Layla Taha is a Lebanese American socialist running to represent the Metro Detroit area in the Michigan state house. We spoke with her about her campaign, her demand for a cease-fire in Gaza, and how she plans to stand up to corporate interests if elected.

Layla Taha is running for the Michigan State House of Representatives . (Layla Taha for State Representative / Facebook)

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the democratic socialist, Palestinian American congresswoman who represents Michigan’s heavily Arab and Muslim 12th Congressional District in the Metro Detroit area, has been one of the most outspoken critics of Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza. Along with other Squad members and progressives in Congress, Tlaib has called on Joe Biden to demand a cease-fire.

Program director for Tlaib’s office and fellow Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member Layla Taha is running for the Michigan state house, in a special election for the 25th District seat. Taha, who is Lebanese American, has also come out in support of a cease-fire, and her campaign has been endorsed by Tlaib as well as the Detroit chapter of DSA.

If elected, Taha would join State Rep. Dylan Wegela in the state legislature as part of a growing DSA bloc. Taha recently sat down with Jacobin contributor Oren Schweitzer to discuss why she’s running for office, her support for Palestine, and why she believes labor and movement organizing are essential to standing up to corporate interests.

Oren Schweitzer

What are the greatest issues facing your district and Michigan more broadly, and how do you hope to address them if elected?

Layla Taha

I feel very frustrated. I look at the world I’ve inherited and think about my younger siblings and the world they’re going to inherit, and I’m concerned about many issues.

My background is in public health; here in my district, we have a lot of public health issues. I see that one of the cities in my community has lead in its water. We have a ton of corporate polluters on the southern border of our district who have not been held accountable for years. We have some of the worst air quality and some of the highest asthma rates in the state.

Health care is becoming more and more unaffordable. I’m a firm believer that we need universal health care. So many people are fed up and frustrated that they pay their premiums every month and still get thousands of dollars in bills because they have a chronic illness or they can’t afford their insulin. That’s completely unacceptable.

My district is working class. I know what it meant to be working class when I was a kid growing up, and it still meant having a pretty decent life. What it looks like today is struggle. It’s paycheck to paycheck. It’s becoming more and more unaffordable just to live. The only way that changes is if our government steps up and does something about it.

Oren Schweitzer

As Congresswoman Tlaib’s program director, you’ve helped put on workplace organizing trainings. Could you tell me about those?

Layla Taha

This came about last spring. There were so many unions in Michigan talking about going on strike. We knew there was potential for a United Auto Workers (UAW) strike, for a Teamster strike, for Michigan nurses. We were talking about how the working class is frustrated, and that’s why we hear about so many different strikes and about workers trying to form unions, including at the nursing home right down the street from my house.

With all that labor action happening, we felt that it was the moment to support labor. I’ve never been a union member. I didn’t really know what unions did, how they worked, or what the benefit of a union is, before working for Rashida.

There are plenty of people who aren’t union members who, if they only had the tools, knowledge, and skills, would form one.

Looking back on past working experiences, if I had been in a union, or if I had known how to organize my workplace, I probably would have been a much happier employee. There are plenty of people who aren’t union members who, if they only had the tools, knowledge, and skills, would form one.

I talked with some folks in the Democratic Socialists of America who connected me with Labor Notes; Labor Notes connected me with the Dearborn Federation of Teachers (DFT), which is in Rashida’s district. DFT gave us the space, Labor Notes provided the training, and DSA helped us turn people out. We texted and called Rashida supporters, whether or not they were in a union.

We had a great turnout. A lot of the people there were not union members. They were people who were interested in trying to organize their workplace. We definitely have plans to keep them going.

It was a powerful experience to hear so many people say, “I really needed this. When’s the next one?” Clearly, there’s a need and demand for this. I would love to continue that kind of work if I’m elected.

Oren Schweitzer

A major theme of your campaign is fighting against Detroit’s power company, DTE Energy. Almost every Democrat in Michigan state politics takes money from DTE, even the progressives who claim not to. Tell me about the fight against DTE, and your decision to not take any corporate money.

Layla Taha

In the last legislature, 93 percent of folks in Lansing [the Michigan state capital] accepted money from DTE. It is one of the biggest lobbyists in the state. It’s no surprise that has translated into the electricity crisis we’re in right now.

