WASHINGTON — “The institution wasn’t really ready for someone like me,” said Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., speaking shortly after winning reelection to the institution — the House of Representatives — where she has become among the most lionized and demonized members, despite having spent only two years there.
The institution certainly wasn’t ready two years ago, when Tlaib became one of the first two Muslim women to serve in the House (Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, also a Democrat, was the other). Shortly after being sworn in, smiling as she stood next to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Tlaib found herself at a celebration at which she would utter the three words that would make her instantly famous: “impeach the motherf***er.”
The “motherf***er” was, of course, President Trump. Pelosi had instructed Democratic candidates during the midterm elections to scrupulously avoid talk of ousting Trump and advocated campaigning on protecting the Affordable Care Act instead. Most had scrupulously done so, but here was Tlaib seeming to give the game away, offering a hint of what Democrats really had in mind now that the House was theirs.
No similar calls came this time around, but Tlaib remains uncowed by her experience as a national figure nearly as polarizing as the president she vowed to impeach. “I am going to be unapologetically myself,” she told Yahoo News, addressing broadly the reputation she has gained in Washington and the national media, of which she has become a mainstay. “I will never be that polished politician. I’m gonna still be raw, from southwest Detroit, the mother of two amazing boys that deserve me to fight like hell for them every single day.”
Tlaib wasn’t wrong about her prediction for the 166th Congress: House Democrats impeached Trump in late 2019, shortly before the coronavirus pandemic began. But her words had less to do with what Democrats would do than who Tlaib was: a young, unabashedly progressive Palestinian American who was going to bring more than a little Detroit attitude to the staid chambers of Capitol Hill.
Speaking to Yahoo News on a recent afternoon that had Washington waiting for Trump to concede the presidential election, Tlaib said she was expecting the incoming Biden administration to do right by progressives for aligning behind the Democratic nominee, who shares few of their imperatives but is, of course, vastly preferable to them than Trump.
“In Detroit, we don’t just stop marching because there’s a Democrat in the White House.” She said “transformative change” like the civil rights movement has happened only “because the streets demanded it.”
As the representative of one of the nation’s poorest congressional districts (the second-poorest, according to one 2017 study), Tlaib has focused her demands on economic and environmental justice. Flint, a city now synonymous with crumbling infrastructure, racial inequality and official neglect, sits to the north and west of her district, a relatively short drive along I-75.
More measured in her words than she may have been two years ago, when she was new to Washington and its ossified ways, Tlaib has plainly not sacrificed her convictions on the altar of expedience or self-interest. She calls on the progressive movement to be “loud like a beating drum,” calling herself an “extension” of grassroots activists, albeit one invested with the official powers of Congress.
House Democrats did not do well in this month’s elections, and some centrists have blamed the desultory showing on progressive calls to “defund the police” and spend trillions of taxpayer dollars on the Green New Deal, a policy proposal developed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., a fellow member of “the Squad.” Depicting even moderate Democrats as “socialists,” Republicans were able to claw back some of the losses of two years ago.
On a phone call with fellow Democrats after the election, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., said the loss of seats (though not of the majority in the chamber itself) was a “failure” that progressives like Tlaib were responsible for.
“We lost good members because of that,” said the former CIA officer, who flipped a Richmond-area district in 2018 and faced withering Republican attacks in 2020.
Tlaib bristled at the criticism, telling an interviewer, “We are not interested in unity that asks people to sacrifice their freedom and their rights any longer.”
By the time Tlaib spoke to Yahoo News, the dispute had died down somewhat. Striking a conciliatory note, she urged future Democrats facing similar attacks to “represent your district” and “outwork the hate, outwork the lies.”
“All of that would happen with or without the defund movement, with or without the movement for Black lives,” Tlaib told Yahoo News of Republican broadsides. “Because I’ll tell you, if it’s not Medicare for All, if it’s not the Green New Deal, it would be something else.”
That could well be the case, but the approach she advocates, while seemingly sound, did not work out for Rep. Max Rose, a Democrat who represented Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn. Relentlessly focusing on constituent services, Rose nevertheless lost to his Republican challenger, Nicole Malliotakis, who used Rose’s presence at a Black Lives Matter march to falsely say that he supported defunding the police.
“I think all of us have the same goals, really,” Tlaib said, her natural enthusiasm suddenly flagging, as she addressed the internecine Democratic fight. “We’re trying to heal from ... I think a lot of us were very disappointed in this kind of blame game we recognized was not constructive. And we’re moving forward.”
For all the publicity she and fellow Squad members engender, the four women seem to have more foes than allies on Capitol Hill. Their adulation comes largely from outside the city itself; here they are still seen as somewhat exotic creatures hailing from a distant land of universal basic income and high-speed rail.
Tlaib said the convergence of the four first-term Democratic women who would form the Squad was unplanned, but also auspicious. “We have inspired a generation,” she said. “We’ve inspired people of all different ages.”
“I’m not the problem,” she said. “The institution is.”
Among the new members in Congress will be Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., a QAnon conspiracy theorist who, during the campaign, ran a Facebook ad that showed her standing with an assault rifle against a background showing the faces of Squad members. The implication was unambiguous and chilling to those who saw a clear call to violence. Facebook eventually removed the ad, but the ominous trace remains, especially since Greene has hardly tempered her rhetoric since winning election.
Asked if she has spoken to Greene, Tlaib in turn questioned why that responsibility is hers to bear. “I wonder if people ask her that question,” Tlaib said. “No one scares me, no one’s gonna bully me [into] stopping me [from] represent[ing] my district — including her.”
And while some want to move on from the Trump era, Tlaib is among those who believe Trump should be investigated — and potentially prosecuted. She specifically cites his administration’s attempt to frame the census in such a way that, critics and experts say, would lead to a severe undercount of immigrants, people of color and the indigent, which could hurt Democrats when it comes to congressional apportionment.
“Some of the actions by the current administration are things that we might have to live with for over a decade,” Tlaib argued. That could be said not only of the census but of environmental policy, immigration restrictions and the tax code.
“We can’t sit back and allow that to continue,” she said.
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