Arab Voters Go To The Polls In Michigan

Decades after ‘the Arab problem,’ Muslim and Arab Americans are leading political change in Metro Detroit

The first political campaign Michigan State Rep. Abdullah Hammoud worked on was in 2001.

“There was a person by the name of Abed Hammoud running for mayor,” Rep. Hammoud (no relation) told the PBS NewsHour. “I just wanted a ‘Hammoud for Mayor’ T-shirt. And to get it, you had to volunteer.”

So he stuffed pamphlets and passed out flyers at a polling place until he could get the T-shirt that supported the candidate that shared his same last name.

He was 11 years old.

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Michigan State Rep. Abdullah Hammoud (D-Dearborn) speaking at the Michigan Muslim Day celebration at the state capitol on April 14, 2019 | Photograph courtesy of Michigan House Democrats

Although he no longer has that original “Hammoud for Mayor” T-shirt, he is now, 20 years later, running for mayor of his hometown of Dearborn, Michigan.

“Dearborn is the greatest city in the whole country and everybody’s just learning it,” said Hammoud, an epidemiologist, child of Lebanese immigrants, and graduate of Dearborn High School and University of Michigan Dearborn.

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The oldest, largest, and most diverse Muslim American and Arab American communities in the U.S. are located in the Metro Detroit area. Christian Syrian and Lebanese immigrants first arrived in the area in the 1880s, followed later by Palestinian, Iraqi, Chaldean, Yemeni, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi Americans, and more. Many were drawn by work opportunities at Ford Motor Company in the 1920s. Changes in U.S. immigration laws in 1965 and a long string of political conflicts abroad also contributed to the growth and diversity of this population.

But despite this long history, these communities in the metro Detroit area — at least one of which has blatantly displayed anti-Arab sentiment in its past — have not had significant Muslim or Arab American presence in local government other than city council — until now. This year, 20 years after 9/11, Muslim and Arab Americans are on the November mayoral ballot and signaling change for the cities of Dearborn, Dearborn Heights, and Hamtramck, Michigan.

These cities have also seen remarkable economic growth and flourished culturally in the past 30  years because of investments by Muslim and Arab American institutions, entrepreneurs, and homeowners, said Sally Howell, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Dearborn campus and director of the Center for Arab American Studies. “So for these cities to be led by Arab Americans would be a game changer.”

“Hamtramck, for example, has never had a mayor who is not Polish,” Howell added. “Of Dearborn’s two longest-serving mayors, Orville Hubbard [1942-1978] was an avowed segregationist who tried to rezone the city’s immigrant neighborhood for heavy industry, which would have displaced the city’s Arab community and two historic mosques had he succeeded, and Mike Guido’s [1986-2006] first campaign in 1985 asked voters to help him solve the city’s ‘Arab problem.’ Dearborn Heights has struggled in recent years, especially some of its school districts, to welcome the many Arab families who have settled there over the past 20 years.”

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In Dearborn specifically, which has the highest concentration of Arab Americans of the three suburbs, this election marks the first time in 36 years that the city has not had an incumbent mayor running for reelection. With longtime Dearborn Mayor Jack O’Reilly retiring after serving as mayor for 14 years, Muslim and Arab American communities, which make up more than 40 percent of the city’s population, have a chance at getting representation in the mayor’s office.

“Considering that Arab Americans and Muslim Americans have been an integral part of the Dearborn community for the last 100 years and there haven’t been any Muslims in city government leadership until 2019 (outside of city council), this election is extremely significant,” said Petra Alsoofy, outreach and partnerships manager at The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) and a Dearborn resident. “That more than one Arab and Muslim candidate ran in the mayoral race is also significant in itself.”

 “As American as any other name”

The first Muslim and Arab American mayor elected in the U.S. was Abdul “Al” Haidous, a Lebanese American immigrant and small business owner, elected November 2001 in the small town of Wayne — 20 minutes west of Dearborn. He served as mayor for 13 years before becoming a Wayne County Commissioner in 2014, where he still serves.

Abed Hammoud speaking at the Arab American Political Action Committee Annual Dinner in front of prominent Arab American community leaders, elected officials and candidates, and AAPAC Executive Board members, October 29, 2009. | Photographer American Elite Studios, courtesy of Abed Hammoud

Other candidates that year, including the aforementioned Abed Hammoud, who helped found the Arab American Political Action Committee (AAPAC) in 1998, running for mayor in Dearborn and Shahab Ahmed running for city council in Hamtramck that year, lost their election bids, in part because of post-9/11 fear and backlash. The current mayor of Benton Harbor, a city near the western edge of the state, Marcus Muhammad, is also Muslim American.

