DETROIT — As she knocks on doors, wearing khaki shorts, a purple shirt, a grey sweater and running shoes, State Rep. Rashida Tlaib looks like an adult Girl Scout. But she is not selling baked goods; she is trying to earn the recognition of the voters in a district that is more than 95 percent new to her.
“I am State Rep. Rashida Tlaib,” she introduces herself when the door opens. “I was born and raised in Detroit. I am the oldest of 14 children.” Then, she informs the residents at the door that she is looking to be their state senator. She talks up her credentials, enumerates her endorsements and hands the potential voters her campaign literature.
Back at her campaign office in Southwest Detroit, the walls and boards are covered with cryptic-looking colored maps, numbers and charts. The place is a hub for young volunteers and staffers on their laptops.
Tlaib was first elected to the State House of Representatives in 2008. She has a bachelor’s degree from Wayne State University and a law degree from Thomas Cooley Law School. She is married and has two children. Tlaib worked for several non-profit organizations, including ACCESS, before beginning her political career.
She said her husband, Fayez, is supportive and proud of her, and her 9-year-old son, Adam, is starting to become passionate about her career.
“He reads my campaign literature and says, ‘Mama, Virgil is not nice,'” she said.
When she announced her candidacy for the 4th State Senate District, Tlaib had a mountain to climb. Former State Representative Virgil Smith, her main opponent in the democratic primary, is the incumbent. Smith’s old House district falls within the current Senate district, although he lost about half of his constituents after the district was redrawn.
Smith is the son of Circuit Court Judge Virgil Smith, Sr., a former state representative and state senator. The primary will almost definitely decide the winner of the district, which is overwhelmingly democratic.
But a Lansing insider, who was at the Tlaib’s office and wished not to be named, described her campaign as “the most impressive ground operation” in the state.
Tlaib’s campaign manager, Henry Schneider, outlined the strategy.
“Face-to-face is the name of the game of our campaign,” he said.
He explained that Tlaib’s plan has been to knock on doors of potential voters, introduce herself and make the case for her election. By Tuesday, July 29, she had knocked on more than 9,000 doors throughout the district. Her aim is to visit 10,000 homes before election day on Aug. 5.
The district extends along a narrow strip from the northern part of the city through Southwest Detroit to Southgate, Downriver. Although the demographics of the district’s communities vary greatly, Schneider said the campaign addresses all voters with the same language and rationale.
“People are facing the same issues district-wide,” he said. “Allen Park has an emergency manager; Detroit has an emergency manager. People want to be in-control of their cities.”
Tlaib represents Southwest Detroit in the State House. Schneider described it as her stronghold.
“Here, she is well-known and trusted,” he said. “People have tasted her brand of service. When she introduces herself to new voters, we want people to associate her with her accomplishments. She is an environmental warrior. She is not afraid to take on big fights. She has taken on Matty Moroun and the scrap metal industry.”
Manuel “Matty” Moroun owns the Ambassador Bridge. In the past, Tlaib has demanded that Moroun get his trucks off residential streets and favors the construction of a second, government-owned bridge downriver rather than a twin span at the Ambassador Bridge.
Smith had complained that Tlaib does not mention to people whom she is running against. But Schneider believes it is a fair tactic.
“You don’t give your opponent free air time. It is campaign 101,” he said.
Tlaib said she does tell people the name of her opponent if they ask her.
According to Schneider, Tlaib has gathered a strong base of support among young people who are usually not very excited about politics.
“People like her because she is real,” he said. “Unlike other politicians running for office, she does not put a facade. She is not trying to impress voters. She says what’s on her mind. We need elected officials like her who can cut through the bulls–t.”
Tlaib said coming from a big family taught her responsibility.
“I’m also very protective of my residents, and that comes from being the eldest of 14,” she said. “Every single issue one of my residents has gone through one of my siblings has gone through. It may be poverty. It may be mental illness. It may be substance abuse. And I’ve gone through that through my large, extended family.”
Tlaib, the only Muslim legislator in Michigan, is the daughter of Palestinian immigrants. Although her district has a small Muslim or Arab presence, she said she belongs with her constituents.
“My residents see me as a Detroiter,” she said. “They believe I’m one of them. Even most (people) Downriver that I’m meeting now tell me, ‘Oh you’re that girl from Southwest Detroit,’ not ‘You’re that girl that’s Muslim.’ Candidates should not be running on their faith or their ethnicity. They should be running on their record and their values. I’ve had a handful of people who have an issue with my faith. But I always tell them, you’re not going to stop me because you have an issue with Islam. I’ve always felt more welcomed in Detroit than anywhere else.”
State Rep. Joe Haveman, R-Howell, chairman of the State House Legislative Committee, described Tlaib as one of the hardest working democrats in the House.
“She’s probably the best when it comes to constituent relations,” Haveman said.
Tlaib is the minority vice-chair of the House Appropriations Committee.
“The fun thing I love about the job and about Rashida is that she is a an unapologetic progressive liberal and I am a conservative, but we respect each other and try to set aside our differences to serve the people,” Haveman said.
Haveman, who is also leaving the House because of term limits, praised Tlaib’s passion and productivity.
“I can’t say enough good about her,” he said. “Some representatives on my side of the aisle will be happy to see her go. I wish her well.”
Former State Rep. Steve Tobocman, who held Tlaib’s seat in the House before encouraging her to replace him after he was term-limited, said Tlaib is realizing the potential he saw in her when she was on his staff.
“We’ve seen her tap into her God-given talents and natural leadership abilities to be one of the most effective legislators in Michigan that I have seen in the past 15 years,” he said. “She’s putting those talents into play and becoming one of the hardest working politicians— a champion for the causes of her constituents.”
Tobocman, whom Tlaib described as her mentor, said a victory for the state representative on Tuesday would be a shock for the political establishment. Early polls conducted by Smith’s campaign claimed that she was 35 points behind him in name recognition.
“For her to be able to come back and eclipse him, it would be a political miracle,” said Tobocman. “It would demonstrate how relentless she is. She was operating without food and water for an entire month during Ramadan. It would be an incredible story.”
Tobocman added that he expects Tlaib to win, albeit by a small margin.
He said winning the State Senate seat would open the door for Tlaib to run for higher political offices in the future, “Congress, county executive or even governor one day.”