Dearborn, Michigan – For the first time in decades, the mayoral race in Dearborn is wide open, creating an opportunity for the Detroit suburb known as the capital of Arab America to elect its first Arab American mayor.
John B O’Reilly has had the seat since 2007, having ascended to it after being city council president for 17 years after the death of then-mayor Michael Guido who had been in office since 1986. An undisclosed illness has seen O’Reilly fade away from public life in the past year.
Lebanese American Abdullah Hammoud is hoping to become the city’s first Arab, Muslim and person of colour to be Dearborn mayor if he wins the election next Tuesday.
Hammoud, currently a state representative, won the primaries in August with a comfortable margin.
Arab American activists said if Hammoud does win the election, it would be a “historic” achievement highlighting their community’s growth in size and political power.
Hammoud has said he aims to improve the quality of life for all residents. Success is not measured by being the first, but by setting a good example to pave the way for others, he told Al Jazeera.
“The goal isn’t to be the first … We’re trying to set a standard that individuals might sound a little different; you might pray a little different, but if you do as good a job, you won’t be the last,” he said.
In August, Hammoud, 31, placed first in a crowded field of primary candidates for mayor, moving into Tuesday’s election facing veteran local politician Gary Woronchak.
Hammoud calls himself a “pragmatic progressive”. He is a Democrat, but mayoral candidates appear on the ballot without a party label. For those who might be uncomfortable with his politics, Arab heritage or Muslim faith, the millennial politician has reached out with a simple message: Let’s talk.
“If you have questions or fears based on things you might have heard in the media or some negative perceptions about Muslim and Arab Americans, ask,” he has said to voters.
Hammoud showed up to a “meet and greet” event with local candidates on Thursday in a navy blue tracksuit with a jacket featuring his campaign logo, running shoes and conspicuously colourful socks.
Several attendees approached him to request selfies, demonstrating his status as a local celebrity.
Asked about his early success in politics, he said, “Most people in Dearborn view me as somebody they grew up with – as a brother, a son, a grandson. I was brought up to make everyone around me – friends and neighbours alike – to feel like family.”
The city has pressing local issues, including property taxes, public safety concerns and repeated flooding.
Aside from the local policy implications, advocates have said a Hammoud victory would embolden the Arab community’s presence on the political map beyond Dearborn.
“There’s a lot of significance,” said Matthew Stiffler, a researcher at the Dearborn-based Arab American National Museum and lecturer at the University of Michigan. “If he wins, it would make official that the Arab American community here is fully immersed in Dearborn.”
Arab Americans constituted about 40 percent of the city’s population, according to the 2010 Census. But experts, including Stiffler, suspected that Dearborn has had an Arab majority for years – a reality not reflected in the Census, which counts Arabs as white, skewing the statistics. The Arab population is counted as a sub-category based on national origin, which leads to undercounting.
While Arabs in the city may have had the numbers to elect a mayor from their community in the past, the advantage of incumbency in local races has played to the benefit of officials already in office.
In recent years, the Arab community has seen a steady increase in voter turnout and the rise of several local politicians, including Hammoud.
Micho Assi, an Arab American advocate, said Arab voters are not looking to elect just any Arab candidate but look for ones with the right qualifications. She said Hammoud’s election would be “historic”.
“We can’t deny the fact that not only Arabs population-wise make up a good percentage of Dearborn, but also Arabs have made a difference in Dearborn’s economics and history and life, so they do deserve to have representation in terms of leadership,” Assi told Al Jazeera.
Woronchak, 66, a former state representative and county commissioner, said his long years in government make him more qualified to serve the city than Hammoud.
“I’ve got the most experience in public office by far; it’s not even close,” he said in a recent campaign ad.
Hammoud is completing his third two-year term in the Michigan House of Representatives, to which he was elected when he was 25.
Woronchack has questioned the large sums his opponent has raised – nearly $545,000 compared with approximately $95,000 he garnered, according to a report by the Detroit Free Press earlier this month.
