race to watch

Former Michigan state legislator mounts challenge to Rashida Tlaib

Detroit native Shanelle Jackson served in the Michigan House of Representatives from 2007 to 2012

U.S. House of Representatives/Courtesy

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Shanelle Jackson

Shanelle Jackson, a former Michigan state legislator in Detroit who now works in the private sector, told Jewish Insider on Thursday that she intends to challenge Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) in the open-seat Democratic House primary for the newly drawn 12th Congressional District.

“I’ve been rallying the troops,” Jackson, who said she is planning to formally launch her campaign in mid-February, told JI in a phone interview. “I think there’s a great opportunity there.”

The face-off sets up what will likely be a closely watched primary battle as Tlaib, the well-known lawmaker and prominent member of the Squad, seeks a third term in a district she has not previously represented.

Tlaib, 45, announced last week that she would run for reelection in the 12th District after longtime Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-MI) said she would retire at the end of her term. Tlaib has represented Michigan’s 13th Congressional District, which includes parts of Detroit and its surrounding suburbs, since 2019.

Jackson, 41, previously ran against Tlaib in the six-way primary to represent the 13th District in 2018. She came in last with 5% of the vote — Tlaib prevailed with 31% — but believes the updated House map presents a new opportunity in the neighboring 12th District, which favors Democrats. The primary will be held on Aug. 2.

“I think right now is the moment,” Jackson, who is Black, told JI. “It’s almost palpable in the city of Detroit and in this region: Black women are stepping up in leadership. We’re hungry to have our voice in the room and at the table.”

Speaking to JI, the congressional hopeful drew a sharp contrast with Tlaib, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, while presenting herself as a centrist Democrat who is in favor of “pro-business” policies that, she suggested, are in keeping with a broader commitment to bipartisan cooperation. “I think we’ll be very different, obviously, in our approaches,” she told JI.

“I don’t hate banks,” said Jackson, who works as a government relations senior manager at OppLoans, a lending agency based in Chicago. “I don’t hate subprime lenders. I know, as an African American that has been poor and has been better, that we need all options on the table and that our situation is nuanced.”

Jackson also emphasized that she is a supporter of Israel, which is almost certain to emerge as a high-profile issue in the race as Jewish community members and pro-Israel advocates have taken issue with instances in which Tlaib, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants who is among the first two Muslim women to serve in the House, has established herself as a fierce critic of the Jewish state.

“When she gets that mic in front of her, she goes crazy and goes to many extremes,” Jackson, who served with Tlaib in the Michigan statehouse, told JI. “I really feel like it’s now or never as it pertains to being able to sort of shut her down and calm down some of the antisemitic rhetoric.”

Tlaib’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment from JI.

Jackson, an evangelical Christian, said she has long felt a “strong reverence” for the Jewish state. In 2010, as a state representative, Jackson said she visited Israel on a delegation with the local Jewish federation, an experience she characterized as having left an “indelible” impression on her foreign policy outlook.

“Just saying it real plain, I believe that the United States and Israel are sisters, and I can’t imagine living in a world where our nation didn’t have Israel’s back,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking, to be honest with you, to have Rep. Tlaib not even wanting to explore that path.”

Jackson opposes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting the Jewish state  — Tlaib, for her part, is among a small handful of House Democrats who support the effort — and advocates for increasing bilateral trade between Michigan and Israel. 

She endorsed a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which Tlaib has rejected. “She obviously is carrying the water of Palestine in all that she does,” Jackson said of Tlaib. “Meanwhile, Detroiters, we don’t have a voice. It’s just the truth.”

As she prepares to launch her campaign, Jackson said she is planning to reach out to Jewish voters in the Detroit-area district, which takes in Southfield, a majority-Black suburban enclave that is also home to a robust Jewish community. “I want to convey to the Jewish community that, as an African-American woman, to me, our stories are extremely similar,” she told JI. “We can look at the history of the civil rights movement, we can look at our shared history here in this country.”

“I think that we have sort of a natural bond, and obviously that’s not there with her,” Jackson said of Tlaib. “So where I don’t have the answers, or the things that I don’t know, I’m open to learning because of this natural bond and kinship and love that I have for the Jewish community.”

The 12th District covers Wayne and Oakland Counties and also includes the traditionally conservative city of Livonia as well as Dearborn, which is home to the largest Arab-American population in the United States.

Michigan’s independent redistricting committee approved the new congressional boundaries in late December, but the map is currently being challenged in court by a lawsuit that alleges the updated lines disempower Black voters.

Beyond the district, Jackson said she has had conversations with pro-Israel advocates in Florida, Georgia and Illinois as she seeks to establish a national support to compete with Tlaib, who, as of September, had raised nearly $1.4 million, according to the latest filings from the Federal Election Commission. 

David Rosenberg, the president of CityPAC, a bipartisan pro-Israel advocacy group in Chicago, said he recently spoke with Jackson via Zoom and was enthused by her candidacy. “Shanelle’s approach to the U.S.-Israel relationship is one of pragmatism and passion,” he told JI. “She understands that it is in both America’s and Israel’s interest for the relationship to be as strong as possible.”

“As a spiritual person, it seems like she just has a natural affinity for the land of Israel,” Rosenberg added. “Shanelle fully appreciates the harm that Rashida Tlaib has done to Israel and to the Jewish community over the years and knows that it also harms her constituents. She would be a breath of fresh air for those who care about Israel and Jewish-related causes if she were to serve in Congress in Tlaib’s place.”

Jackson was born and raised in Detroit and graduated with a degree in political science from the University of Michigan-Dearborn. She served in the Michigan House of Representatives from 2007 to 2012. 

The former lawmaker has, according to her LinkedIn page, previously worked in various roles with the Michigan Department Of Transportation, Detroit International Bridge Co. and Marathon Petroleum Corporation.

Tlaib and Jackson are so far the only candidates who have declared that they are running in the district.

“I think she is definitely in for a challenge,” Jackson said. “The district is right for that.”

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