At the late October funeral of former U.S. Congressman John Conyers, his widow -- Monica Conyers – told Detroit mourners she was sorry for them because no one now will fight their fights.
“Can you pick up the phone and call your congressman’s office?” she asked the gathering. “Can you pick up the phone and say 'Congressman, I need you to come here, do this?’”
In her eulogy, the widow Conyers continued to bemoan the woes of his old district, Michigan’s 13th. Speaking in the voice of an aggrieved constituent, she said:
“‘Congressman, DTE’s about to turn my lights off! Congressman, they about to do something with my mortgage! . . . I’m about to get evicted. Congressman, they about to take my house from me! Can you call?’ You got anybody you can call for that? You don’t have nobody.”
Conyers concluded by warning the voters: “I just want you to be mindful of people that you elect. . . . Make sure you get people who will help you.”
Conyers might have been pleasantly surprised to witness, in that same month, a morning coffee hour in the public library in Ecorse, the down-on-its-luck Downriver suburb that is part of the 13th District.
At the end of a long table sat Rashida Tlaib, serving her first year in the U.S. House of Representatives, serving the same district Conyers represented for 53 years.
About a dozen of her constituents – mostly black and female – discussed poverty, crime and poor schools in the district. Tlaib listened as much as she talked.
When she spoke, she pointed to her staff of young aides – mostly young, black and female – who circulated around the room.
Tlaib urged district residents to call or visit them at the district’s four service centers for help with property taxes, electric bills, income taxes, water shutoffs, pharmacy costs and other problems with bureaucracy.
'Unbought' and unquiet
Their gerrymandered district is America's third-poorest and sprawls from Metro Airport to Detroit’s east side.
“My ideas come from you all,” Tlaib told the gathering. “I’m really unbought. It’s a pretty dark time in our country. The majority of my colleagues are millionaires. They are in an income bracket that is so disconnected [from] the American people. They don’t understand what it means to live check by check.”
She turned to a young woman in a River Rouge sweatshirt who had expressed frustration with local government. Tlaib urged her to run for city council.
“People like us don’t run for office and that, I think, has been the problem,” Tlaib said. “With women, we always seek out permission to run. Believe in the power of your voices. . . . And if you need me to call you every week to say ‘Do it!’ – I will.”
As the hour wore on, enthusiasm grew. Heads nodded. Quiet voices spoke up.
Toward the end, one woman told Tlaib “You have a heart. Ain’t too many Congress people come into this area to have a sitdown.”
A second voice exclaimed, “And we got your back!” and a third added: “Thank you for everything that you’ve done. We love you, honey.”
Not everyone loves Tlaib, a feisty rookie in a feisty freshman class, many of them progressive, female and Democratic. A former member of the Michigan House of Representatives, Tlaib is a mixture of contradictions and confrontations, a controversial figure on both the local and national scene.
A Palestinian-American Muslim from Southwest Detroit, Tlaib is a person of color but not African-American in a district that is mostly black. She speaks little Spanish, although she grew up around Mexican-Americans and there are many in her district.
Although many Arab-Americans live on Detroit’s west side and in western suburbs, most are not in her district.
She is the first Palestinian female elected to Congress and a member of “the Squad,” four women of color who are also activist, progressive newcomers – Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. Omar is also Muslim.
The Squad is also the focus of conservative contempt around the country, and particularly from the White House. In July, President Donald Trump said the Squad members should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.” (All except Omar were born in the United States.)
Tlaib is hardly intimidated by the harsh words of the chief executive. Referring to the current impeachment of Trump and his refusal to cooperate with the House, Tlaib said:
“You have to respond to congressional subpoenas. If you ignore that, you have a lawless president. You have a king-like, almost dictator president. That is a danger to our democracy.”
Tlaib projects an unusual combination of toughness and vulnerability, equally unafraid to shout or cry. She blends a Quixotic quality with a mixture of street savvy and the wide-eyed wonder of a newcomer to the national circle of power.
