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Published: Friday, 6/8/2012

COMMENTARY

Michigan's elite could glean insight from Rep. Tlaib

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

DETROIT -- State Rep. Rashida Tlaib didn't go to the fancy meeting of Detroit's business and political elites last week on Mackinac Island.

The Michigan Legislature was in session, for one thing.

For another, there was too much to do in Lansing and her home district, a strip of southwest Detroit and the neighboring suburbs of River Rouge and Ecorse along the Detroit River.

She's got some bills she wants to see passed, especially one that would regulate shady scrap-metal dealers.

"We need to hold them accountable. They are contributing to the destruction of this town," the Democratic lawmaker says over lunch at El Barzon, a popular Hispanic restaurant not far from the vacant lot where Tiger Stadium stood for nearly a century.

"We need to outlaw selling burnt copper," she said. Thieves, many desperate for drug money, burn down houses to make it easier to root out the valuable metals inside, she explained.

"You just try to make a difference, you know," she said, before being interrupted when the restaurant's owner emerged from the back room to give her an enthusiastic hug.

Nobody in her district is among the wealthy 1 percent. It's doubtful if many of her 85,000 or so constituents live much above the poverty line. But it is a community.

And when not in Lansing, Ms. Tlaib -- although nearly everyone calls her Rashida -- spends much of her time trying to fight neighborhood predators and get people's problems straightened out.

One recent night, Ms. Tlaib was with a neighborhood watch group as it patrolled nearby corners with a bullhorn, trying to chase local street prostitutes and their customers away.

"You should be ashamed of yourself," she bellowed at one man she knew. "What are you doing? Go home."

This, after all, is her home too.

"I feel a personal relationship with Detroit's riverfront and with these people," she says. "I grew up here."

That she did, but her ethnic background is a little different from most of her constituents, nearly all of whom are black or Hispanic.

The former Rashida Elabed is Arabic, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, and the first female Muslim elected to the Michigan Legislature. Her voters don't seem to care.

She grew up in anything but a world of privilege. Her parents were young, struggling immigrants when she came into the world in July, 1976, a few days after the nation's bicentennial.

Thirteen more children followed. Sometimes, the family was on welfare. She was expected to help raise her younger siblings.

Nobody in her family ever had earned a high school degree, but she managed to do so. Then college and a law degree.

But she stayed in the old neighborhood. Her husband, Fayez Tlaib, is an auto worker who she says does more than his share to help raise their two sons, one of whom was born after she was elected to the Legislature. "I couldn't do it without him," she says.

While going to school, she worked as a community organizer, which she says was tremendous training. "I've gotten more bills passed since we [Democrats] have been in the minority than I did when we controlled things," she says, laughing. "Forget about parties. I look for things we have in common."

She wasn't planning on a career in elected politics, but eventually she began working as a staff member for state Rep. Steve Tobocman.

He was Jewish, the grandson of immigrants who fled the Holocaust. She was a Palestinian Arab. Nevertheless, he was so impressed that he talked her into running for his seat when term limits forced him to leave office four years ago.

With his backing, she easily won the primary and got 90 percent of the vote in November. Two years later, she did better still.

She's no stranger to controversy. In 2009, she took on her fellow Arab, Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel Moroun, over his plan to build another bridge next to his. The pollution generated by vehicles on a second bridge so close to the existing one would be an environmental hazard, she said. Enraged, he supported a plan to try and recall her. His plans for the bridge and the recall fizzled.

Ms. Tlaib supports the proposed New International Trade Crossing Bridge that Gov. Rick Snyder wants -- but only if there are some community benefits included for her constituents.

She's fighting Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager Roy Roberts over his plan to close Southwestern High School. But now, there's a real question as to whether she'll be back for a final term. Redistricting put Ms. Tlaib into a new district with another incumbent, State Rep. Maureen Stapleton.

Much more of the new district was represented by Ms. Stapleton, and both are campaigning hard. "Some days I leave the house at 6 a.m. and don't get back 'til 10 p.m.," Ms. Tlaib says.

The voters she meets often don't understand redistricting. "Why haven't we see you before now?" they ask. Others, confused, think she is trying to run for Congress.

What she would like is to survive the August primary, see Democrats take back control of the Michigan House, and then become a committee chair.

But if not, "this is my neighborhood, and I'll go on working to help people in any way I can" she says.

The Detroit Area Chamber of Commerce ought to think about inviting Ms. Tlaib, win or lose, to its Mackinac Island conference next year. The elite could learn something about a slice of Michigan they otherwise might never know.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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