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Democratic Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib Faces Key Test


And with slightly more than three months to Election Day, key primaries are continuing across the country despite challenges and delays brought on by the pandemic. One of the newest and most progressive members of the U.S. House faces a crucial test on Tuesday. Democratic Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib will learn whether voters in her Detroit-based district want to put her on the November ballot. From member station WDET in Detroit, Quinn Klinefelter has more.

RASHIDA TLAIB: But know that we, the Detroit Community Action Agency - they took...

QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: In a modest Detroit neighborhood, Rashida Tlaib is campaigning door to door. She says greeting constituents in person during a pandemic can be a bit tricky.

TLAIB: And she goes, we've got to take a picture. So I said, no, put your mask on now. And so she came down. We just did more of a selfie from her door. So that - it worked out fine.

KLINEFELTER: The only Palestinian American woman ever elected to Congress, Tlaib's become a political star. She found funding to improve drinking water and marched with those protesting police brutality. But Tlaib is best known as one of the four first-term ultra-progressive women of color in the U.S. House who call themselves The Squad.

TLAIB: It's not like we only look different, but we also talk differently. We also serve differently, and we feel differently. All I can do is represent my community, and they're asking me to speak loudly and very unapologetically.

KLINEFELTER: Tlaib did just that when she famously and rather colorfully vowed to impeach President Trump before she was even sworn in. But her challenger in the upcoming Democratic primaries says calling Trump names does not help fix Detroit's problems. City Council President Brenda Jones says she's running because voters want a different tone in Congress.

BRENDA JONES: It will allow me to not embarrass the people in the 13th Congressional District.

JONES: The majority African American district is one of the poorest in the nation, hit hard by job losses and the coronavirus. Jones announced in April she had tested positive for COVID-19 and is relying on direct mail and virtual campaigning, a tough task in a city where many cannot afford internet at home. But Jones says she's already spent years building a reputation for helping poor communities.

JONES: I'm interested in starting a squad myself - a squad of the people that have the poorest district in the United States of America. That would be my squad.

KLINEFELTER: Jones actually served in Congress for a month and a half, filling the seat vacated by John Conyers amid allegations of sexual harassment. She lost to Tlaib by 1% in a crowded field vying for the full two-year term. Since then, Tlaib has raised both her national profile and millions of dollars of campaign cash.

Some Jewish groups threatened to back whoever ran against Tlaib after she called for a boycott of Israel. Yet Jones has praised Louis Farrakhan, known for his anti-Semitic remarks. So the editor of The Detroit Jewish News, Andrew Lapin, says those donors are staying on the sidelines, despite their opinion of Tlaib.

ANDREW LAPIN: An enemy of Israel, an enemy of the Jewish people, someone who should be stopped at all costs. But because Jones is perceived as being very close to Farrakhan, many Jews kind of see this race as being between a rock and a hard place.

TLAIB: But this one might not be for you, but...

FOLKENFLIK: But campaigning door to door, passing out sanitizer and tips on where to vote, Tlaib is a hit at every home she visits.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: But you're doing a great job.

TLAIB: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'm a political guy. I didn't grow up like that, but these times, they make you like that.

KLINEFELTER: In a nearby park, Detroiter Robert Patterson (ph) says he's lived in the district for half a century. He says in the current political climate, Detroit needs to lead - and Jones.

ROBERT PATTERSON: Both of them are equally suited for their positions that they are now, and I don't see any reason to change.

KLINEFELTER: In this heavily Democratic district, the verdict will come far sooner than November. Historically, whoever wins the Democratic primary wins the general election as well.

For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter in Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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