joe Biden in a Newsweek interview (she also said that by focusing on turnout in her own race, she would help “deliver Michigan for Joe Biden”).
Many of the qualities that have prompted those from the political center to criticize Tlaib have endeared her to a base of working-class Detroiters and progressive activists.
Tlaib, the first Palestinian American woman in Congress and one of the body’s first two Muslim women, has steadfastly defended her support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel and the creation of a single, binational state in Israel-Palestine.
Those stances cost Tlaib the support of J Street PAC, a liberal pro-Israel group. But when the Israeli government publicly denied her entry to the country based on its blanket prohibition of BDS proponents, even many of her critics took her side.
In a May interview, Tlaib told HuffPost that she sees the fight against racism and poverty in Detroit as part of a struggle for dignity taking place across the globe, including in the occupied Palestinian territories where her grandmother lives.
“I just have this connection of what’s happening in Detroit and what’s happening in Palestine,” she said. “And for me, it just makes me more of a warrior when it comes to these issues and speaking the truth about it.”
Tlaib has worked hard to improve public health and living standards in her high-poverty district. She successfully sponsored an amendment to a July spending bill that would increase federal funding for lead pipe replacement from $20 million a year to $1 billion. The bill passed in the Democratic-controlled House and now heads to the Republican Senate for consideration.
She has also erected four neighborhood service centers across the district to handle requests from her constituents. Those centers became triage hubs when Detroit and its surrounding communities got hammered by the COVID-19 pandemic in March and April.
“Unless there’s voting and committee hearings, I’m here at home and staying as close to my residents as possible,” Tlaib told HuffPost. “I actually think that it makes sure that I don’t become numb.”
Tlaib’s attention to her district apparently lessened donors’ appetite to fund a challenge against her. Unlike their mobilization against Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), right-leaning pro-Israel groups have not bundled significant cash for Jones.
In the end, Tlaib out-fundraised Jones by a margin of 18-to-1. The Working Families Party also spent just under $33,000 on a paid phone-banking operation in support of Tlaib.
Jones did have the support of a super PAC, Concerned Citizens for Michigan, which spent over $87,000 on pro-Jones digital ads and campaign literature. The super PAC is funded in part by Donald Foss, the founder of one of the country’s most notorious subprime auto lenders, who typically gives to Republicans. Foss contributed $100,000 to a super PAC supporting the unsuccessful 2018 Senate bid of Republican John James.