2008 Profile of Michigan State Rep. Rashida Tlaib, first Muslim woman in Michigan legislature

Michigan State Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), a Palestinian-American Muslim woman, spoke tonight on behalf of her state’s delegates during the Democratic National Convention. Here’s a profile of her from 2008, followed by a separate accompanying story about how former Michigan State Rep. Tobocman, who is Jewish, helped her career.

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AN UNLIKELY UNION BUILDS POLITICAL WIN

ARAB AMERICAN TO LEAD 12TH DISTRICT

RASHIDA TLAIB WILL BE THE FIRST MUSLIM WOMAN IN THE STATE HOUSE  (SIDEBAR ATTACHED; SEE RELATED STORY, PAGE 17A)

By NIRAJ WARIKOO
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

Sunday, 12/14/2008

Page 1a

When Rashida Tlaib declared her candidacy in May for state representative, she heard grumblings from opponents who said the heavily Latino and black district in southwest Detroit wouldn’t vote for an Arab American with a name they couldn’t pronounce.

But Tlaib, a Palestinian American, won the seat with the strong backing of the district’s term-limited incumbent, who happens to be Jewish. And on Jan. 1, she will become the first Muslim woman to serve in the Michigan Legislature.

It’s a story of ethnic cooperation that reveals the complexities of racial and religious relationships in one of the most diverse districts in the region.

“They saw my work ethic, how I reached out” said the 32-year-old Tlaib (pronounced “ta-LEEB”). “I’m a product of southwest Detroit. … I grew up in the community.”

Her election also offers a glimpse into how politics may play out in an increasingly diverse metro Detroit and nation, where minority and immigrant groups typically have pushed for political power by demanding candidates of their particular ethnicity or race. The victories of Tlaib and President-elect Barack Obama show that model may be outdated as people increasingly mix and cross ethnic boundaries.

“We’re more than our own race or ethnicity, ” said Gloria Rivera, 65, a Latina who supported Tlaib and her predecessor in the Legislature, Steve Tobocman. “We need people who are inclusive, rather than a person who is so focused on their own race.”

More than 40% of Tlaib’s district is Latino – the highest concentration in the state. About 25% is African American; the rest is mostly white, with Arab Americans making up less than 2%. But she still was able to win most precincts in the 12th District by hard work, years of public service and a compelling life story that cut across lines, say her supporters.

Tyrone Carter, a 46-year-old retired police lieutenant who is African American, was among her backers. He said some dubbed him a Benedict Arnold for not supporting a black candidate.

“I think people now want the best player to play, regardless of their background, ” Carter said. “Rashida outworked everybody. Some people were saying, ‘She’s an Arab, she’s this, she’s that, ‘ but she was never negative, always positive.”

Tlaib and Tobocman’s victories continued a long history of residents in southwest Detroit crossing racial lines with their votes. Matthew McNeely, an African American, was first elected to the district in 1964 when it was majority white.

When he stepped down in 1986, he tapped a Hungarian immigrant woman, Illona Varga, to be his successor in an increasingly minority district, and she won.

But not everyone was pleased by Tlaib’s success – one criticized the native of southwest Detroit for once living in Dearborn.

“She’s a carpetbagger, ” said Carl Ramsey, an African American who works for the City of Detroit and finished second to Tlaib in the Democratic primary in August.

Because of the district’s large number of Democrats, that primary usually determines who gets the seat. Tlaib – who took 44% of the August vote – defeated several challengers, including Ramsey and four Latinos.

“She was the one who took the time to listen, to study the issues, ” said Juan Escareno, a Mexican-American community activist who backed Tlaib. “I’m not going to support someone just because they have a Spanish surname or because our ancestors came from the same place.”

Tlaib’s personal history helped shape her candidacy.

The oldest of 14 children born to Palestinian immigrants, Tlaib grew up in a working-class home where her parents struggled at times to get by. She often acted as a third parent, changing diapers while juggling homework and school activities.

Tlaib graduated from Southwestern High School, where the student body was predominantly African American with a sizable number of Latinos.

“Because I’m a person who really didn’t fit into any group in school or the community, I fit in with everybody, ” said Tlaib.

After graduating from law school, she worked on immigration issues with the Dearborn-based Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, establishing a close relationship with Latino communities.

