DETROIT - During the hottest hours, when the sun is highest in the sky and the blistering pavement could fry an egg, Rashida Tlaib is relentlessly walking door-to-door in a Detroit neighborhood in search of votes.
And she’s doing so without eating any food or drinking any water during the day.
That’s because Tlaib is a practicing Muslim, which means she is fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.
“I know that my faith comes up more on social media, but at the doors I don’t get it as much,” she told VOA during a break beneath the much needed shade of trees along the street.
Making a connection
While others would stay indoors in the air conditioning during the stifling heat wave, Tlaib views it as an opportunity to build name recognition, as she seeks to represent Michigan’s 13th District in the U.S. Congress.
“People still can’t pronounce my name, but they remember what I’ve done, and they remember that I’ve come to their home,” she said.
Tlaib is no stranger to politics, having served in Michigan’s Legislature. She is the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, but on these streets — in a predominantly African-American neighborhood — she is a local, someone who attended schools in the area.
“It’s that direct connection to the neighborhood that I think people are much more excited about,” said Tlaib, acknowledging that walking from house to house gives her the chance to directly connect with potential voters and to hear about their concerns and needs.
A chance at making history
She is campaigning in one of the poorest congressional districts in the state of Michigan and the country, and her religion and race rarely come up as topics of conversation when she encounters voters.
“For me, the direct door-to-door contact has been about constituent issues,” she explained, adding that most people have welcomed the opportunity to speak with her. “At the doors, I think it’s really how you make people feel, and I haven’t faced much opposition, and I haven’t seen that big push back or opposition yet.”
She says few of the people she meets realize she is on the cusp of making history — again.
“I tell them I’m the first Muslim woman ever elected in the Michigan Legislature, and if I’m elected in this congressional race I’ll be the first ever in Congress.”
“Is she a shoo-in? No. Is she a possibility? Yes. She is a formidable candidate,” said Osama Siblani, publisher of the Dearborn, Michigan-based Arab American News, a weekly publication serving the large Arab-American population in Southeastern Michigan.
He says Tlaib’s candidacy, and two other races prominently featuring Muslim Americans in Michigan, show a new political awakening in the larger Muslim-American community nationwide, where about 100 are running for public office this year, many of them Democrats hoping to be a part of a “blue wave” in the congressional midterm elections in November.
“We were, at one time, people who were in hiding,” he told VOA. “We were changing our names in this country. Despite September 11, despite the Trump era, we are moving forward, we are running for election, we are winning and we are making a significant impact in our society.”
‘Bigger than me’
The significance of the moment is not lost on Rashida Tlaib, who isn’t just representing Muslim Americans, but also is part of a larger group of hundreds of women this year seeking public office across the country.
“Nationally, this is a pretty historic campaign,” she said. “People that are supporting me, from this Muslim woman in Tampa who told me, ‘Please win, because if you win, we belong.’ I told her, “We’ve already won. You absolutely belong.’ It means so much bigger than me.”
But if Tlaib is to win, she’ll need support outside the Arab-American community in Michigan, most of whom don’t live in the district she seeks to represent and can’t vote for her.
Tlaib faces several challengers seeking to replace Congressman John Conyers Jr., who resigned in December amid allegations of sexual misconduct. The winner of the August 7 Democratic primary will likely head to Congress next year because there is currently no Republican running in the November general election.
If Tlaib wins the election, she may not be the only Muslim-American woman in the next U.S. Congress. Fayrouz Saad, a Democrat, is running in a competitive race in Michigan’s 11th district, while Ilhan Omar, the nation’s first Somali-American lawmaker, is campaigning for the Democratic primary election for Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District on August 14.