CHICAGO: Dearborn’s Mayor Abdullah Hammoud said Wednesday he is proud to be the city’s first Arab and Muslim chief executive but one of his priorities is to ensure everyone, regardless of race or religion, enjoys the same level of access and service.
A former member of the Michigan State House, Hammoud, 31, was elected on Nov. 2, 2021, and declared a “new era in Dearborn,” which has a large Arab and Muslim population.
Ranked as the sixth largest city in Michigan with more than 112,000 residents, Dearborn is 89 percent White, 4 percent Black, 2 percent Asian and has a smaller Hispanic population. Arabs, Hammoud said, are lumped into the “White” category because they are excluded from the Census count.
Hammoud said that his administration is focused on “change” and “accessibility” for everyone regardless of their racial, ethnic or religious background, noting Dearborn is the “capital of immigration.”
“I never ran to be the first. I ran to be the best. And that’s what I am trying to demonstrate. Regardless of the direction in which an individual prays. What matters is the direction in which they lead. And that is really what we want to uplift and highlight. And being the first is cool. Sure. I am not going to take away from the cool factor of it. Hopefully, what it does is to demonstrate to individuals from marginalized communities, traditionally communities of color, that hey you too can do this without changing your identity or trying to wash away who you are,” Hammoud told Arab News during an appearance on The Ray Hanania Radio Show broadcast in Detroit, Washington D.C. and in Chicago.
“But what is most important is not in fact being the first. What is most important is demonstrating that you can do as good a job as every one of your predecessors so that you are not the last. So that the next time that somebody with a different sounding name, who sounds a little bit different, looks a little bit different, maybe got a longer beard than others tries to run for office; or maybe has a hijab on their head; the people don’t look and say oh they can’t do the job because no one has ever done it who looks like them. In fact they can say hey that guy Abdullah did it. Maybe this person can too.”
He said one of his first actions was to build a municipal administration that was “diverse.” Although he named an Arab American, Zaineb Hussein, as his chief of staff immediately after being sworn in as mayor in January, many of his appointments have been non-Arab.
Hammoud said his policies are driven by the Arab tradition of “wasta,” which in English is often translated into “nepotism” and “personal connection.” He explained he uses “wasta” to put every Dearborn citizen in that category “to connect” and be involved in the city’s government.
“Accessibility again is key. And regardless of one’s ethnicity, I might be Arab and Muslim, but I am also reaching out to my non-Arab counterparts. I am reaching out to my non-Arab Muslim, my non-Arab Christian counterparts,” Hammoud said.
“And that is the beauty of Dearborn where this (is a) culturally diverse, demographically diverse and ethnically diverse community, and I am hoping that everybody feels like — you know in Arabic we have this term called ‘wasta’ which means ‘to connect.’ And prior to coming in everybody said if you don’t have a ‘wasta’ you can’t get anything done in the city. What I am trying to get people to feel is that with this administration, all residents have a ‘wasta.’ You are all connected. You are all able to walk in to be treated equitably and fairly, and whatever you need to get done, as long as it is within our confines. Our motto is how can we get to ‘yes.’ We don’t want to tell people ‘no’ because that has been the standard. How can we get to ‘yes’ working with residents?”
Hammoud said one of his challenges since becoming mayor is to overcome a significant budget deficit, and ensure municipal services continue without cutbacks or having to raise taxes.
“We ran on the concepts of change. But when we came in, because I have felt that as a lifelong resident, the city has stagnated to some degree. And coming in and opening up the financial books you realize that we have really struggled much more than I had anticipated,” Hammoud said.
“So I walked in inheriting a $28 million deficit, $22 million was structural, meaning ongoing year to year. And, it was very challenging (the) first six months to put forth a budget that reflected our priorities and our values as a city, but also ensured that we uplifted not only our residents but our employees and our retirees. I think we were successful in moving something that represented our values forward. But the work is only beginning. It is easy to pass a budget. That was the work of a legislator. It’s easy to vote up or down on a budget. What is difficult is to actually execute and build out the programming in that budget so that the outcome is reflective of its intentions.”
Hammoud said he is “trying to do more with less” because the city lost so much of its operating revenues. Taxes have gone down 16 or 17 percent, he said, and he has made a commitment to balance the city budget without levying new taxes on the voters and to work within the existing tax revenue collections.
“What we are also trying to do is sustain the level of services that we offer, though. So, what we have actually been able to do is challenge the way things have always been done, and improve the service quality that we have delivered as a city at a lower cost. And that is something to be very proud of,” Hammoud said.
“And now what we are looking at is expanding programming and investing in amenities that we currently have but we have not … improved in three, four or five decades. And so, we are prepared to hopefully make some announcements in the coming months about some investments that are coming. But to your point, it has been seven months and we are trying to pace ourselves. One of the caveats to being the first is that the expectation and the bar is higher. So that means the work that we are doing is at a much quicker pace than maybe some of our predecessors were used to but hopefully (we can) deliver to the expectations of our residents.”
Helping to provide for the neediest in the city, he said, can strengthen the community.
“Any administration should be reflective of the community that it serves, and we were able to accomplish that. As it pertains to what I have been able to bring, I think, more so than being Arab American but as somebody who grew up in a working poor family, I think it is that perspective of those who grew up in a marginalized part of the city. It is one of the things that influenced for example our decision to make pools free for children 13 and under,” Hammoud said.
“Because as somebody growing up, one of five siblings, my parents couldn’t afford to send me to the pool. And so we thought waiving the fee for children means that they have access to amenities and maybe have a better experience throughout their summer in their childhood. So I think it is that perspective, it’s that ability to empathize based on my life experiences which has been pretty great.”
He said safety was a major concern but that the biggest problem was motorists who were speeding, but that oftentimes police in the past focused more on issues associated with profiling than with actual hazardous driving patterns.
“We shifted our focus to solely focus on things impacting immediate public health or what we call hazardous moving violations. So we have seen a 700 percent uptick in citations issued on speeding and reckless driving,” Hammoud explained.
“So one, we are seeing a decrease in speeding and reckless driving in the city. But the second direct and indirect outcome of this is that there was a racial disparity present in the last decade. Nearly 60 percent of all citations issued were issued to Black and African American drivers, although the region is only 22 percent Black. And under this model, not only are we improving the safety in our neighborhoods based on what residents want, but we also have seen a significant plummet in that disproportionate effect that was present based on the data and that is also something that we’re proud of.”
The Ray Hanania Show is broadcast live every Wednesday at 5 p.m. Eastern EST on WNZK AM 690 radio in Greater Detroit including parts of Ohio, and WDMV AM 700 radio in Washington D.C. including parts of Virginia and Maryland. The show is rebroadcast on Thursdays at 7 a.m. in Detroit on WNZK AM 690 and in Chicago at 12 noon on WNWI AM 1080.
You can listen to the radio show’s podcast by visiting ArabNews.com/rayradioshow.