According to 13th District Democratic chairman Jonathan Kinloch, Tlaib represents the backlash of progressives and liberals to the election of Trump in 2016 and to his aggressive conservatism over the last three years.
“The squeaky wheel gets the oil,” Kinloch said during an interview at a 13th District meeting held at UAW Local 600. “There are some folks who are concerned about (Tlaib’s) approach. But this is the age of Donald Trump.
“Folks are tired of the divisive politics that’s coming out of the White House. Rashida is part of a new, rising voice in the United States Congress. Most freshmen are put into a closet. Our Congresswoman is front and center. And, when she talks, the world listens.”
Learning on the job, sometimes the hard way
But what she says sometimes offends people. She also makes what some see as rookie mistakes. Just hours after she was sworn in on Thomas Jefferson’s Koran, Tlaib spoke to a restaurant celebration about the president.
“We’re going to impeach the motherfucker!” she said, an accurate preview of what was to come.
“I think she dishonored herself,” Trump said. “I thought it was highly disrespectful to the United States of America.”
It is not her only flashpoint moment. By urging the “Boycott, Divest and Sanction” movement against Israel, Tlaib has absorbed allegations of anti-Semitism.
Another serious matter involves Tlaib’s campaign finances. The House Ethics Committee is investigating whether she illegally used campaign funds to pay personal bills late last year, an allegation she refutes.
“I have complied with Federal Election Commission regulations and the law at all times,” she said.
Her vulnerability shows in public and private moments. When she endorsed and introduced Sen. Bernie Sanders for president at a rally at Cass Tech High School, Tlaib began her speech with: “I can’t freakin’ believe I’m up here.”
A video made by the Sanders campaign that day shows Tlaib hugging Sanders, bursting into tears and exclaiming “You being here matters.” They walk down a street with his arm around her.
She often speaks with amazement about the power of the Congressional seal on letters she sends.
“It freaks ‘em out when they see the seal on top,” she said. Tlaib is still impressed that people like Bill Ford now return her calls and letters. She also admits to occasional nervousness.
“I’m still afraid all the time,” she said recently. But she rarely shows fear of powerful people.
Before she went to Washington, her local foes included Matty Moroun, the billionaire who owns the Ambassador Bridge, and Marathon Oil Company, which she accused of pollution on the Detroit River waterfront. In at least two demonstrations, she has blocked trucks by lying down on the pavement.
Once was to protest the closing of her old high school, Southwestern. Another was to protest the directing of trucks from the bridge into residential neighborhoods in 2011, when Tlaib was a state representative.
“They were trying to push the trucks toward us to scare us off,” she recalled. “That’s when I kneeled down in front of the truck and said, ‘I’m not going anywhere’ and, when I did that, everybody else did. Just because you’re a billionaire doesn’t mean you get to disrespect our health or our quality of life.”
She said opposition to Moroun helped prepare her for President Trump because, she said, both men are bullies. (Moroun’s office did not return a request for comment).
Tlaib’s friend and mentor, Steve Tobocman, recalled another incident involving Moroun in which Tlaib defied the law for a larger purpose.
In 2013, a Koch Industries-owned company had stacked petroleum coke by-product on land owned by Moroun. “This shit is blowing everywhere,” said Tobocman, a former state rep himself. “People across the street were getting an oil film on their cars every morning.”
The breaking point came when Tlaib held an outdoor news conference to protest.
“All of a sudden, she just ran from the microphone and ran over to the hill with the plastic bags and trespassed and got the stuff and sent it to the lab,” Tobocman said. “She is a fireball. She fights people. And she gets things done.”
Unafraid to make a scene
As a state representative from 2009-15, Tlaib ran a block club in her Springwells neighborhood and crusaded against street prostitution near Patton Park.
At first, Tlaib said, she approached the prostitutes and asked them to stay off the streets while kids came to and from school.