Neighboring Dearborn Heights and Hamtramck are much smaller cities, but also with large Muslim and Arab American populations.

Dearborn Heights already has its first Muslim and Arab American mayor. Bill Bazzy, an immigrant from Lebanon, an engineer, retired U.S. Marine, and former City Councilperson was appointed mayor in January 2021 after the previous mayor, Dan Paletko, died in December 2020 after testing positive for COVID-19. Although Bazzy is already mayor, he seeks to legitimize that appointment by being elected to the role this November, facing off against city council Chairperson Denise Malinowski-Maxwell to finish Paletko’s and to start a new term beginning in January.

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Nearby Hamtramck made national news in 2015 when it elected the first Muslim majority City Council in the country. Hamtramck used to be a primarily Catholic and Polish American community, and since the city was founded in 1922, every mayor has been both Catholic and Polish American. However, the demographics in Hamtramck are shifting rapidly, and it has now become very diverse, including large Bangladeshi and Yemeni American communities.

In 2020, Hamtramck elected Abraham Aiyash to be Michigan state representative following the unexpected death of Michigan state Rep. Isaac Robinson. According to The Yemeni American News, Aiyash is the first Yemeni American in any state legislature and the highest ranking Yemeni American legislator in the country.

According to the Detroit Free Press, incumbent mayor Karen Majewski, who was elected as Hamtramck’s first woman mayor in 2006, received 27 percent of the vote in the Aug. 3 primary, coming in second to Amer Ghalib who received 37 percent of the vote in a four person field.  However, Majewski told The Detroit News on Aug. 4 that she was not worried, “I’ve come in second on primary night before and I’m still here so…”

The Dearborn mayor’s race was also highly contested. Election results show that with seven candidates vying for the seat in the Aug. 3 primary election, State Representative Abdullah Hammoud received 42.36 percent of the vote and former State Representative and former Wayne County Commissioner Gary Woronchak came in second with 18.17 percent of the vote. They will both be on the ballot in November.

“I’m surely not running as a Muslim or Arab American,” Hammoud said. “I’m running as, more than anything, a son of Dearborn. Somebody who was born and raised here, who happens to be Muslim Arab American. But I think in winning, what you demonstrate, is that Abdullah is as American as any other name.”

Hammoud-Abed-family-2001-Picture-3b

Late media personality Russ Gibb introduces 2001 Dearborn mayoral candidate Abed Hammoud at a July 2001 fundraiser. His son Mustapha who is now running for Dearborn City Council in 2021 wears the “Hammoud for Mayor” T-shirt at his side, then son Mazen and wife Mona (L-R) | Photograph courtesy of Abed Hammoud

Community catalyst 

Abed Hammoud, a former federal and state prosecutor, told the NewsHour that he believes the Arab American community has matured a lot politically in the last two decades since co-founding AAPAC.

At the time, he was told that politics was “not for us,” and that he should wait until the community matures. Instead, he helped found AAPAC with a group of all kinds of professionals to help the community develop its collective political voice, its collective reasoning.

“Let’s debate everything. Let’s have total democracy in a way that Arabs are not used to. We all come from the Arab world where there’s no democracy. So until today, the Arab American PAC functions — one person, one vote. I’m the founder, I don’t have any extra rights in there,” said Abed Hammoud.

“In 1998, we had a lot less Arab Americans registered to vote, a lot less Arab Americans involved in that process, a lot less Arab Americans who will even run for things,” he said. “We were a catalyst for our community that was hungry to be involved in politics, and to have a voice. So we just accelerated that process and made it more organized.”

AAPAC was careful to be very global, wide and encompassing, including a lot of women in leadership positions and all kinds of Arab Americans, Muslim and Christian, with heritages from different countries. The group helped mentor a lot of people and advise on many campaigns. “We did all of this with a purpose of arriving [at] a day like we are [at] today,” he said. “Where the fact that Arab Americans running for office is a natural thing, not the exception.”

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Candidates today, he says, already know how to run a campaign from having worked on other campaigns. A drawback, though, is that so many members have been elected or appointed to important positions that they are often too busy to be able to help volunteer as much as they used to.

