Abdullah Hammoud: The trailblazer striving to be Dearborn's first Arab American mayor
If Abdullah Hammoud wins the mayoral election in Dearborn, he would be the first Arab, and the first Muslim, elected to office there.
This might sound surprising for a city where Arabs and Muslims represent close to majority populations, but political representation for these communities is still relatively new.
“Yes, I would be the first Arab mayor,” Hammoud tells The New Arab. But, he emphasises, “We’re not running to be the first. We’re running to try to be the best.”
He likes to say, “Abdullah is just as American as any name”.
"We're not running to be the first. We're running to try to be the best"
A typical American upbringing
In fact, Hammoud’s story is in many ways quintessentially American. The second of five children, he was raised by hard-working immigrants, both from Lebanon, who did not have college degrees themselves, but who raised children who would earn advanced degrees.
His father, the primary breadwinner, drove trucks to deliver steel coils, and his mother mainly took care of the children, as there were few resources for childcare for working families. They provided a safe and nurturing environment for their children.
Growing up, Hammoud says he never considered himself poor. But looking back on his early years, he later realised he and his family faced struggles that he doesn’t want others to experience. Like many children in his area, he grew up with asthma, which he attributes to industrial pollution.
By the time he was 14, he had lived in 12 different homes. At one point, he answered the phone and his father took it and hung up, a call he later realised was probably from a debt collector.
The policies he’s advocating for – expanding Medicaid, increasing minimum wages, improving infrastructure to prevent future flooding, and holding industrial polluters accountable – would help families now facing similar needs as his once did.
A progressive navigating a politically mixed state
Hammoud, whose graduate education and initial job experience is in healthcare, but who has been interested in politics since age 11, got his political experience as a three-term state representative in the capital Lansing. There, as a self-described progressive, he deftly navigated the politics of a state almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.
Wearing his Bernie Sanders T-shirt, he would play weekly basketball games with a colleague from the other side of the aisle. To bridge cultural divides, he started his first term by taking 60 state legislators to Altar Street in Dearborn, with the largest mosque in North America alongside three churches, and offered to answer any questions they had.
Such cross-party diplomacy might sound unnecessary in Michigan, known for its diversity and for having the highest proportions of Arabs and Muslims in the US. But it is still a state with large rural swaths that are staunchly right-wing.
Sirene Abou-Chakra, a master’s student in public administration at Harvard, who has known Hammoud for 20 years, sees him as a bridge between Dearborn’s different communities and generations.
“He’s a bridge. He’s capable of bringing the entire city together to move forward. Dearborn is a place that is comprised of people from a lot of backgrounds. Polish, German, Italian, and within the Arab community, there are Lebanese, Yemeni, Iraqi, Palestinian and Syrian contingencies. Each one of them has a unique story,” she tells TNA.
“He’s Arab, but he was born and raised in this country. He’s Lebanese, but he has made a genuine effort to hear from other communities, whether it’s Yemeni or others,” she says. “He has the credibility. If you ask the older generation, they’re excited about him, too. He’s in touch with urban policy. It’s been a while since Dearborn has had fresh eyes overseeing its public policy.”
A city overcoming a racist legacy
Dearborn itself, though solidly blue, is still recovering from decades of the racism of Orville Hubbard, mayor from 1942 to 1978, an unabashed segregationist who pledged to keep the city “lily white.”
To this day, Dearborn is less than five percent African American, though this community accounts for around 50 percent of police traffic stops. A statue of Hubbard that was installed outside the city hall in 1989 was removed in 2020 at the height of last year’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
The city remains geographically divided between poorer immigrant neighbourhoods and more affluent white ones. Michael Guido, mayor from 1985 to 2006, was known for cruel remarks to Arabs, such as saying that they had hygiene problems after residents from the south end said their area was being neglected.
O’Reilly, the outgoing mayor, though generally popular, has also had his brush with controversy when in 2019 he made national news over accusations of playing down the anti-Semitic legacy of Dearborn’s arguably most famous native son Henry Ford, the father of automobile mass production.
“It’s time for something new,” Nada Hanooti, Michigan executive director of Emgage, a Muslim American advocacy group, tells TNA.
