Rashida Tlaib has her new commute timed: It takes about an hour and a half to fly from Washington, D.C., to her hometown of Detroit.
The pomp and polished marble of the U.S. Capitol might seem a world away from Michigan’s 13th Congressional District, one of the poorest in the nation. Yet when Tlaib—who won her primary in August and had no Republican opponent in November, making her a lock to become the first Palestinian-American woman in Congress—explained to her two boys that she was going to start spending “three to four days a week in D.C. to change the world,” Adam, 13, erased any worries. “It’s OK, Mama, ’cause we can FaceTime,” he told her. Her younger son, Yousif, seven, was equally supportive: “He really does think I’m going to take care of Trump, like, give him a time-out. He’s like, ‘Mommy’s going to fix it,’” she says with a laugh. “I’ve always been the fixer in my family, and I think my kids see that in me as well.”
The “fixer” role dates back to the responsibilities she shouldered while growing up, when Tlaib, now 42, was like a “third parent” in a big working-class family—she was the eldest of 14 children of Palestinian immigrants. In 2008 she became the first Muslim woman elected to the Michigan legislature, serving three terms. But Tlaib says getting into politics back then, and running for Congress a decade later, wasn’t about making history. It was about making change and a sense of obligation she says is grounded in her Muslim heritage. “There’s a saying in Islam,” she says. “After you take care of your home, your family, you have a duty to take care of your community.”
That sense of duty now encompasses the 700,000 or so people of Tlaib’s House district—and in Washington she plans to fight for them to have access to quality health care, thriving schools, good jobs, and clean drinking water.
Part of a crop of new lawmakers who don’t want to wait to make themselves heard in D.C., Tlaib is used to using a bullhorn. Shortly after her primary win, while still working as the community outreach and development director at Detroit’s Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice, Tlaib got arrested during a worker protest for better wages. Economic justice initiatives, like protecting home buyers from predatory lenders, are also priorities. “I want to transform people’s lives immediately,” she says.
“I told my chief of staff, ‘please make sure that if I ever get [jaded] like that, you’ll tell me it’s time to leave.”
But that may not be easy. Congress, by intent, wasn’t built for speed. It’s an ecosystem ruled by seniority and tradition, and its veteran members don’t often cede power easily to backbenchers, as more seasoned lawmakers call them. Tlaib has already felt the brushback from a few of her future colleagues. “Some were like, ‘You don’t know, little girl, just wait.’ No one has said that,” she emphasizes, “but that’s how it feels sometimes…. I’m like, ‘I’m hoping to do this, and I’m hoping to do that,’ and they’re like, ‘Mm-hmm….’ It’s increasingly frustrating to see that my kind of passion and this energy that I’m bringing is something they’re [reacting to] like, ‘Yeah, we’ve seen this before.’ ” When she saw lawmakers that jaded, she says, “I told my chief of staff, ‘Please make sure that if I ever get like that, you’ll tell me it’s time to leave.’”
But many House members are also prepping her to hit the ground running on day one. Representatives Debbie Dingell (D–Mich.), Karen Bass (D–Calif.), and Marcia Fudge (D–Ohio) have given early advice. She’s been in touch with Rep. Barbara Lee (D–Calif.) to work with her on battling poverty. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D–Wash.), whom Tlaib has known from back when they teamed up on post-9/11 civil rights work, has given her sound counsel. And her supporters also keep her charged up. She’s committed to coming home to her district every week in the first 100 days of her term. “To get that courage, that fuel that I need,” Tlaib says, “I need to be here in the community, on the ground level, [because] this reminds me why I ran in the first place.”
She wants to bring a local, and very personal, focus to big issues. When Tlaib talks about the environment, for example, it’s as someone who requested that petroleum waste stored alongside the Detroit River be tested for toxins to protect the air quality of her constituents. When she steps into the seat once held by fellow Democrat John Conyers, who left office under a cloud of sexual misconduct allegations, it’s not just as a politician discussing the #MeToo movement but as woman who once confronted sexual harassment on the job. She sharply decries President Trump’s detention centers and travel bans not only as the daughter of immigrants but as a mom who says her own son has spoken fearfully of being a Muslim in America under this administration. (Expect her to be a vocal critic of the President: In 2016 she got hauled out of a speech he was giving in Detroit for shouting at him.)
In a year marked by a historic number of women running for office, Tlaib is constantly buoyed by the women cheering her on—the one who made her a cookie jar for her office; the one who presented her with a necklace with her name in Arabic script; the one who sent a small donation but asked Tlaib to skip the thank-you note because her husband, “you know, wouldn’t understand.”
Tlaib knows that women do understand. She’s confident the women of Congress, particularly mothers with younger children, can work together more effectively than their male peers. “Think about it: If we just put moms in a room, Republican and Democratic moms, we probably could fix the gun control issue in about two hours,” she says. “Our lens and focus wouldn’t be Republican or Democrat; it would be our kids. I’ve seen it so many times on different issues—moms do come from a different approach to issues because we have more at stake, to be honest. We just see things differently.”
Is she fired up? Yes, and she plans to stay that way. If she feels that purpose, that intensity, slipping away, she’ll know it’s time to move on. “My predecessor was there for 52 years. I can’t stay there for 52 years; I don’t think it’s emotionally healthy. But I think as long as I have this fire in my belly, as long as I have this desire to make a huge difference, as long as that’s there and it’s burning, I’ll stay,” Tlaib says. “And I’ll fight.”
Celeste Katz is Glamour’s senior politics reporter.
Hair and makeup: Robbin Kujus for Inglot; Location courtesy of The Alley Project; Mural: Lead Artist: Freddy Diaz, Assisting Artist: Dave Bequette