Abed Hammoud points to the candidacies of Abdullah Hammoud (no relation) running for mayor of Dearborn, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed who ran for governor of Michigan in 2018, and even his own son, Mustapha Hammoud, who is running for Dearborn City Council. Ironically, he gave his own son the same advice his father gave to him: don’t do it. And his son gave him the same answer that he gave his father: if I don’t do it, who will?

“We lawyers, we say a brick is not a wall,” said Abed Hammoud. “And the same thing for our politics. Every step alone cannot be connected with all the progress. But if you add them all on top of each other, you realize each one of them, you know, it contributed to the movement we are in here. Now, are we there yet? Absolutely not. We have a lot to go still. And so because of that, we’re going to continue working within the community and the community can mature even more.”

Opportunity and challenge

This year’s elections, 20 years after 9/11, are more than Muslim and Arab American communities flexing their political muscle. “It also illustrates the extent to which these communities have developed strong candidates, an engaged electorate, and a commitment to the kind of local politics that bring positive changes to the everyday lives of individuals,” Howell said. “Were the front runners in each of these primaries to win their respective races, we would certainly see history being made.”

FILE IMAGE: Farhana Quayoum (L), Angel Ouza (C) and Rhima Aoun volunteer at a rally encouraging Arab-Americans to register and vote in Dearborn, Michigan, February 4, 2004. Arab-Americans across the country have been holding similar registration drives to mobilize political power over the years. - RTXMFJ7

FILE IMAGE: Farhana Quayoum (L), Angel Ouza (C) and Rhima Aoun volunteer at a rally encouraging Arab-Americans to register and vote in Dearborn, Michigan, February 4, 2004. Arab-Americans across the country have been holding similar registration drives to mobilize political power over the years. “Yalla Vote” means “Hurry Up and Vote” in Arabic. Photo by Reuters

The candidacies in these elections are also made possible by increasing Muslim and Arab American voter registration and civic engagement nationally. “American Muslim voter registration has steadily increased from 60 percent in 2016 to 75 percent in 2018 to 78 percent in 2020,” Alsoofy said. “In 2020, there was a gap of 3 percent between those intending to vote and being registered to vote, down from a gap of 21 percent in 2016 and 8 percent in 2018. We are seeing a greater effort in both voter registration and candidate outreach to the community. There have been numerous community-driven campaigns over the last few years to register Muslims to vote.”

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This summer, three intense thunderstorms in Southeastern Michigan caused severe flooding of thousands of homes in several Dearborn, Dearborn Heights, Hamtramck, and Detroit neighborhoods — signs of aging infrastructure and accelerating climate change. U.S. Rep Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, estimates that 40 to 65 percent of homes in Dearborn were damaged in June floods, and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer requested a Presidential Disaster Declaration for four counties. Residents fed up with repeat flooding are asking if their neighborhoods have been intentionally neglected, and are taking particular interest in the mayoral races this year.

After the floods, Hammoud temporarily suspended his campaign and organized teams of volunteers to help people clean out their flooded homes.

“That’s foundational to what Dearborn is, right? It’s all about being good neighbors,” said Hammoud. “If my mother was ever in need, I hope that a good neighbor would step up to help.”

Being perceived as good neighbors has been an exercise in patience for Muslims and Arab Americans in these suburbs. Islamophobia and anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment will also impact some people’s perceptions of representatives of these communities, particularly considering the area’s history. “Both Hamtramck and Dearborn are already magnets for anti-Muslim activists who frequent the area when they want to harass Muslim worshippers, burn qurans, pose for Instagram in heavy armor outside a mosque, or seek to disrupt Muslim American festival goers,” Howell says.

However, Muslim and Arab American mayors will also have the opportunity to change the way their cities are perceived, and how their community is perceived within their neighborhood. “As Dearborn is often presented negatively due to its population’s background, having a Muslim and Arab [American] mayor will hopefully highlight the incredible resilience and success of this community,” Alsoofy said.

Despite the possibility of making history if he is elected mayor, Hammoud’s vision is more about what he wants for Dearborn. “I want my children to grow with the same love and passion that I have for Dearborn,” he said. “I think that’s the hope we have for families all across our city, that we tackle not only the issues that are impacting us today, we’re laying the foundation for a city that will hopefully only grow to be greater for generations to come.”

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