"He's a bridge. He's capable of bringing the entire city together to move forward. Dearborn is a place that is comprised of people from a lot of backgrounds"
A new paradigm of civic engagement
By new, she doesn’t just mean new leadership, but an entirely new paradigm in which Muslims and other underrepresented groups – whose voter turn-out is often in the single digits, or around 30 percent in a “good year” – are active participants in the election process.
With her work, she is trying to create a culture of civic engagement in which people feel like their votes matter, and so they will vote for people who will look out for their community, making sure their tax dollars are going to the right place.
“A lot of people in Dearborn don’t understand. They think that if they’re Arab they’ll win,” says Hanooti, herself from Dearborn. “To get out the vote, we need interaction. To pass policies, we need the right people. Policy all starts at the doors. People like Abdullah recognise this.”
DEARBORN, WE WON!— Abdullah Hammoud (@AHammoudMI) August 4, 2021
Tonight’s results showed that Dearborn residents are demanding change from City Hall. I’m honored and humbled with today’s victory, and I will work just as hard to earn everyone’s vote in the general election this November.
Thank you! pic.twitter.com/6WgGGynhOR
Still, she says, “We will need time to see the shift. It’s going to be a slow process. We will see the fruits of our labour in the years to come.”
Such engagement could be key to reversing some of the city’s entrenched inequality.
This was thrust into the spotlight this past summer, when widespread flooding affected some of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods and residents. Thanks to Hammoud’s grassroots network he’d built from his years of political campaigning, including his ongoing run for mayor, he was able to mobilise fundraising and volunteer clean-up crews – in many cases cleaning out basements himself.
He had already identified such infrastructure social welfare problems when he decided to run for mayor in January. Citing health concerns, O’Reilly, the current mayor, had announced he would not seek re-election. Hammoud and his supporters saw an opening.
A personalised grassroots campaign
In August, the 31-year-old came in first place in the mayoral primary with around 43 percent of the vote, with former State Representative and former Wayne County Commissioner Gary Woronchak coming in second with around 18 percent. The two will face off in November.
Earlier this year, Dearborn City Council President Susan Dabaja was favoured to place first, having won endorsements from the outgoing mayor as well as major unions (she has now endorsed Hammoud).
But it was likely Hammoud’s organised ground game that put him far over the top, a strategy that is increasingly garnering progressive wins across the country as they make personal connections through door-knocking and attracting low-propensity voters.
“Municipal politics doesn’t seem sexy, but that’s where the real change happens,” says Hanooti.
So far, Hammoud and his team have knocked on more than 52,000 doors, and they have made around 100,000 calls. In many cases, residents have personal stories of their connection to the aspiring mayor.
“Everyone whose door we’ve knocked on has a story about Abdullah. We’ve never encountered a candidate so close to our community. He has a personal connection. He’s the real deal,” says Hanooti.
In one instance, a resident she was canvassing said he was on the fence about voting for Hammoud due to his stance on marijuana (the candidate supports legalisation). Hanooti offered for Hammoud to call the undecided voter, a call he likely didn’t expect to get, but which seemed to win him over in the end.
Aside from low-propensity voters, a generational divide is something Hanooti has come across in her canvassing. Older residents from more traditional backgrounds don’t always grasp the importance of LGBTQ rights or marijuana legalisation. But once they have that personal interaction with a canvasser, they tend to get on board.
“We want to help him get to the finish line,” she says.
"He likes to say, 'Abdullah is just as American as any name'"
Almost just as important is winning big, which would give Hammoud something of a mandate to put through his agenda. This entails expanding Medicaid, improving infrastructure to prevent future flooding, and holding industrial polluters accountable.
With the mayoral race just days away, it’s hard to see how Hammoud’s momentum can be stopped. His opponent, Woronchak, and some of his critics have pointed to a high level of donations for this year’s political races for such a small city – around $1 million total for a population of less than 100,000.
Speaking with the Detroit Free Press last month, Woronchak – whose campaign contributions at the time stood at around $37,000, compared with around $300,000 for Hammoud – described the high level of spending as “obscene” and said that the money defines an upper class of candidates and donors.
“His opponents have nothing on him,” Majed Moughni, an attorney and the administrator of a Dearborn area community Facebook page told TNA.
“All they can do is chatter about the amount of money he’s raised. He’s raised so much money because people are in love with him. He doesn’t have time to waste responding to their weak attacks. He’s so well organised. This is one of the best campaigns this city has ever seen.”
Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business, and culture.
Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews