Rashida Tlaib’s challengers hope to gain ground in 12th Congressional District election

Rashida Tlaib

Nate Pappas/WDET

Michigan’s newly redesigned Congressional boundaries created a kind of political musical chairs in Metro Detroit. Several U.S. House members launched campaigns in districts adjacent to their old political bases. Some Democratic members of Congress decided to cross the new lines and take on fellow incumbents from their own party rather than run in the areas they used to represent, regions that redistricting had suddenly made competitive for both parties and thus far less welcoming.

And some saw their old district chopped apart. They decided to run inside new districts that included some of their old constituents while introducing themselves to the rest of the electorate there.

That’s the case in Michigan’s new 12th Congressional District, which now includes portions of west Detroit, western Wayne County and Oakland County, plus the cities of Dearborn and Southfield. There’s no real incumbent in the 12th. The old district’s current representative, Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence, announced she would retire at the end of the year.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib is the lone sitting member of Congress vying for votes in Michigan’s redrawn 12th Congressional District. With the state’s Democratic primary election looming, every other candidate in the race views Tlaib as the number one target.

‘Raw around the edges’

The jousting is well underway at a sun-splashed park pavilion during a recent meeting of the Southfield–Lathrup Village Democratic Club.

A series of candidates make their case for state or national office, including the four running for Congress in the re-drawn district map that even members of the Democratic Club find a bit confusing to decipher.

But there’s a candidate who needs no introduction to those attending the forum, though she is still happy to provide one.

“I’m Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib. I’ve been serving almost three-and-a-half years in the United States Congress. I’m mostly known for the work I did on House Oversight Committee in launching the impeachment with a number of my other colleagues.”

Tlaib touts other achievements, like creating Neighborhood Service Centers to help address issues facing her current constituents. She estimates about two-thirds of them are now part of the new 12th Congressional District.

“I got a bill passed my first term, which is very, very rare for a new member of Congress,” Tlaib said. “The forever-impeached president did sign it, even though I impeached him twice.”

Tlaib celebrated that vote against Donald Trump well before it happened. She predicted it to a crowd basking in her electoral victory at a 2019 event held hours after she was first sworn-in to Congress.

“When your son looks at you and says ‘Mama look, you won! Bullies don’t win.’ And I said, ‘Baby they don’t. Because we’re gonna go in there and we’re going to impeach the mother******.'”

Janice Winfrey, Rashida Tlaib, Kelly Garrett
Michigan’s 12th Congressional District candidates Janice Winfrey, Rashida Tlaib, and Kelly Garrett participate in a public forum in Southfield, Mich. Quinn Klinefelter, WDET

But Tlaib gained national prominence for more than her colorful descriptions of the former president. She’s part of the so-called “Squad” of progressive women of color in the House.

They broke party ranks to vote against President Biden’s infrastructure package, once moderate Democrats failed to tie it to a vote on Biden’s Build Back Better social agenda. Tlaib even took the rare step of delivering a response to the President’s State of the Union address on behalf of the Working Families Party, despite she and Biden both being Democrats.

“Some important parts of the president’s agenda became law with the infrastructure bill,” Tlaib said in her live streamed response. “But we campaigned on doing even more. Roads and bridges are critical. But so are child care and prescription drugs. And we shouldn’t have to choose.”

Tlaib makes no apologies for that address. Or her fiery political tone.

“I may have a little bit different style and I may be a little raw around the edges. I’m not your typical polished politician, I’m just never going to be,” Tlaib states. “But if anything my residents like me this way. Honestly, every time I come to anybody’s porch or talk to them they’re like, ‘Oh my God I feel liberated anytime you speak up.’”

‘The Democrat you expect’

But at the Southfield forum rival candidate Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey casts Tlaib’s moves as a blow to Biden.

Winfrey accuses Tlaib of caring too much for the political spotlight to be a true asset to the party faithful.

“It makes sense to me that I would support the Democratic party. That’s what I do. That’s what you can expect from me,” Winfrey told the crowd. “You can expect that I will support initiatives like infrastructure that benefit you. And you can expect that when I’m on television and when I’m publicly speaking, your children can be around because I won’t use foul language and I won’t embarrass you.”

Winfrey says she wants to develop transit and infrastructure along Telegraph Road, which she says touches almost all of the new district.

