The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rep. Tlaib vowed to be a plain-spoken fighter for her district. Her constituents consider whether she’s sending the right message.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) poses for a group photo with the House Democratic women on Capitol Hill on Jan. 4 in Washington. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

DETROIT — Rep. Rashida Tlaib had returned to Detroit to clean out her law office, a room in a creaky repurposed church filled with remnants of her past.

She picked up a piece of metal that once was part of a fence a developer put around a public park, until she and some neighbors tore it down. She pulled out a sandwich bag with black lumps of petroleum that she stole from a dumping site, so she could prove the material was toxic. Then she stared at a news article and reminisced about being carried away in handcuffs after chanting in favor of raising the minimum wage.

“I can’t believe that’s what I got arrested for!” Tlaib said during that trip to Detroit earlier this year. “I’ve done so much worse.”

Tearing down fences. Stealing petroleum. Getting arrested. Three actions that helped mold the activist reputation Tlaib built before she went to Washington, where she pledged to be a plainspoken fighter against President Trump. Hours after she was sworn in, the congresswomen’s past was overshadowed by three words, caught on tape, about how she wanted to handle the commander in chief: “Impeach the motherf-----.”

Last Wednesday, her words went viral again. This time, she was lambasting Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) for bringing an administration official and longtime Trump employee who is African American to a congressional hearing to argue that the president is not racist. “The fact someone would actually use a prop, a black woman in this chamber, in this committee, is alone racist in itself,” Tlaib said.

Meadows was irate, and soon an intense back-and-forth about racism ensued between one of the first Muslim women to serve in Congress and the head of the conservative Freedom Caucus. The two appeared to find common ground a day later in a one-on-one discussion that ended with a hug.

Since Tlaib entered office, her remarks have been called “inappropriate” by fellow Democrats and “disrespectful” by Republicans. She has refused to apologize. Instead, she has chosen to lean into being a combative, cursing congresswoman — partly in an effort to gain influence.

Residents in her district — the third-poorest in the country — hope the attention might help. Voters here said they didn’t elect a representative to go to the nation’s capital simply to toss out some naughty or provocative words. They want Tlaib to channel their frustration in Washington and create more substantive change.

What she called the president “was distasteful and a little bit of a disservice,” Deirdre Woods, 57, a factory worker at General Motors who voted for Tlaib, said as she jumped in her car one day on her way home. “But it didn’t leave me with a sour taste in my mouth, because nowadays nothing surprises me about politics. You know what’s more distasteful? How I’m being treated at my job.”

After the Meadows exchange, Woods’s feelings about Tlaib began to change.

“Too much talking,” she said. “She’s starting to act like Trump.”

Tlaib says she is doing more than talking. She is pushing for legislation targeting discriminatory practices in home mortgage lending and setting car insurance rates, but she knows that getting one of her plans through a Republican-controlled Senate is a long shot, at best. That leaves her trying to address her constituents’ needs in other ways, such as turning her four district offices into neighborhood resource centers, where struggling families and residents can get help. And by making herself heard.

“I’m a part of a new generation of Congress,” Tlaib said as she packed up her office. “We’re going to hear things differently, and my constituents are going to be much more connected to me. The best thing I can do is speak up and fight for my district.”


Michigan’s 13th Congressional District, which includes western Detroit and suburban Wayne County, has long been associated with outspoken representatives. Tlaib, who served three terms in the state assembly, succeeded Democratic Rep. John Conyers Jr., a civil rights leader who stepped down amid allegations of sexual harassment.

Tlaib had to convince voters that she, a Palestinian American in a district that is only 5 percent Arab, should replace a well-known black leader in a district that is 54 percent African American.

Woods voted for Tlaib, she said, because she saw advantages in having a Muslim and a woman in office. Even though she wasn’t enthusiastic about Tlaib’s remarks last week, she said she was unsure that a conversation about Meadows’s actions would have happened if the committee did not have women of color to state their discomfort.

“Congress needs to look more like a melting pot,” Woods said. “Maybe they would do better if they had a different perspective. Maybe they would make better decisions.”

Still, Woods wondered why more politicians weren’t talking about what was going on at the GM factory. The plant where she worked had been shut down, affecting more than 1,500 employees.

After 21 years with GM, Woods was angry that no one at the company let workers know about the closures; she found out while watching the news. Then she said she was told to be thankful that she was being transferred to another factory 50 miles away, doubling her commute and costing her more gas money.

Her former plant was one of five factory closures GM announced it was considering, potentially costing more than 15,000 jobs. As she watched politicians respond to the news, she noted a difference between the president she detested and the congresswoman she supported.

Trump sent out two tweets, which she appreciated, but then he seemed to move on.

But Tlaib joined 300 protesters outside an auto show in Detroit. She wore a thick black coat and winter hat and marched with them while golf carts ferried men in tuxedos and women in ball gowns to a charity auction. She joined the protesters in chanting, “GM got bailed out! We got sold out!” She grabbed a bullhorn.

“Let’s chant so they can hear us,” Tlaib yelled. “Beyond the champagne, beyond the ball gowns, beyond the tuxedos, they need to hear that people are suffering!”

Despite all the attention she was receiving in Washington, her presence on behalf of a local issue meant so much more.

“That was awesome,” Woods said. “It showed that she was really in the corner for me.”


Tlaib hopes that her willingness to fight will help boost her support at home, where her congressional seat is tenuous. She had no major-party opposition in the general election but won in a crowded Democratic primary by one percentage point, or 900 votes.

In the primary, she lost precincts within the city limits but pulled ahead by campaigning heavily in the working-class western suburbs — union towns where factory workers live in ranch homes and some disenchanted Democrats swung in 2016 from Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) in the Democratic primary to Trump in the general election. Over time, she wants constituents in Detroit to see in her what her supporters in the suburbs saw.

For Michal Walker, 75, a social worker who first met Tlaib at the Romulus Democratic Club, what she admired most was Tlaib’s authenticity.

She told everyone to call her “Rashida.” She gave out her cellphone number. She would laugh while telling stories about her two sons, choke up when talking about the water crisis in Flint and speak passionately when discussing politics steering too much toward the rich.

Of the six candidates on the primary ballot, Tlaib was Walker’s immediate choice. She didn’t care about Tlaib’s race or religion. She didn’t mind that Tlaib was a democratic socialist.

“I saw that she’s a real go-getter,” Walker said.

Walker had taken pride in being represented by a legend like Conyers. But Conyers was in the twilight of his life. Now, she wanted his successor to be younger, more proactive. So Walker wasn’t surprised when voters nationwide made similar decisions, such as when a majority-white community in Minnesota chose Ilhan Omar (D), another Muslim activist, as its representative or when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D), a 29-year-old bartender, won in New York City.

“There are basically two types of politicians now in this country,” said Don Mongrain, 35, who is also a member of the Romulus Democratic Club. “There’s one who can relate to a man who has to sell blood so they could pay for the groceries, and there’s another who can ask their father for a million-dollar loan to go to private school.”

Mongrain was a man who sold his plasma to buy groceries. He did data entry for an insurance company and is working on his bachelor’s degree, living from paycheck to student loan check to paycheck.

He thought Tlaib could relate to his struggles. She was a 42-year-old single mother living in Southwest Detroit, encountering problems such as what to do after burglars stole her furnace. She had a working-class sensibility because she was working-class. And in Detroit, he said, working-class meant she cursed.

“That just who Rashida is,” Mongrain said. “What’s the big deal?”

The potential big deal was that Tlaib was now being defined by the moment. Democrats complained that she was jumping to conclusions about the president before the a special counsel investigation was finalized. Conservative media outlets derided her as a “foul-mouthed Islamic congresswoman,” and a lawmaker from Florida suggested that she might bomb the Capitol. Her words have led to even more scrutiny, including her opponents seizing on her support of the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement, which aims to pressure Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank, and suggesting that she is an anti-Semite.

“Couldn’t she just have been like Michelle Obama?” asked Terrill Sewantek, 65, whose son lives down the street from Mongrain. Chris Sewantek, 35, told her that Tlaib was part of a different generation that could not simply “go high” if she thought the president had sunk too low.

“She is responding to the way Trump acts, to show that he cannot bully her,” he said. “I might not necessarily swear like that, but he uses colorful language. It’s nice to have someone check him. I think when we see him go away, the brashness being used to oppose him will go away, too.”

Tlaib doesn’t want her brashness to go away.

“My constituents don’t want me to sell out,” she said as she took a lunch break across the street from her old office. She thought that upsetting people was inevitable, given that she is one of the first Muslim women in Congress and a democratic socialist.

“My mere presence as a Muslim mother, as Palestinian — cursing or not cursing — is a threat,” she said. “That alone has shaken up Congress. And I’m not quiet, and I’m not hiding.”

Around the time of her election, Tlaib witnessed another way to wage battle with the White House. For all the talk of the new generation of Congress, it was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — more than 30 years in — who won praise for how she dealt with Trump during the recent partial government shutdown.

During the standoff, Tlaib said she saw someone dealing with the president with “grace,” “composure” and “strategy.” Tlaib wasn’t sure she could ever do the same.

“The people who elected me didn’t want me to be a politician,” she said. “They want me to be real. They know I was raw. And right now, the feeling I have is anger.”

That anger got her more than 380,000 followers on Twitter and bookings on cable news networks. She has learned to deal with ambush interviews by tabloid television outlets and to ignore death threats unless “the threat is imminent.” She brings a communications director on interviews, which she said helps her “catch myself” before she goes too far. And she swears less in public.

“I would say that using the MF word became a distraction, a huge distraction from everything else I wanted to talk about,” she said as she finished her lunch. “I didn’t expect it.”

Already, Washington was changing the woman who didn’t want to sell out. As she made her way back to the old church, she was stopped by a man in gray dreadlocks who smiled broadly when he saw the congresswoman.

“Rashida, you’re doing a great job!” he said to her. “Now, stay off TMZ.”