Over the weekend, we had some of the most severe winter weather we’ve had in a long time. For five days in a row, the temperature hasn’t gotten above single digits. When that winter storm blew through, about 125,000 in Southeast Michigan lost power. Some people went a full day or more without power in deathly frigid temperatures.

This is becoming the norm. It is not just a fluke because of terrible weather. Anytime the wind blows too hard, people lose power.

When I was knocking on doors, I talked to a mom who said, “I have four kids under the age of eight. Our electrical bill is $200 or $300 a month. I’m paying a lot to keep my lights on, and with four kids I can’t not have electricity. I have to cook them dinner; they have to come home and do their homework. If we lose power, that means my mom ten minutes away doesn’t have power. My dad, on the other side of the district, doesn’t have power. I have nowhere to go.” It is unacceptable.

DTE puts right out in public, in their shareholder reports, the reason we’ve gotten to this place. The company “defers maintenance,” which means they don’t trim trees or replace transformers. I talked to a DTE worker who said he worked on a transformer from the 1980s. The infrastructure is crumbling and needs to be replaced and invested in. DTE won’t do it because its priority is paying shareholders.

It ’s making record profits — over $1 billion last year. There is absolutely no reason why they can’t be putting the work in to make sure our grid is reliable. Instead, DTE continues to get approved for rate hikes.

It now charges at a higher rate between the hours of 3 and 7 p.m. The company knows that’s the time kids get home from school, parents get home from work, people have to do their homework, cook dinner, do laundry. The time when we’re using electricity the most, it’s charging the highest rates.

DTE just got approved six weeks ago for another rate increase. It’s got to stop. No matter who I’ve talked to on doors I’ve knocked, everyone, even conservative Republicans, agrees that we have to do something about DTE.

It’s pretty cut and dry. We don’t take money from DTE because, when you get to Lansing, how are you going to hold the company accountable, if you’re beholden to DTE because you took money from them?

People across Southeast Michigan, not just in my district, are fed up and have had enough. Hopefully, I’m going to get in the legislature and propose legislation to hold DTE accountable and force it to pay people for every hour they’re out of power.

Oren Schweitzer

You’re also campaigning on establishing a publicly owned utility in place of DTE.

Layla Taha

I would like us to move toward public power because every time we have a power outage, I open up DTE’s map to see what the outages look like. Southeast Michigan is completely in the dark except for the city of Wyandotte, which has public power. Even out in Lansing when they’ve had bad storms, the surrounding areas will be out of power, but Lansing always has power — and it has public power.

There are fifty or more municipalities in the state that have public power, and they do not encounter the issues that we do with DTE. It’s more reliable. It’s more affordable.

There are fifty or more municipalities in the state that have public power, and they do not encounter the issues that we do with DTE. It’s more reliable. It’s more affordable. The people have a say in how money is being spent. It’s not just going to shareholders. It’s going to invest in the grid to make sure our lights are always on.

We have to hold DTE accountable, but we also know that they have a track record of putting their shareholders and their profits over people. That’s why we need to explore an option that is going to prioritize people, and that is public power.

Oren Schweitzer

Your district has a large Muslim and Arab population, and you come from a Lebanese American background. Currently, Israel is waging a criminal war against Palestinians in Gaza, and Joe Biden and the Democratic Party establishment have effectively aided and abetted it.

Many Arab and Muslim Americans have abandoned support for Biden and the Democrats overall due to these positions. How is your campaign orienting toward these voters?

Layla Taha

As an Arab American, I feel similarly. I think about my dad, my grandparents, my family who are all in southern Lebanon, where things have been escalating as well. I know that in a second they could all be gone. I completely empathize with and understand people who feel abandoned right now.

We can’t not vote. What matter the most in our day-to-day lives are our local and state-level elections. I tell people that even if they feel like they don’t have a choice at the top of their ticket, there are other choices on their ballot.

It’s important that we extend grace to the Arab and Muslim community who feel abandoned. We don’t feel like we have much choice. I’m somebody who knocked doors for Joe Biden and encouraged my Republican family members to vote for Biden. I feel abandoned right now as well.

About 80 percent of Michigan Democrats want a cease-fire. Every new poll that comes out, that doesn’t change. It is up to Joe Biden to make sure that he listens to his constituents and listens to the members of his party who are calling for this.

Oren Schweitzer

A lot of people in this moment will likely choose to abstain from politics, like you said, or even vote Republican — though Donald Trump will clearly be no better than Biden on this issue. Do you see any opportunity for your campaign and others like it to channel this energy and anger among the Democratic base? So that instead of abstaining, people can look to you and others like you as an alternative to the Democratic Party establishment?

Layla Taha

At this moment in 2024, we have our two-party system, and obviously Trump is no better. I don’t want Trump to win. The Arabs or Muslims who feel abandoned by Joe Biden and don’t want to vote for him don’t want Trump to win.

There are millions of people out in the streets and calling Congress. But because so much time has passed, I think that the approach a lot of Democrats and the Biden administration are taking is to wait it out and hope that people get tired and stop.

What’s really important right now is that we don’t stop, don’t tire, and continue to push, to motivate not just the existing base of Arab and Muslim Americans but also reach others who aren’t necessarily out in the streets but who agree. It can’t just be Arab and Muslim Americans. All of the other folks who are crying with us need to be in the streets with us and need to be calling their representatives with us.

About 80 percent of Michigan Democrats want a cease-fire. Every new poll that comes out, that doesn’t change.

In November, we’re going to have a rematch; I’m assuming it’s going to be Joe Biden versus Donald Trump. If Biden is going to get a huge voting bloc that he’s not getting right now in the state of Michigan, he has to change his stance and his approach. The only way that will happen is if we keep putting pressure on him and build that pressure even more.

Oren Schweitzer

How do you view your role as a candidate, and hopefully as a state representative, in building this movement for a cease-fire?

Layla Taha

People are frustrated; we just need to get them in the movement with us. If I become a state representative, that’s a huge part of the job — engaging more folks and bringing more people in. Rashida does that super well, and I hope to emulate that. We need more people in the collective to make a louder roar.

First and foremost, it’s necessary to be outspoken. Martin Luther King Jr said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” This is a very uncomfortable moment, with a lot of people afraid to speak up for the people of Gaza and for Palestinians when they’ve been living under apartheid and oppression for generations — generations of statelessness. I witnessed it with my own eyes in Lebanon: generations of families born into refugee camps without opportunity.

MLK also said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Maybe the war isn’t right here in front of our eyes, but it’s a serious problem if we sit idly by and allow a genocide to happen. We have to put pressure on the administration and the rest of our world leaders to do something. They have the power to stop it.

Oren Schweitzer

You are a member of and endorsed by the Metro Detroit chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. Metro Detroit DSA already has one elected official in the state legislature, Dylan Wegela.

What does your DSA membership and endorsement mean to you? How do you talk about your democratic socialist identity with voters?

Layla Taha

My DSA endorsement means everything to me. These were the first people who really believed in me. When I first started talking about running, these were the people who said, “Do it. We’ve got your back.” These are the people who are showing up to knock doors for me in a winter blizzard, who are phone banking, who are text banking.

Ultimately we in DSA all want a better, more just, more equitable world. I don’t lead with the word “socialism,” because it’s a word that scares a lot of people. But when we talk about how our health care is so unaffordable, how we’re not paid enough, why we pay so much for electricity, but it’s never on, and I have to go buy a generator — that is the perfect segue into talking about DSA. Because that’s exactly what DSA stands for: as the working class, we deserve better.

When we talk about how our health care is so unaffordable, how we’re not paid enough, why we pay so much for electricity, but it’s never on — that is the perfect segue into talking about DSA.

Dylan has had to make a lot of tough calls while being in the legislature. All these corporate interests are lobbying Lansing so hard, and that’s why people are not the priority there.

If you’re an elected official, if you’re a public servant, you are there to serve the public, not corporate interests. That’s something Dylan exemplifies in the work that he does, and something I fully believe in too. If I’m there, every decision I’ll be making as a legislator is going to be about what’s in the best interest of my constituents.

We can’t continue to allow corporations to run our country and our state. Giving millions and billions of dollars away to corporations, or allowing DTE to continue to get away with what they’ve gotten away with for so long, is not in the best interest of the people. There is so much more that we could be doing to improve our education system, to improve our health care system, to make sure that people have basic human rights.

Why do I turn my tap on and have to see whether the water is safe? Why isn’t it a priority for our government to make sure that we’re investing in our infrastructure, so we have clean water? In my hometown of Wayne, it’s been three years with lead water issues. We’re hearing the same thing in other municipalities in Southeast Michigan.

Flint was the first of many, now not just in our state, but across the country. We could be putting so much more resources and funding into rectifying this, and that should be the priority before corporate handouts.

