DETROIT — Rashida Tlaib, a 42-year-old attorney, is set to become the first Muslim woman elected to Congress.
She won Tuesday’s Democratic primary to run unopposed for the House seat that Rep. John Conyers held for more than five decades before retiring amid sexual harassment allegations.
“I will uplift you in so many ways,” Tlaib told her cheering supporters early Wednesday. “Not only through service, but fighting back against every single oppressive, racist structure that needs to be dismantled, because you deserve better than what we have today in our country.”
Tlaib, who served in the Michigan House from 2009 until 2014, defeated five other candidates to win the nomination to run for a full term representing the heavily Democratic district, which covers much of Detroit and some of its suburbs. Since no Republicans or third-party candidates are running, Tlaib is running unopposed in November’s general election.
Since leaving the Legislature, Tlaib has worked as an attorney for the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice. Her views align with the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party, and she said Wednesday that she’ll push for universal Medicare, a $15 minimum wage, sustainable environmental policies, public school funding and fair immigration policies.
“This is a huge victory for the Arab and Muslim-American communities. It’s also a huge victory for the city of Detroit,” said Sally Howell, the director of the Center for Arab American Studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
“Rashida Tlaib brings forward the legacy of John Conyers in terms of the groundbreaking role he played in Congress and his commitment to civil rights.”
The 89-year-old Conyers was first elected to the House in 1964. He stepped down in December citing health reasons, though several former female staffers had accused him of sexual harassment. The 13th District seat has remained vacant since then.
There are currently two Muslim men in Congress: Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, who in 2007 became the first Muslim to take office, and Indiana Rep. Andre Carson. Ellison’s decision to run for Minnesota attorney general has left his House seat open, and two of the Democrats seeking to replace him are also Muslim: Ilhan Omar, the country’s first Somali-American state lawmaker, and Jamal Abdulahi, a Somali-American activist.
A congressman from western Michigan, Republican Rep. Justin Amash, is the son of a Palestinian refugee father and a Syrian immigrant mother. He is Christian.
There were as many as 90 Muslim-Americans running for national or statewide offices this election cycle. They’ve been spurred to action by the anti-Muslim policies and rhetoric of Trump and his supporters and are running for office in numbers not seen since before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to Muslim groups and political observers.
Arabs have been coming to the U.S. in large numbers since the late 19th century, and their ranks have grown in recent decades due to wars and political instability in the Middle East. Many settled in and around New York, Los Angeles and Detroit, which has one of the country’s largest Middle Eastern populations, with at least 150,000 Arabs and Chaldeans, or Iraqi Christians.
The district Tlaib will represent notably doesn’t have a majority of Arabs or Muslims, and is mostly a mix of whites, blacks and Hispanics.
“Her accomplishments were recognized by the larger public,” said Howell, the University of Michigan professor. “This shows that Arab and Muslim candidates in Michigan are part of the political mainstream.”
In a twist, Tlaib narrowly lost a special primary election Tuesday to serve the final two months of Conyers’ term. Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones won that primary and will be unopposed in November’s special election.