CHICAGO: Voters in Minnesota and Michigan on Tuesday elected the first two Muslim women to serve in the US Congress, a former refugee who fled Somalia’s civil war and a Detroit-born Palestinian-American.
The victories by the two Democrats — Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib — came on an election night when members of multiple minority groups had a chance to score electoral firsts.
In Florida, Lebanese-American Donna Shalala is starting a third career with her election to the House, after serving in President Bill Clinton’s Cabinet and running major universities.
In Minnesota, Omar, about 36 and a naturalized American citizen and state representative, follows another trailblazer: She will succeed US Congressman Keith Ellison, who in 2006 became the first Muslim elected to Congress and is stepping down to run for state attorney general.
The Minneapolis woman campaigned on policies embraced by the Democratic Party’s most liberal wing: universal health care, free college tuition and robust public housing.
“I did not expect to come to the United States and go to school with kids who were worried about food as much as I was worried about it in a refugee camp,” Omar said in an interview last month. She spent four years of her childhood in a refugee camp in Kenya.
Two years ago, she became the first Somali-American to win a seat in a state legislature, on the same night Republican Donald Trump won the presidency after a campaign in which he called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States.
Omar wsill also be the first Congress member to wear a Muslim hijab, or head scarf.
Tlaib, 42, also has a history of breaking barriers: In 2008 she became the first Muslim woman elected to the Michigan Legislature.
The oldest of 14 children, Tlaib was born to a family of Palestinian immigrants in Detroit, where her father worked at a Ford Motor Co. plant.
The former state representative also ran on a liberal platform, backing Medicare for All, immigration reform and a call to overturn Trump’s executive order banning most people from five Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States.
Both women ran in heavily Democratic districts. Minnesota state data showed Omar winning by a large margin, and Michigan media reported that Tlaib had won.
Tlaib linked her campaign to the surge of female political activism in the United States following Trump’s stunning 2016 victory, alluding to the millions of women that took to the streets of Washington and major cities across the country after his inauguration.
“Today, women across the country are on the ballot. Yes, we marched outside the Capitol, but now we get to march into the Capitol,” she wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. “We are coming!”
Her relatives are cheering in the West Bank village of Beit Ur Al-Foqa.
Tlaib's uncle, Bassam Tlaib, said on Wednesday that "the family, the village and the region are all proud" of her historic victory.
He says his 42-year-old niece plans to wear traditional Palestinian dress and have a Quran during her swearing-in ceremony. He expects her to "serve the Palestinian cause" in her new role.
Rashida Tlaib was born in the US to Palestinian parents. Her mother is originally from the West Bank.
Tlaib ran unopposed in her Michigan district.
Meanwhile, 77-year-old Democrat Shalala won in a Miami district that had long been in Republican hands. Shalala has sought to turn her age into a positive by stressing her experience with this slogan: “Ready on Day One.”
Shalala served as Clinton’s secretary of Health and Human Services for his entire presidency and has made health care a centerpiece of her agenda. She was president of the University of Wisconsin before that, and after Cabinet service she ran the University of Miami until 2015.
After that, Shalala was president of the Clinton Foundation until 2017. She counts the Clintons as close friends; Hillary Clinton campaigned for her this year in Miami.
Asked in a recent interview why she chose to take this fresh path after such a long career, Shalala said: “What I decided in my mind was that I wasn’t finished with public service. I wanted to take a shot.”
Shalala is originally from Cleveland, is of Lebanese descent and has a twin sister. She has lived in the Miami area since 2001.