Will former state Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s virtually certain upcoming term as the first Muslim female ever to serve in the U.S. Congress be her last one?
If not, she must strive mightily to overcome the somewhat fluky nature of her narrow win in a crowded field of Democrats in Michigan’s Aug. 7 primary election.
To be sure, Tlaib’s victory was no fluke in terms of her brilliant campaign, which outshone all her rivals. Tlaib raised the money, exerted the energy, and delivered a progressive message that blew her opponents off the board. She clearly deserved to win.
But the fact that she LOST the separate race for the unexpired portion of the term of her predecessor, John Conyers, points to Tlaib’s “problem” going forward: she won’t be representing her majority African-American district for the last six weeks of 2018 because two of her black opponents did not file to run in the unexpired term race. Without state Senator Coleman Young II and Shanelle Jackson in that contest, their votes went disproportionately to Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones, who won the partial term seat from just after the Nov. 6 general election through the end of the year. But, of course, Young and Jackson DID run for the full two-year term, and they siphoned enough votes away from Jones that Tlaib was able to scrape through to the full two-year term seat by less than a thousand votes.
Only one current white Member of Congress has been able to do that — Steve Cohen of Tennessee’s 9th CD. In a crowded 2006 Democratic primary centered around heavily black Memphis, Cohen had 14 opponents, almost all of them black. Predictably, they split up the African-American vote so thoroughly that Cohen was able to squeak through to the nomination, just as Tlaib did early this month in Detroit. Once elected, Cohen has worked assiduously to cement his incumbency. He faced four black opponents in 2008 when running for re-election, then former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, also African-American, four years later, and managed to put all of them away. Cohen is Jewish, now serving his sixth term and a heavy favorite to be re-elected to a seventh term this fall.
Tlaib, who is Palestinian-American, will have to do what Cohen has done — begin running immediately for re-election in 2020 to fend off a challenge from at least one prominent African-American who believes the majority-minority 13th CD should be represented by a black. Tlaib can hope that, like Cohen, she gets more than one black opponent who will again fragment the African-American vote.
Tlaib needs to look, as she almost certainly already has, at the neighboring 5th state Senate District, where incumbent Democrat David Knezek, considered a “rising star” in political circles, won a Tlaib-style victory in 2014 because three black state legislators — David Nathan, Thomas Stallworth, and Shanelle Jackson (yup, same gal) — split up the African-American vote in an open seat contest that enabled the only prominent white name in the field (Knezek) to win with a plurality. But Knezek evidently didn’t realize that, once elected, a white legislator in such circumstances is a marked man. Accordingly, he must make like Cohen and compile a voting record, and on-the-ground, door-to-door relentless community presence, to try to make sure he keeps winning. Instead, Knezek was lulled into complacency, thinking he had NO opponent right up until the filing deadline last April, and then got blindsided by the unexpected candidacy of one Betty Jean Alexander, an unknown African-American who made it appear she had nothing going for her in this majority black district by filing a waiver that she would spend no more than a thousand bucks in her campaign. But her brother-in-law and political mentor, crafty former state Rep. Lamar Lemmons (D-Detroit), made sure she and her invisible campaign got the word out in Dearborn Heights, Inkster, Garden City and Redford Township that SHE was the black candidate and that Knezek wasn’t. That’s all it took. Knezek was toast, by a whopping 9%.
Many don’t realize that Michigan actually produced a SECOND Member of Congress (besides Cohen) in 2013-14 who was a white man representing a majority black district. That man was former U.S. Rep. Gary Peters, now U.S. Senator Gary Peters, who had been a two-term incumbent serving southeast Oakland County before he was thrown into the 14th CD under reapportionment. Worse for Peters, there was another Congressman (half-Bengali, half-black) in that district, Hansen Clarke (D-Detroit), so the two had to face each other in a 2012 Democratic primary. Peters, who had all the major Democratic/union endorsements, managed to win, but it was surprisingly close. Facing a re-election battle against what certainly would have been a challenge from an African-American in 2014, Peters was bailed out by Senator Carl Levin’s retirement. Peters happily gave up his 14th CD seat to run to succeed Levin. He was unopposed in the statewide Democratic primary and then easily dispatched the Republican nominee, former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land. Meanwhile, Brenda Lawrence, the African-American former mayor of Southfield, won the 2014 Dem primary and the general election in the 14th CD to take her seat alongside Conyers as the only two black Members from Michigan, both representing majority-minority districts.
In other words, if Tlaib wants to be more than a “one-term wonder,” she’ll have to put away her Alexandria Octavio-Cortez gear and suspend campaigning in other states for Muslim candidates. Instead, she should concentrate on convincing her African-American constituency that she deserves to be the female version of Steve Cohen on a permanent basis.