Four Metro Detroit communities experienced historic election nights on Tuesday when voters elected a slate of diverse candidates who became their city’s first openly gay, Black, Arab American and Muslim leaders.
Mayoral victories for Arab Americans and Muslims in Dearborn, Dearborn Heights and Hamtramck as well as for an African American in Pleasant Ridge are signs of changing demographics, growing political power for some groups and the strength of community-based messaging, experts say.
Among the most notable is state Rep. Abdullah Hammoud, who became Dearborn’s first Muslim and Arab American mayor when he beat longtime local politician Gary Woronchak 55%-45%. Hammoud replaces John “Jack” O’Reilly Jr., the city’s mayor since 2007, who didn’t run for reelection.
Dearborn Heights Mayor Bill Bazzi won 73%-27% over City Council Chairwoman Denise Malinowski Maxwell. He was on City Council when his fellow council members appointed him to the top spot in January after former Mayor Daniel Paletko died from COVID-19 in December.
And political newcomer Amer Ghalib defeated four-term Hamtramck Mayor Karen Majewski 68%-31% to become the new leader of the former Polish enclave of 28,000 residents.
“I’m a little surprised it has taken Arab Americans this long to arrive at the point where they could be electing a mayor,” said Bill Ballenger, a Lansing-based political analyst and Republican former state lawmaker. “They are a substantial portion of the Dearborn population. … I think this is a long time coming and overdue.”
Dearborn has a concentrated Arab American community, but the city’s elected leaders have not always embraced diversity. Former Mayor Michael Guido once referred to an “Arab Problem” in a campaign pamphlet, and former Mayor Orville Hubbard was known as a racist, segregationist and anti-Semite.
The first Arab American City Council member in Dearborn wasn’t elected until the late 1980s. But with roughly half of the city now of Arab descent, a mayor reflecting that was inevitable, said Sally Howell, an author and associate history professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn who directs its Center for Arab American Studies.
“This is a community that has been overlooked for so long,” she said. “The symbolism is huge.”
Howell points to Hammoud’s win, along with other area elected officials with Middle Eastern roots, such as U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, D-Hamtramck, as potentially paving the way for more Arab Americans elected officials.
“Success breeds success,” she said.
‘Huge impact on Dearborn’
While stressing his campaign was not focused on making history, Hammoud acknowledged how it could reverberate.
“You need not shy away from a faith that might have been ridiculed, and you need not shy away from a name that might not be so common,” he told The Detroit News shortly after he announced victory Tuesday. “You can stay true to your identity. And you can run for public office and you can be in any sphere of American society.”
That message was not lost on the supporters who cheered him on Tuesday night at the Mohammed Turfe Community Center amid tables adorned with red, white, blue and silver balloons.
“It’s so inspiring,” said America Yahya, a 23-year-old from Detroit who identifies as Arab and Muslim. “This is going to be a huge impact on Dearborn.”
Although his election was a milestone for Dearborn, Wayne County’s largest suburb, Hammoud is more focused on his plans for the city, such as addressing dangerous driving, shoring up infrastructure and limiting property taxes.
The victory derived from listening to residents’ concerns, which “resonated strongly,” he said.
The dedication and Hammoud’s legislative background transcended divisions in the city, said Nada Al-Hanooti, executive director of the nonprofit Emgage Action Michigan.
“It’s about really uplifting those who are suffering the most in Dearborn,” Al-Hanooti said.
Plans to address flooding — an issue on the minds of many Metro Detroit leaders following a wet summer that damaged neighborhoods — are a priority for the early days, said Hammoud, adding he is working to find a balanced team “because we have to build an administration that has the trust of the residents in order for us to accomplish our agenda.”
Claiming the Heights
Bazzi, a former U.S. Marine, was operating on little sleep Wednesday after his history-making victory. He became Dearborn Heights’ first Arab American and Muslim mayor when his fellow council members voted 4-3 to appoint him to the position following the death of Paletko.