“One woman got upset, got really aggressive with me,” Tlaib said. “I kept reporting. Nothing was done.”
So Tlaib got into a car with three military veterans and her bullhorn. They would drive around and hassle the customers of the prostitutes.
“And my bullhorn can do the siren,” Tlaib said. “I would honk my horn and say, ‘What are you doing? Get out of our neighborhood.’ When we impacted the money flow and the customers, that’s when the women decided to comply.”
More recently, Tlaib was arrested last year in downtown Detroit at a labor rally in favor of the $15 minimum wage for fast-food workers. At the Auto Show charity preview last winter, an event that many of her elected colleagues and predecessors in the Michigan delegation have attended in formal clothes, she demonstrated in front of what was then called Cobo Center against General Motors’ planned plant closings.
Also at Cobo, in 2016, she was ejected for heckling a campaign speech by candidate Donald Trump before the Detroit Economic Club.
On a recent visit to the Detroit Police “Real Time Crime Center,” Tlaib confronted Chief James Craig about facial recognition technology that, Tlaib said, disproportionately misidentifies African-Americans as criminal suspects.
Also this summer, her controversial opinions regarding the Middle East have elevated her profile on a national and even global scale. Her grandmother still lives in the West Bank and her parents grew up there.
After Tlaib joined the BDS effort against Israel, President Trump opposed her trip there last summer. So Israel banned both her and Omar.
When Israel eased the ban against Tlaib so that she could visit her grandmother, she declined to take the trip and cried at a press conference, drawing Trump’s ridicule.
“All of a sudden, I see this person who is crying because she can’t see her grandmother,” Trump said.
Later, on Twitter, Trump escalated the rhetoric.
“Sorry, I don’t buy Rep. Tlaib’s tears,” Trump wrote. “I have watched her violence, craziness and, most importantly, WORDS for too long. Now, tears. She hates Israel and all Jewish people. She is an anti-Semite.”
Disagreeing with that is Rep. Andy Levin of Michigan’s 9th. District. He is Jewish and also a first-term Democrat representing Metro Detroit.
“I don’t think she’s anti-Semitic, she is not prejudiced against Jews in any way,” Levin said. “There’s no credibility to it.”
Although House rookies, they go back a decade in Detroit’s labor-organizing circles.
Regarding the BDS movement against Israel, Levin said “I really disagree with her about that. I don’t think Israel should be singled out in that way.”
He said their dialogue on the subject is an example of how to respectfully disagree.
“We have to be able to have conversations about policy and not call each other names,” Levin said.
Levin warned Tlaib’s opponents not to underestimate her.
“Rashida Tlaib is a very smart lawyer, a really smart advocate and a real careful and nuanced thinker about public policy,” Levin said. “And people lose sight of that at their peril.”
She’s an ideal Trump target – not male, not Christian, not white, not conservative and not Republican – and she knows how to bait him.
Updating an 'Impeach The MF' message?
Last summer, Tlaib’s office sold $29 T-shirts that declared “Impeach The MF” to raise 2020 campaign funds. Although currently out of stock, she said the T-shirt message will return before next November.
“And if he gets impeached before that, it’ll be ‘Impeached,’” Tlaib said in a recent interview in her Detroit office near the Fisher Building. “Past tense.”
But a T-shirt message is hardly her most serious campaign issue.
The investigation by the ethics committee for misuse of campaign funds stems from a salary paid to her between her election in November 2018 and her official start in her new role in January 2019.
The committee report said she was paid $17,500 in this period from the campaign fund. The report also included an email sent by Tlaib in April 2018 to two campaign managers. In it, she referenced her finances, her former husband and their two young sons.
“I am struggling financially right now,” she wrote. “Fayez doesn’t pay child support (my fault for not pushing him). . . . I budgeted myself, but I think I underestimated having to handle rent and mortgage.”