Oren Schweitzer

Rep. Wegela has been the lone Democratic vote against some of those corporate handouts and has been under a lot of pressure from the state Democratic Party to get in line with their program.

You’re on Metro Detroit DSA’s Socialists in Office (SIO) Committee. Could you tell me a bit more about this committee? If elected, how do you plan to relate to the SIO?

Layla Taha

The Socialists in Office Committee is new for our DSA chapter. The goal is to have a space where not only elected officials like Dylan Wegela, Rashida Tlaib, and hopefully myself but also members of the chapter who are on-the-ground organizers, can have a space to meet, discuss, strategize, and talk about priorities — how to build our movement, and what that looks like in the halls of government.

Having a structure like that is important to keep the elected officials grounded in the core reason they ran in the first place: to fight for the working class. There are tremendous pressures in Lansing, from other lawmakers and interest groups. Remembering why we got into this in the first place is important for making sure we stay true to our values.

My hope is that if I get elected, Dylan wouldn’t be alone in standing up to those corporate interests, and that we could maybe move some other folks too. A lot of folks get into this with the best of intentions because they want to help people and do the right thing. Then they get caught up with the corporate pressure and demands.

There’s opportunity to move folks in Lansing to get on board with universal health care, prioritizing investing in our infrastructure, replacing lead service lines across the state, and making sure we have adequate funding for and continue to invest in our public education system.

Oren Schweitzer

We talked about the importance of unions earlier. How is your campaign relating to organized labor, and how do you plan to relate to the labor movement if elected?

Layla Taha

The labor movement is integral to any progressive change we might make. Thinking back to the 1960s, the UAW was one of the leaders in standing behind the civil rights movement.

The working class has so much power, and if we are organized and use that power effectively, we can create the change we want to see in the world. With the power of unions, we can get universal health care. We can pass environmental protections and curb the effects of climate change. We can get paid time off, sick time, and parental leave, which we still don’t have in Michigan.

When the UAW went on strike back in September, I walked the picket line multiple times, and on Rashida’s campaign, I organized a UAW solidarity event. We had a couple of rank-and-file autoworkers come and talk about why they were on strike, what their demands were, and what we could do as a community to support them. We passed out fliers about where and what to donate.

The labor movement is integral to any progressive change we might make.

We also brought in the National Lawyers Guild to talk about what it means to be a legal observer. Because there were so many strikes, there were many requests for more legal observers on the picket line to make sure people’s rights were being protected. We got quite a few people at the event who did the training, became legal observers, and who we then turned out to the picket lines.

I was already doing this kind of work as an organizer, and should I be elected I’ll absolutely be on picket lines. If anybody ever wants me to speak at a labor rally or event, the answer is always yes. It’s very important that rank-and-file union members see that the people they’ve elected and who should be fighting for them aren’t just in Lansing but are also showing up to stand in solidarity with their struggles.

Oren Schweitzer

What do you see as the greatest obstacles to advancing a pro-worker agenda in Lansing if you are elected? What do you think will be necessary to overcome those obstacles?

Layla Taha

There is so much pressure in Lansing, whether that’s coming from special interest groups or within the legislature itself. Ultimately, that’s the biggest challenge to making sure that we’re actually passing legislation that will help working families.

To overcome that, we have to keep our own pressure on Lansing to make sure the legislature is doing the right thing for working families. That means movement building. That means organizing. As an organizer, I know that’s the only way we’re going to create change — when people are in the streets demanding it.

As an organizer and legislator, it’s important that I get more people involved in that work. That looks a lot of different things. Even just having town halls and coffee hours to invite people to learn about what’s going on in Lansing and help get them plugged in. Just like how we had rank-and-file workers at the UAW event, if we’re having a town hall talking about, for instance, what’s going on in Lansing when it comes to labor, we need to have rank-and-file workers there; we need to have organizations there rallying behind them so when residents attend, we can plug them in.

Speaking as a regular citizen, I’m frustrated and want more transparency from Lansing, from my school board, from my city council. We deserve it; we have every right to know what’s going on. If you’re asking for my vote and I’m going to vote for you, then I should get something in return. You should be fighting for me, and you should be honest with me.

Transparency in government is so important, because if we want voters to make the most informed and best decision for our democracy then they deserve to know the truth. There’s a lot of pressure to not speak the truth — but we have to speak truth to power if we’re going to make the change in this world that we need.

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