She’s backed, in part, by a relatively new PAC called Urban Empowerment Action, which claims support from Black and Jewish leaders. The PAC vowed to spend up to $1 million on Winfrey’s congressional campaign and called it the group’s top priority.

Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American elected to the U.S. House, is a staunch critic of Israel. Winfrey says Tlaib’s stance poses a threat.

“How dare you hate? How dare you want to destroy? Not only is it our most significant ally, but it’s a whole country,” Winfrey said at the meeting. “You want to destroy Israel today? It could be Africa tomorrow, it could be the United States the next day. Who knows where you’re coming from? You cannot represent people as a U.S. citizen and hate in that manner. That’s why I’m running.”

Winfrey has her own critics.

Some complain about discrepancies in vote totals during her time as city clerk, something Winfrey calls inevitable in a municipality the size of Detroit.

She lost a previous bid for the U.S. House to the late John Conyers, one of the longest-serving members in the history of Congress. But Winfrey says in this race all the candidates are courting a new set of voters.

And she’s not concerned about facing an opponent with Tlaib’s high-profile as a member of the progressive “Squad.”

“Actually, it makes it a bit easier. Because sometimes you can be so consumed with your Squad and forget the very voters who put you in office. You can be so concerned with the West Bank that you forget the west side,” Winfrey said.

Allies and attackers

Candidate Shanelle Jackson agrees with Winfrey.

In fact, the former state representative and lobbyist says she’ll close gaps in pay equity and help increase the minimum wage along all sides of the 12th Congressional district.

Jackson argues that she can create bridges of cooperation she claims Tlaib often burns on purpose.

“The truth is we don’t have a person representing us in Congress who has shown themselves capable of building relationships, working with folks that on paper you may have some inherent differences with,” Jackson claims. “But pushing past that. We don’t have that. And ultimately we’re the ones who lose.”

Yet the other Democrat seeking the 12th district House seat calls Tlaib her ally.

Lathrup Village Mayor Kelly Garrett says Tlaib helped her advocate for paid sick time and family leave.

When current Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence announced she planned to retire, however, Garrett says she saw a chance to expand the constituency she could help. Even if it meant taking on Tlaib.

“I lost my only child in October. And so, for this to be popping up to run for Congress, I didn’t want to do it, but then it felt as though this is the right time,” says Garrett. “Because my focus was so on him (and) now my focus is on them.”

Garrett says she can connect personally with the struggles some residents face across the district.

“I am an unpaid elected official. That means I have to have a job. There’s been times when I didn’t have a job, so I know what if feels like to be unemployed. I know what it feels like to navigate the unemployment services, I know what it feels like not to have insurance. (I’m) not someone that’s so removed from everyone else.”

Tlaib still the star attraction

For many voters attending the Southfield forum, however, Tlaib remains the star attraction.

Southfield resident Vanesa Page-Alfaro says she appreciates Tlaib’s in-your-face approach to politics.

“She’s a strong personality. She’s not backing down to anyone in Washington. And I feel like she’s really looking out for the little guy,” Page-Alfaro said.

Some political observers questioned if Tlaib might have soft support in the Black community, despite having represented Detroit’s majority African American population. Soon-to-retire U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence is the only African American currently in Michigan’s Congressional delegation.

All of the candidates running in the 12th district are Black, except Tlaib.

But Westland voter Lori Wilson counters that Tlaib already represents part of that city and has delivered results for constituents regardless of race.

Wilson said, “I think for as much as she has been chewed at and thrown at, she’s done a good job for us. She’s brought money back to the communities. She has spoke up for us, for women, minorities, women of color. And I’m a woman of color.”

The candidates seeking the 12th Congressional seat still face significant blocks of potential new constituents in cities like Dearborn, where for roughly a century voters have only elected someone to the U.S. House with the last name Dingell.

The redrawn congressional boundaries changed that equation. But the district remains solidly blue, and the stakes of this campaign are clear.

Whoever wins the upcoming Democratic primary will almost certainly emerge victorious in November’s general election.

Photo Credit: Nate Pappas, WDET

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  • Quinn Klinefelter
    Quinn Klinefelter is a Senior News Editor at 101.9 WDET. In 1996, he was literally on top of the news when he interviewed then-Senator Bob Dole about his presidential campaign and stepped on his feet.