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Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) faces three challengers in newly drawn district

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Malak Silmi / Michigan Radio
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Michigan’s re-designed political boundaries left many voters without an incumbent U-S representative. Several members of Congress switched to new districts adjacent to their old ones.

That’s the case in the new 12th Congressional District. It includes portions of west Detroit, western Wayne County, Oakland County, Dearborn and Southfield.

Democratic candidates in the new 12th are making incumbent Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib their primary target.

Those candidates and Tlaib recently made case for state or national office at a meeting of the Southfield-Lathrup Village Democratic Club. It’s part of a redrawn 12th Congressional District that even Club members find a bit confusing.

The closest the district has to a real incumbent is the lone current member of the U-S House attending the forum, Rashida Tlaib.

"I’ve been serving almost three-and-a-half years in the United States Congress," Tlaib told the crowd. "I’m mostly known for the work I did on the House Oversight Committee in launching the impeachment with a number of my other colleagues. I got a bill passed my first term, which is very, very rare for a new member of Congress. The forever impeached president did sign it, even though I impeached him twice.”

Tlaib celebrated that vote against Donald Trump well before it happened, at a 2019 event held hours after she was first sworn-in.

“And when your son looks at you and says ‘Mama look, you won. Bullies don’t win.’ And I said ‘Baby they don’t.’ Because we’re gonna go in there and we’re going to impeach the mother******."

Tlaib gained national prominence as part of the so-called “Squad” of progressive women in the House. They broke party ranks to vote against President Biden’s infrastructure plan when Democrats failed to tie it to the Build Back Better social agenda. Tlaib even took the rare step of delivering a response to the President’s State of the Union address, despite both being Democrats.

“Some important parts of the president’s agenda became law with the infrastructure bill," Tlaib told the nation. "But we campaigned on doing even more. Roads and bridges are critical. But so are child care and prescription drugs. And we shouldn’t have to choose.”

Tlaib says she set up Neighborhood Service Centers to help address issues facing her current constituents, about two-thirds of whom she says are now part of the new 12th Congressional District. And she makes no apologies for her fiery political tone.

“I may have a different style and I may be a little raw around the edges. I’m not your typical polished politician. I’m just never going to be. But if anything my residents like me this way. Honestly, every time I come to anybody’s porch or talk to them and they’re like ‘Oh my God I feel liberated every time you speak up,’ ” she said.

But at the Southfield forum, rival candidate and Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey accused Tlaib of caring too much for the political spotlight to be a true asset to the party faithful.

“It makes sense to me that I would support the Democratic party. That’s what I do. That’s what you can expect from me," Winfrey said. "You can expect that I will support initiatives like infrastructure that benefits you, because that’s what I do. And you can expect too, that when I’m on television, when I’m publicly speaking, your children can be around, because I won’t use foul language and I won’t embarrass you.”

Winfrey is supported, in part, by a Black and Jewish political committee called Urban Empowerment Action – which vowed to make Winfrey’s Congressional campaign its top priority.

Tlaib is the first Palestinian-American elected to the U-S House, and is a staunch critic of Israel.

Winfrey says that poses a threat.

“How dare you hate?" Winfrey asked. "How dare you want to destroy, not only is it our most significant ally, but it’s a whole country. You want to destroy Israel today? It could be Africa tomorrow, it could be the United States the next day. Who knows where you’re coming from? You cannot represent people as a U-S citizen and hate in that manner. That’s why I’m running.”

Winfrey lost a previous bid for the U-S House to the late long-time Congressman John Conyers in 2016. But she says she’s not worried about campaigning against a member of the progressive “Squad.”

“Actually it makes it a bit easier," she said. "Because sometimes you can be so consumed with your Squad and forget the very voters who put you in office. You can be so concerned with the West Bank that you forget the west side.”

Candidate Shanelle Jackson agrees with Winfrey. The former state representative and lobbyist says she’ll close gaps in pay equity and help increase the minimum wage if elected to serve the 12th Congressional district. Jackson says she can create bridges of cooperation she claims Tlaib often burns on purpose.

“The truth is we don’t have a person representing us in Congress who has shown themselves capable of building relationships, working with folks that on paper you may have some inherent differences with, but pushing past that. We don’t have that. And ultimately we’re the ones who lose,” Jackson said.

Another candidate, Lathrup Village Mayor Kelly Garrett, says Tlaib was her ally in advocating for paid sick time and family leave. But Garrett says she decided to jump into the 12th district race after current Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence announced her retirement, even if it meant taking on Tlaib.

“And I am a unpaid elected official, so that means I have to have a job," Garrett said. "There’s been times when I didn’t have a job, so I know what if feels like to be unemployed. I know what if feels like to navigate the unemployment services. I know what it feels like not to have insurance and not someone that’s so removed from everyone else.”

For many voters at the forum however, Tlaib remains the star attraction. Westland resident Lori Wilson notes Tlaib already represents part of that city. And Wilson says she has no complaints.

“I think for as much as she has been chewed at and thrown at she’s done a good job for us, "Wilson said. " She’s brought money back to the communities. She has spoke up for us, you know, and for women, and for minorities, women of color, and I’m a woman of color.”

All the candidates still face significant blocks of potential new constituents in cities like Dearborn, where for decades voters have only elected someone to the U-S House with the last name Dingell. The re-drawn Congressional boundaries changed that equation. But the district remains solidly blue, and the stakes of this campaign are clear.

Whoever wins the upcoming Democratic primary will almost certainly emerge victorious in November’s general election.

Quinn Klinefelter is a host and Senior News Editor for 101.9 WDET, anchoring midday newscasts and preparing reports for WDET, NPR and the BBC. Klinefelter joined WDET in 1998 after earning a M.A. from the nation’s top-ranked journalism school, the University of Missouri-Columbia, and working as a sports correspondent for BBC Radio 4 and as a talk show host, anchor and reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio.