Abdullah Hammoud: Michigan city elects first Arab mayor | Elections News


Dearborn, Michigan – Hundreds of people erupted for joy at a community center in Dearborn as Abdullah Hammoud’s name with a check mark beside it appeared on a giant screen, confirming he would become the city’s first Arab-American mayor.

Shortly thereafter, Hammoud took to the stage as crowds rushed to the podium on Tuesday night with cell phones raised to document the moment that many have described as “historic.”

After his victory, the mayor-elect spoke of a “new era” in Dearborn, a city known for its large Arab and Muslim community.

“To young girls and boys who have been ridiculed for their faith or ethnicity before, to those of you who have ever felt their names unwelcome, and to our parents and our elders and to others who are humiliated for their broken and yet persistent English: Today is proof that you are as American as anyone else, ”Hammoud said.

Hammoud, a 31-year-old state official, beat former local official Gary Woronchak, winning 55% of the vote on Tuesday.

He will succeed John B O’Reilly, who did not seek re-election after being diagnosed with an undisclosed illness.

When Hammoud takes office early next year, he will also become the first Muslim and the first person of color to rule the city of nearly 110,000, one of the largest in the midwestern state of Michigan. .

Hammoud’s victory is of national significance, local experts said, as it illustrates that Arab-American communities, through increased political participation, can decisively influence election results and elect their own representatives to work on them. issues that concern them.

“We finally have Arab Americans who speak for themselves, are elected, represent their communities, gain recognition from this population, gain a voice for them,” said Sally Howell, director of the Center for Arab American Studies at the University of Michigan. Cherborn.

Locally, his election also shatters “a long legacy of racial segregation” in the city, Howell told Al Jazeera.

From 1942 to 1978, Dearborn was led by Orville Hubbard, a mayor who openly advocated for keeping ethnic communities out of town. And as recently as 1985, mayoral candidate Michael Guido, who won the election that year, released a campaign leaflet addressing what he called “the Arab problem.”

Howell, among other experts, said she estimated that well over half of Dearborn’s population is of Arab descent, a fact not reflected by the U.S. census, which considers the Arab population to be white, which leads to undercoverage.

“Finally, we have an American Arab speaking on behalf of this community which is identified with American Arabs,” Howell said of Hammoud’s victory.

Election day

Abdul El-Sayed, a public health expert who ran for governor of Michigan in 2018 but failed to win the Democratic nomination, also said Hammoud’s victory will resonate beyond the confines of the town of Dearborn.

“This offers validation of the idea that for communities like the Arab-American community of Dearborn and enclaves like it, there is power in self-determination,” he said, “and that people born and raised in these communities have great ideas, new approaches, energy and enthusiasm to inspire belief… they can win.

Abdullah Hammoud addresses his supporters after his election victory in Dearborn, Michigan on November 2 [Ali Harb/Al Jazeera]

Tuesday night’s results ended months of campaigning in Dearborn. The mayoral campaign started with seven candidates, but only Hammoud and Woronchak – the first two to win votes in an August primary – made it to the final round.

Earlier in the day, campaign volunteers – some wrapped in blankets to protect themselves from the cold November temperatures – sat as close as they legally could to the entrances to polling stations, handing out placards and flyers .

They shouted the names of their favorite candidates, urging passers-by to vote for them.

Besides the mayoral race, Dearborn also elected a new seven-member city council and members of a commission that will draft a new charter for the city outlining the basic principles of local governance.

Ayah Aldarwish, a 17-year-old high school student who volunteers for the Hammoud campaign, said whoever wins, the city must unite to respond to urgent issues, including the repeated flooding that has damaged thousands of homes in Dearborn.

Aldarwish said she felt “recognized” by the candidate. “Our voices are being heard,” she told Al Jazeera.

“For everyone in Dearborn”

Woronchak, a former state official and county commissioner, had promoted his own close ties to the Arab community during the campaign, arguing that his years of experience in government made him better suited for the post than his younger opponent.

But the campaign took a turn towards identity politics in its final weeks, with Woronchak slamming Hammoud without naming him for apparently referring to Arab and Muslim Americans as “our community.”

“I think if you want to be the mayor of Dearborn and you refer to our community, you should mean our entire community, not just a group or a section of town,” Woronchak said in a campaign video released in September. . He also began to use the slogan “For All of Dearborn”.

Hammoud told Al Jazeera last week that identity can be pluralistic and that his membership in the Arab and Muslim communities in no way detracts from his ability to serve the entire city.

Voters fill out their ballots in a Yemeni-American majority neighborhood in Dearborn, Michigan, November 2 [Ali Harb/Al Jazeera]

Howell, the academic, said the mayoral campaign had taken a “more nasty turn” than many observers had hoped for. She said Woronchak’s campaign slogan implied that her opponent could not represent the whole city, but that “it backfired on him, frankly.”

Woronchak’s campaign did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

The son of immigrants from Lebanon, Hammoud studied epidemiology and went on to earn a business degree at the University of Michigan. He said the sudden death of his older brother Ali in 2015 prompted him to “re-evaluate” his goal and run for office.

In 2016, he was elected to represent Dearborn in the state House of Representatives. Over the past five years, Hammoud has gained a reputation as a left-wing lawmaker, endorsing Bernie Sanders for the presidency in 2020 and describing himself as a “pragmatic progressive”.

Jamil Khuja, a lawyer who unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the charter commission, said it was “strange” that only candidates from minority communities were faced with questions about their ability to serve all. voters.

He compared the attacks Hammoud faced with the right-wing theories peddled during the 2008 US presidential elections that Barack Obama was a black-only president.

“It’s unfair that the minority candidate always has to convince everyone – ‘I’m going to be for everyone’ – when the white candidate has nothing to explain; it’s just sort of presumed that he’s going to represent everyone, ”Khuja told Al Jazeera.


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