Cross-Cultural Campaigning: In a Heavily-Latino District, Rashida Tlaib Runs to be the First Muslim Woman in the Michigan Legislature

Michigan’s 12th House District is predominantly Latino, but the district borders the largest concentrated Middle Eastern community in the United States. Arab American, Rashida Tlaib, grew up on the Latino side of the district. She is running for state representative in today’s Democratic primary in one of Detroit’s most contested elections, and is the front-runner in a race that has 9 candidates vying for the seat.

Tlaib’s campaign strategy is simple, walk the entire district twice and knock on the doors of more than eight thousand voters. Her approach seems to be working. Residents call her by her first name, and her unassuming demeanor and easy smile can disarm residents of some of the toughest Detroit neighborhoods.

Her grassroots approach has also inspired a core group of college-age Arabic and Latina women to faithfully volunteer on her campaign. The young women walk the district along with the candidate, make phone calls in Arabic and Spanish, put up signs and organize fundraisers.

Although Tlaib has inspired a faithful following, not everyone in the Latino stronghold is excited about the young Palestinian attorney running for office. Local resident and community activist, Elena Herrada says the district is predominantly Mexican, and a Latina like former State Representative Belda Garza should hold that seat. Garza was the first Latina elected to the Michigan legislature in 1998 and served two terms before losing to current State Representative Steve Tobocman in 2002. Garza is running again in this election.

But Tlaib says her biggest concern isn’t running against a Latino, black or white candidate. It’s about anti-Muslim attitudes, she feels could derail her campaign. Tlaib’s fears seem warranted. In 2006 conservative political commentator Debbie Schlussel stirred anti-Muslim sentiment by falsely accusing Ishmael Ahmed, who at the time was the executive director of ACCESS, the largest Arab-American human service agency in the country, of being anti-American and supporting extremist organizations.

Ahmed was being considered for a cabinet post in administration of Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm. After an uphill battle, he was confirmed as the Director of the Michigan Department of the Human Services. Ahmed says that if Arab Americans want to climb the political ranks, this kind of prejudice is typical what they have to go through, “no matter how good, how honest, how decent and how hard they have worked.” Tlaib says that, like Ahmed, she has been the recipient of racist attacks by bloggers. “People who hear these things suspect where there’s smoke there’s fire, and back away from really good people,” says Ahmed. “These attacks have an effect,” he adds, “I hope that’s not the case in Southwest Detroit.

Although Tlaib understands that political action to advance the interests of a certain group is important, she says it’s more important to help people with every day issues that affect their quality of life. “What I’ve been told is that it’s a slap in the face not to have a Latino represent the district,” says Tlaib. “My response is that it’s more of a slap in the face when you do have a Latino that doesn’t make an impact in peoples lives.”

There are a half-million Middle Easterners living in Michigan. No Muslim women serve in the Michigan state legislature.

This article was written by Feet in Two Worlds reporter Martina Guzman. Martina produced a radio profile of Rashida Tlaib for WDET. You can listen to it here or click play below.

AboutMartina Guzman
Martina Guzmán is a former Feet in 2 Worlds reporter. She has for the past 15 years specialized in creative production with an emphasis on stories by and about Latino communities. She holds a B.A. in Political Science and Communication from Madonna University, an A.A. in Photography from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit; and a Master’s degree in Journalism from Columbia University. She currently works as a feature reporter for WDET, the NPR affiliate in Detroit, Michigan.