Muslim Rashida Tlaib Elected to Michigan Legislature

November 13, 2008 by  


By David N. Goodman | Associated Press

Elected to the 12th District of the state House, Tlaib becomes the first Muslim woman ever to serve in the Michigan Legislature.

Rashida Tlaib DETROIT — Lawyer and community activist Rashida Tlaib, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants who never attended high school, becomes the first Muslim woman ever to serve in the Michigan Legislature.

She said she wouldn’t have run but for the repeated urging of her Jewish boss and predecessor, outgoing Democratic state Rep. Steve Tobocman.

“In my heart, I was more of a social worker than anything,” said Tlaib, 32. She said her top priorities will be immigrant rights and pollution, a major issue to her constituents who are surrounded by oil refineries and factories.

The election was only one of many firsts for Tlaib. The eldest of 14 children of a retired Ford Motor Co. worker and his wife, she was the first in her family to earn a high school diploma. She went on to finish college and law school while helping raise 13 siblings.

“My parents … are amazing Americans,” she said. “They never thought this would ever happen.” Her mother was born in Beit Ur El Foka, near the West Bank city of Ramallah. Her father was born in Beit Hanina, a Jerusalem suburb.

She and husband Fayez have one son, 3-year-old Adam.

“We view her victory as a sign that Michigan Muslims are welcomed as a part of our state’s multi-faith and multiethnic society,” said Dawud Walid, Michigan director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

According to the American Muslim Alliance, only nine Muslims were serving in state legislatures nationwide before Tuesday’s elections, and only one of them is a woman. There are two Muslim members of Congress — Democrats Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Andre Carson of Indiana.

Walid said it’s notable that Tlaib comes from a district with few Muslim or Arab residents, though southeastern Michigan has about 300,000 people with roots in the Arab world. The southwest Detroit district has large black and Hispanic communities, with a white minority.

Tlaib said she brings a long experience of working with others while staying true to her Muslim heritage. She described sitting in the cafeteria at Detroit Southwestern High School during Ramadan, watching friends eat while she fasted.

“People’s backgrounds don’t matter to me as much as who they are, what they believe,” Tlaib said.

She said she’ll be bringing her prayer rug to Lansing and said her private office should let her accommodate Islam’s five daily prayers.

Tobocman said he first met Tlaib about five years ago when she was working for the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, where she did advocacy work for immigrants.

“I was just really, really impressed,” he said. When he later became majority floor leader and got another staff slot, he recruited Tlaib for the job and found her a quick study.

Tlaib brought both a passion for social justice and the ability to work with people across the political aisle with very different outlooks.

“She’s someone who just intuitively understood the process right off the bat,” Tobocman said.

Tobocman, the grandson of Jewish immigrants from Poland, couldn’t run for re-election because of term limits. He asked Tlaib to run; she resisted but “he kept coming back,” she recalled.

Once she decided to run, she threw herself into it, knocking on 8,000 doors and hitting each household twice. The walking paid off in the August Democratic primary, when she drew 44 percent of the vote in an eight-way race.

Tlaib got 90 percent of the vote Tuesday to 10 percent for Republican Darin Daigle.

The Michigan Legislature’s first known Muslim member was James Karoub. Born in Highland Park to an imam and his wife who came from what now is Lebanon, Karoub served three terms in the state House in the 1960s.

Tuesday’s election also brought another new Arab-American to the state House, Republican Justin Amash of Cascade in conservative western Michigan. He is Christian and the son of a Palestinian-born father and Syrian-born mother. His Democratic opponent, Albert Abbasse, also is Arab-American.

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