“Is Dearborn for $ale,” read a banner on Woronchack’s campaign website, alleging donations came from outside the state.
Hammoud said his fundraising has been proportional to the support he received in the primaries.
In the August primaries, Hammoud and Woronchak were the two highest vote-getters in a pool of seven candidates. Hammoud received 42 percent of the votes, Woronchak 18.5 percent.
During the campaign, Woronchak has emphasised his close relationship with the Arab community during his years of public service.
Dearborn is home to the country’s largest mosque and its first Arab American museum.
The Arab presence in Michigan extends well beyond Dearborn. The state has long been at the heart of Arab American political power. With communities from Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and other countries in the Middle East, the state’s Arab population is more than 200,000, the second-highest in the US behind California.
As far back as Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign, US politicians vying for national office have courted the Arab vote, particularly in Michigan. That effort has become more pronounced and mainstream in recent years.
Sanders campaigned in Dearborn with specific messaging for Arabs and Muslims during his 2016 and 2020 presidential runs.
Days before the general election last year, now-First Lady Jill Biden held a socially distant rally in Dearborn, telling Arab American attendees that their votes could decide the swing state of Michigan and the entire election.
Stiffler said if Hammoud wins, it would cement the perception of Arab Americans as an important voting bloc with their own interests.
“If it goes in a way that it looks like the Arab vote was very unified behind a single candidate, I think it’s a force to reckon with,” he told Al Jazeera.
Michigan is home to dozens of Arab American local officials, including judges, mayors and city council members – often outside of areas with a large Arab presence.
In 2018, Egyptian American doctor, Abdul El-Sayed made national headlines when he mounted a serious campaign for governor with support from Sanders. In the same election cycle, Rashida Tlaib, of Detroit, made history when she was the first Arab and Muslim woman elected to Congress.
Dearborn itself has elected many Arab candidates, starting with Suzanne Sareini, a Lebanese American business owner, who won a seat on the city council in 1989.
Still, the mayor’s seat in Dearborn is special, Stiffler said, not only because it is the top executive position in one of the state’s largest cities, but also because of the office’s unsavoury history with racism.
Late Mayor Orville Hubbard, who ran the city from 1942 to 1978, was a vocal advocate for racial segregation.
“Let’s talk about … the ‘Arab problem’,” read a campaign flyer for mayoral candidate Michael Guido in 1985. He would go on to win and remain in office until his death in 2006. He had forged warm ties with the Arab community in the years after his election.
Stiffler said while Arabs have been elected to the city council, school board and local court, if Hammoud gets elected on Tuesday, it would show how far the city has come.
“I don’t think it would be as meaningful if it wasn’t for the fact that you had previous mayors who ran campaigns explicitly on: ‘Hey, we’ve got to control this Arab population, it’s getting out of hand’.”
Hammoud said the history of racism in Dearborn weighs heavily on him and he has pledged to confront it, starting with building a diverse administration if elected.
Issues of race are not merely history in the city, however. Race relations have come up in the current mayoral race, particularly online.
Last month, Woronchak slammed Hammoud without naming him for apparently referring to the Arab and Muslim community as “our community”.
“I think if you want to be mayor of Dearborn and you refer to our community, you should mean all of our community, not just one group or one section of town,” Woronchak said in a campaign video, calling for an end to divisions in the city.
His remarks came after a video emerged of Hammoud speaking at a mosque where he urged greater voter participation from Arabs and Muslims making references to “our community”.
Addressing the controversy, Hammoud told Al Jazeera identity can be pluralistic, saying that he belongs to multiple communities, but that does not take away from his ability to represent the entire city.
“I am a member of the Dearborn community. I’m a member of the Muslim American community. I’m a member of the Arab American community. I’m a member of the Wolverine community,” he said, referring to the University of Michigan’s sports teams.
“I’m a member of the millennial community. I’m a member of the Drake fans community,” Hammoud added jokingly.