His election illustrated residents wanted an end to “the negativity” that sometimes shrouded the contest, said Bazzi, a Ford Motor Co. employee who served in the military for 21 years.
“They just got tired of it,” he said. “People are sick and tired of the negative stuff. I got trashed for a whole year, including being called a ‘fake Marine.’”
Bazzi said his motivation is more about being a public servant, something he learned from his mother.
“For me, I never look in the mirror and say, ‘Oh I’m this or I’m that.’ I look at myself as a somebody that wants to serve the residents, serve the community … do what is best for the community,” he said.
Since his appointment in January, Bazzi said he has put a lot of things “in motion,” such as concentrating on getting a new garbage contract for the city.
Bazzi said he also is enthused about partnering with Wayne County to clean up Ecorse Creek in a bid to reduce flooding in the city. Dearborn Heights was among the Metro Detroit communities hardest hit by flooding in late June and July.
“The other issue is the enforcement of blight. We’re gotta go heavy on blight,” he said Wednesday.
The victory by Ghalib, a 41-year-old Yemeni immigrant, signals a sea change for Hamtramck, a diverse city of more than 28,000 residents, more than 41% of whom were born outside the United States and almost 69% of whom speak a language other than English at home.
Once a predominately European immigrant community, Hamtramck now boasts strong communities of residents of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent. Hamtramck didn’t elect any Asian or Muslim residents to the City Council until the 2000s but now has a majority-minority City Council.
“It is a historic moment,” Ghalib said Wednesday. “We are proud, but at the same time, we see it’s going to be a big responsibility. We have to work hard to succeed, to make people feel that we are here to serve everyone.”
Ghalib works in health care and has not served in politics before. Majewski had served four terms as mayor and before that was a council member. Ghalib said he ran because he felt residents were unhappy with the way city government represented their beliefs.
“The results proved that the people were not satisfied with the current administration and they needed a change,” he said.
Ghalib will face two challenges when he takes office: removing lead service lines to reduce the amount of lead in residents’ water and bolstering Hamtramck’s sewer system to prevent future flooding. He plans to work with city staff to find grants and other funding that can pay for those repairs.
The incoming mayor said he will reach out to residents who feel apprehensive about his administration and plans to work with Majewski to make connections in the city’s Polish community.
“I need the whole community to get together so we can work and make Hamtramck better,” Ghalib said.
Breakthrough in Oakland
The small, largely residential Oakland County community of Pleasant Ridge elected its first Black and first openly gay mayor in Bret Scott, who ran unopposed for the seat.
It’s a milestone for the city that is nearly 90% White, but it’s not top of mind for the classic car enthusiast who has served on the City Commission for two four-year terms. He said his race and LGBTQ status have not been an issue while in city government.
“There’s literally no controversy associated with it,” Scott said. “There’s just a certain comfort level.”
Scott is focused on maintaining the 2,600-person city’s welcoming, small-town character, ensuring its parks are well maintained and ensuring tax billing and payment structures are straightforward and easy to follow.
He also is confident he can respond appropriately to national controversies when they reach Pleasant Ridge.
For example, when Black Lives Matter protests against racism swept through the country last year and a group wanted to organize a parade in Pleasant Ridge, Scott gave the group the city’s support and encouraged the police department to state publicly how it operated with “100% fairness” and took steps to prevent racism in policing.
“That’s not something to shy away from,” he said. Anyone looking for Pleasant Ridge’s position “would have no question where the city stands.”
Scott is the vice president of business development for a British startup company called Wejo, which manages data that comes from cars.
Pleasant Ridge mayor is an unpaid position that Scott will take over from outgoing Mayor Kurt Metzger, who decided not to run for a third term. Metzger supported Scott when he decided to step down.
“None of us have any political aspirations,” Metzger said. “He’s just one of those people who wants to give back to the city. He’s the perfect person, I think, to take the city forward.”
Staff Writer James Dickson contributed.
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