Rep. Rashida Tlaib had been in Congress for a matter of hours when she was seen on video telling supporters that she and other Democrats were going to impeach President Donald Trump, using an expletive rather than Trump’s name. The room full of activists cheered, but some people back home — and in Democratic leadership — were not pleased.
It wasn't the last time Tlaib's approach to governing — an unapologetic fighter, taking aim at the status quo alongside three other first-term congresswomen of color who make up "the squad” — would make her a target, both of the GOP and her own party.
And every time, Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones says, agitated constituents would call and encourage her to challenge her fellow Michigan Democrat to a rematch of their 2018 battle for the party's congressional nomination. Now Tlaib is the squad’s most vulnerable member, as she and Jones are set to square off again in Michigan's Aug. 4 primary.
The contest points to the broader debate in the Democratic Party between the establishment and largely younger, more progressive activists, as well as the racial dynamics of a heavily Democratic Detroit-area district at a time when racial injustices are getting renewed attention. To Jones, it all boils down to one thing for a district that is among the country's poorest: who can “bring home the bacon.”
“There are things that I might feel, but I just don’t say in public and an example is ‘impeach the M-F’ on the very first day,” said Jones, 60. “Not to say you’re going to always agree, but you have to be able to work with those people because you never know who you’re going to need in order to get things done that need to be done.”
The two candidates have a history. In 2018, Jones finished a close second to Tlaib in a six-person primary for the seat long held by Democratic Rep. John Conyers, who stepped down amid sexual harassment allegations. But Jones defeated Tlaib in a two-person special election to finish the final weeks of Conyers' term — which she did, spending five weeks in Washington before Tlaib was sworn in for the full term in January.
Tlaib says that she has legislated exactly the way she promised and that she's gotten results by pushing back against those who are too cozy with corporations and big developers.
She notes that Trump signed into law a bill she sponsored to protect retirees' pension benefits — even if she didn't get invited to the White House for the signing — and that she's gotten amendments approved with bipartisan support, including a measure that provides billions to replace lead pipes and prioritizes low-income communities.
“I’m pretty tenacious and it’s resulting in actual things getting done,” Tlaib said. "It’s not just about me as a person, but all of the various social justice issues that I’ve been standing up for for the last year and a half that have not been popular among the wealthy.”
The only other member of the squad still facing a primary challenge is Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, whose top challenger on Aug. 11 is a political newcomer who raised millions more than the incumbent congresswoman last quarter. Some of Antone Melton-Meaux's donations came from pro-Israel groups and conservative donors. Omar has apologized for tweets suggesting members of Congress support Israel because they are paid to do so. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez easily won her primary last month, while Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley is unopposed.
Race and religion are also factors in Tlaib's diverse district, where over half of the residents are Black, while the rest are a mix of white, Arab American, Latino and other races. Tlaib, a Palestinian who was born and raised in Detroit, was one of the first two female Muslim members of Congress; Jones is Black. Conyers was also Black and was the longest-serving Black member of Congress, holding office for over five decades.
Ian Conyers, whose grandfather was the former congressman’s brother, said the district was drawn to ensure a voice for Black residents, and he believes it should continue to have a Black representative, particularly following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the elevation of racial justice issues.
“Folks are wanting someone to make their case in their own words,” said Conyers, who also ran in the 2018 primary. He said other candidates of color should look to gain political power in white districts, “and not simply look at urban areas and the African American community as a place to win a seat.”
Some Black voters who plan to support Tlaib said race didn’t matter. William Clark, 74, thinks Jones is too conservative.
“Black, white, Hispanic, Martian, I don’t care who is in power, just do what you say you’re going to do,” he said. “Rashida will speak. She is real.”
Branden Snyder, who leads the grassroots organization Detroit Action, called Tlaib a “visionary” and praised her candor and willingness to fight, saying she isn’t beholden to “the same old status quo.”
“Right now politics as usual ain’t been working for our communities,” Snyder said during an event announcing the organization's endorsement of Tlaib.
Tlaib has a huge financial advantage over Jones, having raised more than $2 million, and she has backing from the political action committee Justice Democrats and other progressive groups.
Jones has brought in about $140,000 but was far outraised in 2018 and lost by only 1 percentage point. The four other candidates are now backing Jones.
Besides the racial issues, Conyers said Tlaib has been too focused on issues outside the district. Jones points to moments like last summer, when Tlaib booed Hillary Clinton at an event for Clinton's former rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, in his 2020 presidential bid.
Tlaib remains unapologetic.
“I didn’t have to change who I am" to please voters, Tlaib said. “I didn’t sell out. That’s one thing I promised them, that I wouldn’t do it. And I didn’t."
Associated Press writer Corey Williams in Detroit contributed to this report.