The matter is one of the few topics Tlaib won’t discuss. But her communications office issued a long statement written by her that said, in part:
"I have complied with FEC (Federal Elections Commission) regulations and the law at all times. When I ran for Congress in 2018, I had to leave my job as a civil rights attorney at the Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice . . . The campaign ultimately decided to pay me a salary as permitted under FEC regulations . . . I received the minimum salary payments necessary for me to meet my personal financial obligations."
The statement concludes with an argument that people of modest means should be allowed FEC permission to use campaign funds for things like childcare expenses “so that financial privilege is not a prerequisite to participate in our democracy.”
Immigrant family, iron discipline
Tlaib may be one of the least-wealthy members of Congress and often talks about growing up without much money. Her father, Harbi Elabed, worked the overnight shift at the Ford plant in Flat Rock. Rashida was the oldest of 14 children. They relied on Focus Hope, she said, for some food.
In an exceptionally revealing interview last May for a New York Times podcast, Tlaib described a harsh life in a strict home as she attended Southwestern and Wayne State University. She cooked meals for siblings and settled family problems before they reached her father.
“People were just afraid of him,” she said. “He was just really tough.” Her parents allowed her to go to the senior prom only if escorted by her brother. They allowed her no dates with boys. She chafed under the discipline.
“I mean, it was huge fights,” she said. “Explosive fights.”
To change her life, she said on the podcast, Tlaib pushed for a marriage at age 21 with a young man she described as “super quiet, shy, super sweet.”
He told her “You’re using me,” according to Tlaib, and he told her he wanted to remain engaged longer. “And I was the one, like, ‘No,’” Tlaib said. “We need to get married,’” because it would give her freedom from the family home. They married in 1998 and broke up in 2015.
In the same interview, when discussing her father, she briefly sobbed, explaining that he died the year before. Tlaib’s emotions are often close to the surface.
Although she spoke only Arabic until she went to kindergarten, Tlaib’s only notable accent is that of Metro Detroit, with the long, flat vowels – “KAHN-griss,” “PAH-verty.” She curses occasionally, but not as much as her image would suggest.
Her high school was mostly black and one of her counselors was Perry Watson, a well-known basketball coach. He nagged her about applying for college.
“I said, ‘Well, my parents, they can’t afford all that stuff,’” Tlaib recalled. “And he’s like ‘No, no, no!’ He’s like ‘Sit down.’ He made me fill them out. It’s like he knew how to talk to me.”
She attended Wayne State from 1994-98 and spent a year writing for The South End, the student newspaper.
“I really wanted to be a journalist so bad,” she said. “Investigative reporting. You’d always find the bad guy. There was some excitement, uncovering corruption and getting the truth out.”
Although she wrote many front-page stories for the paper, she said a journalism professor called her a terrible writer and discouraged her career ambitions.
“Now, I’m doing it a different way,” she said of her muckraking.
With 9/11, a push toward the law
Tlaib said she made her decision to become a public policy lawyer right after Sept. 11, 2001, when Islamic terrorists attacked the United States. The resulting public shock and panic led to American Muslims like Tlaib’s family being interviewed by law enforcement.
“It was horrifying,” Tlaib said on the podcast. “They surrounded the house like it was a military operation with, you know, big guns and everything.”
On the day after Trump was elected in 2016, Tlaib said, her mother was told by a stranger to stop wearing her hijab, the Islamic headscarf.
It is this sort of personal sniping on ethnic and religious terms that bothers Dan Kildee, another of Tlaib’s Democratic colleagues in Congress.
“Generally speaking, I think it’s fine – and Rashida does, too – for people to disagree with her,” said Kildee, who represents the Flint area. “She has very strong views and those views are not held by everybody.”
But some commentators cross a line, he said.
“This includes the president and Fox News and many others,” Kildee said. “They want to stereotype and generalize and basically use bigotry and xenophobia as their tools.”