Through that, Tlaib met Tobocman, who had unseated Latino incumbent Belda Garza in 2002.

After he became House floor leader, Tobocman hired Tlaib to work for his office in 2007. And he asked her to replace him when term limits kept him from running again this year.

Tlaib then ran a campaign that hewed closely to Tobocman’s 2002 strategy of aggressive outreach.

During the race, Tlaib said, voters almost never asked about her ethnicity, but she said some opponents and voters said they wouldn’t vote for someone whose name they couldn’t pronounce. One even suggested she was a Muslim extremist, Tlaib said. It was familiar to Tobocman, who said when he ran in 2002, some said they wouldn’t vote for “that Jewish guy.”

But “there’s something about looking a voter in the eye and going to their house that breaks through all these racial, ethnic and religious stereotypes, ” Tobocman said.

Soon, Tlaib will be the first Muslim in Michigan’s Legislature since the 1960s when James Karoub, the son of a Lebanese imam, served three terms as a Democrat from Highland Park and later became a noted Lansing lobbyist.

On a recent Wednesday, Tlaib introduced herself to business owners along Vernor, the main strip of Mexicantown.

“If you ever need anything, you can call me, ” Tlaib told Rita Briseno, the Latina owner of the newly opened Tropical Day Spa.

Briseno studied Tlaib’s business card and asked:

“Are you Latino?”

“No, I’m actually Arab American, ” Tlaib replied.

“It really doesn’t matter what you are as long as you’re doing the job right, ” Briseno said. “That’s why America is America.”

Contact NIRAJ WARIKOO at 248-351-2998 or warikoo@freepress.com

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Accompanying sidebar story

POLITICIANS’ DISPARATE BACKGROUNDS SOURCE OF BOND

NIRAJ WARIKOO
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

Sunday, 12/14/2008

State Rep. Steve Tobocman is the grandson of Jewish immigrants from Poland who fled anti-Semitism for the United States.
Rashida Tlaib is the granddaughter of a Palestinian Muslim who was once shot several times by an Israeli soldier.

But despite their seemingly disparate backgrounds, Tobocman and Tlaib forged a unique relationship over the past four years – one that led him to tap her as his preferred successor in the House.

The two met on the diverse streets of southwest Detroit, but they started off in very different settings.

Raised in Farmington Hills, Tobocman graduated from the prestigious Cranbrook high school, the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan Law School before working for several nonprofit groups in Detroit.

“I knew there could be concerns about a white, Jewish kid who went to Cranbrook … working in a city like Detroit that is over 90% minority, ” Tobocman said. “Those issues came up, those issues still come up, and those issues will always come up.”

But “if people see you’re authentic and you are committed … over time, the skepticism and lack of trust wears away.”

Shot in Arab-Israeli war

Tlaib’s background was different. Her grandparents lived near the cities of Jerusalem and Ramallah; during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, her mother’s father was shot after he refused to leave his home for Jordan.

Tlaib’s father moved to Nicaragua and then settled in Detroit to work on the line at Ford Motor Co. plants. The family was working-class and at one point went on welfare after he was injured in a car accident, Tlaib recalls.

But her family struggles “made me stronger, ” she said. She spoke only Arabic when she first attended school; bilingual programs helped her learn English. Over the years, Tlaib has been diligent about her Muslim faith, trying to pray five times a day.

“Prayer is a constant presence in my life, ” Tlaib said.

Tobocman first met Tlaib in 2004 while she was working on immigration issues at an Arab-American center.

“I was instantly impressed with her work, passion, intelligence and her ability to organize and articulate policy issues, ” Tobocman recalled.

And their backgrounds were actually “more of a unifying factor, ” Tobocman said.

Immigrant experience

“We both come from families that came through a very American immigrant experience – of coming to America for economic opportunity, personal liberty and freedom. We had two seemingly, on the face, different experiences, from different parts of the world.

“But some of what the Palestinians were fleeing were restrictions on their freedoms that, to some extent, were related to people of Jewish faith.

“Nonetheless, we are both here in America, we’re both extremely patriotic, and we believe in America and its promise.”

Contact NIRAJ WARIKOO at 248-351-2998 or warikoo@freepress.com.

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