Tlaib-Smith: Michigan Democrats gear up for 4th Senate District battle
By Ray Hanania
(Updated) Michigan is in the homestretch of a tough election battle between an longtime political dynasty and an up-and-coming American Arab legislator.
Palestinian American Rashida Tlaib, 37, is in a fight for her political life, although even if she doesn’t win the election on Tuesday August 5, she still has a bright future in politics as the only Arab American woman to win a legislative seat in Michigan.
Tlaib, retired from her three-term seat in the Michigan House of Representatives because of term limits, was forced into a battle for the Michigan Senate’s 4th District race against popular incumbent State Senator Virgil Smith, 34.
There is a third Democratic candidate in the Democratic primary election race but his candidacy is viewed as marginal. He is perennial religious evangelist candidate Howard Worthy, 76, who creates unique election committees that invoke the blessing of God. His current committee is “God Jesus Elect Howard Worthy State Senator.” He is definitely entertaining, but more of a sideshow in the battle between Tlaib and Smith.
For the Arab American community, the August 5th Democratic Primary election race is important, although Smith’s chief of staff is Arab American himself and Smith is very close to the American Arab community, too.
Tlaib is one of only ten Muslims serving in state legislatures across the United States. She is the second Muslim to serve in the Michigan State House of Representatives, after James Karoub. Tlaib is the second Muslim woman to serve in a state legislature nationwide, after Jamilah Nasheed of Missouri. She shares a distinction with U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, a Republican elected to Congress in 2008. Tlaib and Amash were both elected to the Michigan Legislature in November 2008, making them the first Palestinian-American members of the state’s legislative body. Amash went on to run and win a seat in Congress in 2010.
But Tlaib is not the first Arab woman to serve in the Michigan legislature. That distinction belongs to State Rep. Barb Farrah (D-Southgate) who served six years from 2003 to 2008 representing the 13th District. Oftentimes, Christian Arabs are marginalized and not recognized for their achievements in the Arab community and often eclipsed by the activism of Muslim Americans in local politics. In 2008, Farrah was the only Arab American in the legislature.
Tlaib fought off a very strong challenge in 2012 from Maureen Stapleton, winning only 51.6 percent of the 10,349 votes cast in the Democratic primary.
Tlaib’s biggest obstacle in the Arab community is that she is sometimes a lightning rod for controversy and inserted herself into a high profile battle that undermined the once effective American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee when she alleged that, after many years of being silent, she had been sexually harassed while serving as an intern by the highly effective and popular ADC Civil Rights activist Imad Hamad.
The good news for Tlaib is that while she needs Arab American support to help in her fundraising, the district she is running in has only a small Arab voter population, something that also makes her unique. She won her 2008 House seat in a district that only was 2 percent Arab American and predominantly Hispanic, according to Michigan media.
Tlaib has managed to steadily increase her campaign fundraising from $72,000 in her first race to $163,000 in he last race.
Smith, however, comes from a popular family of elected officials and he is favored to win re-election to a four-year term in the Michigan Senate, despite Tlaib’s rambunctious career shaking up Southwest Metro Detroit’s politics.
Tlaib’s endorsements include support from inside and outside the district including from American Arab community leaders, although the list of Arab endorsements is less than when she ran six years ago because of the community’s divisions over Imad Hamad.
Smith, on the other hand, has received the backing of the most influential Democratic voter activists, the labor unions including the powerful United Auto Workers, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents government employees, the Detroit Federation of Teachers, and the influential building trades, carpenters and electrical workers unions.
Smith also has the backing of the Detroit Regional Chamber. He has strong community support. Before entering politics, he ran several small businesses. His father Virgil Smith Jr., represented Detroit in the Legislature for more than 20 years.
The 4th Michigan Senate district stretches from the north along Eight Mile Road from just east of the Lodge to Van Dyke and then in a narrow band south through the city before cutting between Dearborn and River Rouge, and encompassing Lincoln Park and Southgate.
Tlaib worked at several nonprofits before being elected to the House and was Tlaib was an immigrant rights organizer at the highly effective and praised Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS). Smith has tried to turn that service into a negative pointing out that Tlaib donated $1,000 in 2006 to former Republican Congressman U.S. Rep. Joe Knollenberg, (R-Bloomfield Township) while at the ACCESS. Tlaib told local media that she raised the money for the Republican candidate in order to be able to attend his event so she could challenge him on the issue of immigration reform.
During her three terms, Tlaib has been credited with running a popular and successful neighborhood service center.
This is definitely an election to watch closely. The winner of the Tlaib-Smith Democratic Primary will face Republican Keith Franklin of Detroit in the November general election.
Virgil Smith, Incumbent
Political: State senator, 2011-present; state representative, 2003-2009.
Professional: Former businessman
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Michigan State University; master’s degree, Western Michigan University.
Military Service: —
Rashida Tlaib, challenger
Political: State representative, 2009-present.
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Wayne State University; law degree, Cooley Law School.
Military Service: —
Personal: Married, two children.
Howard Worthy, challenger
Political: Ran for state Senate in 2010 and state House in 2012.
Profession: Former police officer
Military Service: US Army Veteran
(Ray Hanania is an award winning former Chicago political City Hall reporter and political columnist. He is managing editor of The Arab Daily News www.TheArabDailyNews.com and President/CEO of Urban Strategies Group Media Consulting www.UrbanStrategiesGroup.com.)
(Updated Saturday to include information about Barb Farrah who served in the Michigan Legislature.)