Locally, many of these cheap shots come from Frank Beckmann, a radio talk-show host on WJR (760-AM).
In early November, painting her as an anti-Semite, Beckmann said Tlaib “gets this warm feeling in her heart when she thinks about the Holocaust.” Later, he smeared her after a Middle Eastern community activist was charged in Hamtramck with sexual assault of a mentally disabled student outside a school.
“We’re still waiting for words from Rashida Tlaib,” Beckmann snarled. “Did you know about this, Rashida? Why didn’t you stop it?”
The accused was a politically active man who was pictured on Facebook with many Detroit-area elected officials. But Beckmann stressed a photo of him with Tlaib.
Alluding to the oral sex charge, Beckmann taunted Tlaib by describing the photograph.
“Almost cheek-to-cheek,” Beckmann said. “Lip-to-lip with him.”
Later in November, the charges against the man were dismissed. If Beckmann reported the dismissal or apologized to Tlaib, it was not a big deal on his show. Requests for response from Beckmann’s station were not returned.
Beckmann is one of many in conservative media. Syndicated talk-show host Wayne Allyn Root referred to her party affiliation as “D-Hamas” and faulted her for her financial struggles.
“Loud-mouth, Trump-hating, America-hating, Israel-hating, capitalism-hating Tlaib is in trouble,” Root wrote. “. . . Tlaib doesn’t have $2,000 to make her rent and car payments or pay her child-care bills. . . . If these charges are proved, Tlaib is a fraud, crook and hypocrite.”
Mentors and colleagues
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gave Tlaib some of the best advice when they talked at the beginning of the current session, Tlaib said.
“She said, ‘Focus on your district and center your work around your district,’” Tlaib said. “I’ve taken that advice.”
Although they are not close friends or allies on all issues, Tlaib said Pelosi “doesn’t take what I do personally.”
Tlaib rents a room in Washington, an expensive city, and keeps an apartment in Detroit. She flies in every weekend to see her sons and visit with constituents. The boys live with their father.
Asked whether she has time for a social life, Tlaib laughed and said she doesn’t and that most of her off hours in Washington involve House colleagues she calls “incredible sisters in service.”
They plan things like bridal showers, Tlaib said.
One of Tlaib’s closest friends in the House is Debbie Dingell, who represents Michigan’s 12th District, which adjoins Tlaib’s.
“They call us `Double Trouble,’” Tlaib said.
Their contrasting approaches were on display in early autumn at a ground-breaking for a park along the Rouge River near the Detroit-Dearborn border.
When both women grabbed shovels to help turn dirt for the official ground-breaking, Dingell began to tease Tlaib.
“Rashida, you don’t know how to dig!” Dingell said as bystanders giggled.
Tlaib glanced at her and dug in harder. “She’s so competitive!” Tlaib said of Dingell.
Daily touchstone with a 'big sister'
“We’re like sisters,” Dingell said. “We agree on some things. We disagree on some things. We have some pretty intense conversations. We have different life experiences, different perspectives, and we learn from each other. But we have each other’s backs.”
Asked how Tlaib might improve in her new role and what a big sister might advise, Dingell responded with measured words.
“She’s going to learn,” Dingell said. “We all learn how not to respond to people, what may offend some people, what may not. Rashida’s Rashida and if you’ve got a problem with Rashida, you go talk to Rashida. Don’t talk to Debbie.”
Tlaib said no workday in Washington feels complete until she speaks with Dingell, who reminds her of home. “We always talk about this,” she said. “She never tries to silence me or change me. She always says I shake the table.”
Another new table-shaker in Congress, Omar, gave Tlaib a silver bracelet engraved with the words “Mama Bear.”
Tlaib said she keeps it on her desk and puts it on when she is anxious.
Why “Mama Bear”?
“Because people can come after me, that’s OK,” Tlaib said. “But if they come after people I care about or love and respect, I’m very protective. I come out roaring.”