Traverse City Record-Eagle

June 10, 2012

Jack Lessenberry: Fighting hard

By Jack Lessenberry, Syndicated columnist

---- — State Rep. Rashida Tlaib didn't go to the fancy meeting of Detroit's business and political elites on Mackinac Island. The Legislature was in session, for one thing.

For another, well, there was too much to do, in Lansing and in her home district, a strip of southwest Detroit and the neighboring suburbs of River Rouge and Ecorse, all running along the Detroit River. She's got some bills she really 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," she says over lunch at El Barzon, a popular Hispanic restaurant not far from the vacant lot where Tiger Stadium stood for more than a century.

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

Nobody in her district is among the 1 percent. It's doubtful if very many of her 85,000 or so constituents are even far over the poverty line. But it is a community.

And when not in Lansing, Rashida — everyone calls her Rashida — spends much of her time trying to fight neighborhood predators, to get people's problems straightened out.

On one recent night, Rep. Rashida was with a neighborhood watch group patrolling 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. I grew up here," she says.

That she did, but her ethnic background is a little different than most of her constituents, nearly all of whom are black or Hispanic. The former Rashida Elabed is an Arab, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, and the first female Muslim ever elected to Michigan's 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, and she was expected to help raise her younger siblings.

Nobody in her family had ever 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.

While going to school, she worked as a community organizer, which she says was tremendous training. She wasn't planning on a career in elected politics, but eventually began working as a staff member for State Rep. Steve Tobocman.

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

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

She's no stranger to controversy. Early on, she took on her fellow Arab, Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun, over his plan to build another bridge next to his. "The pollution is an environmental hazard." Enraged, he supported a plan to try and recall her.

It fizzled. She supports instead the proposed New International Trade Crossing Bridge Gov. Rick Snyder wants — but only if there are some community benefits included

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

Much more of the new turf was previously represented by Stapleton, and both are campaigning hard.

"This is my neighborhood, and I'll go on working to help people in any way I can" she says. One wonders if, win or lose, the Detroit Area Chamber of Commerce ought to think about inviting Tlaib to their Mackinac Island Conference next year.

They could learn something about a slice of Michigan they otherwise might never know.

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio's senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.