Dearborn, Mich., is home to the largest Muslim population per capita in the nation. Yet it didn’t elect its first Muslim mayor until 2022 with the victory of Abdullah Hammoud, a 33-year-old who has big plans for his hometown.
Hammoud, a former member of the Michigan House, is rising within the ranks of a Democratic party that shocked the nation when Democrats flipped control of the state Legislature last year, handing the party a ruling trifecta for the first time in 40 years. Michigan and the rest of the Midwest are crucial to the success of Democrats’ 2024 electoral strategy.
“We have to be talking about these wins in a much more tangible way for people to actually see,” Hammoud said. “Let’s go city to city and say, ‘Hey, that highway you constructed, that sinkhole you had fixed, this new water or sewer infrastructure that came in to help prevent water coming into your basement, that was funded because of Democratic leadership and their priorities putting you first above politics.’ We have to be bolder in our messaging.
Hammoud applied his background in epidemiology early on by creating a local health department, the first city in the state to voluntarily do so. He sees a future for Dearborn that draws upon its diversity to be more fair and effective in policing, advanced in technology and savvy about climate change.
Hammoud is also a member of POLITICO’s Mayors Club, a roundtable of 50 mayors from across the country convened to discuss the challenges their communities are facing and what they’re doing to solve them.
Hammoud recently sat down with POLITICO to discuss electoral politics, thorny policy issues and the challenges of being a political pioneer.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Thousands attend the Ramadan Suhoor Festival in Dearborn Heights, Mich., in 2019. The festival has a specific purpose beyond the carnival atmosphere and bountiful buffet: A chance to gather during the Muslim holy month in which worshippers fast daily from dawn through dusk. | Carlos Osorio/AP Photo
A lot of attention has been paid to your status as the first Arab American and Muslim mayor of Dearborn. Do you ever feel like your status as a “first” translates to extreme pressure to exceed expectations?
The short answer is yes. The way I look at it, we never set out to be the first, we set out to be the best. However, in being the first, although cool and all that, what I would add is it’s far more important for me to know how to be successful so that the next time somebody who looks a little different, has a different name, maybe prays in a different direction, that they run, that my tenure as mayor doesn’t frown on them.
Barack Obama was our first Black president, but the question I have for us as a nation: We only did it once in 200 years, and if it takes us another 200 years to elect a candidate who happens to be a minority, did we really accomplish anything as a country? I really want to challenge that we have to make sure that we celebrate first, but truly when it becomes normalized for us to have candidates of color in office, that’s really the success level.
Democrats flipped the state legislature in November, handing the party a trifecta for the first time in 40 years. How has having Democrats in total control of Lansing changed your job?
We’re seeing a lot more assistance in terms of dollars coming down to the municipalities. As mayor and as a former legislator, what I will tell you is those closest to the problem are best positioned to tackle the issue. When you’re in Lansing, you’re several degrees away from what’s actually happening on the ground. So the fact that we’ve been getting additional resources and revenue sharing and grant opportunities, that’s helping us do our jobs on a daily basis.
What do you see as the single biggest accomplishment by Democrats this session?
I look at two. My time in Lansing, I really became fond of appropriations and the budget. That has a far more direct impact than just legislation. What we saw right now was record-breaking budgets for our public school system. We had one of the largest per-pupil increases in history, and that is going to have a direct impact on educating the youth and people of tomorrow.
Two, the repeal of right-to-work. I’m very pro-union. Many of us in Dearborn are here because of our union roots and because of Ford Motor Company. So just the fact that we have a more union-friendly environment, that’s going to give way to just a more promising middle class.
Police look on during a demonstration of people who support banning books outside of the Henry Ford Centennial Library in Dearborn, Mich., on Sept. 25, 2022. | Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty Images
Flipping that question, what was left on the table? What did they fail to achieve that you wanted to see done?
What I would love to see more of is more resources allocated to water and sewer infrastructure for the purpose of mitigation of flooding. That to me is the highest priority here in the city of Dearborn. We were devastated by floods in 2021. Almost two-thirds of our homes were underwater.
Dearborn has the fastest population growth in the entire state. Why?
That is largely attributed to the fact that we’re a welcoming city, and we’re the capital of immigration in the state of Michigan. So what you see is a very diverse group of residents coming to live and they understand that Dearborn has this welcoming feel.
Also, that we’re a younger community: 40 percent of our city is under the age of 24. The average age in the state of Michigan is close to 40; the average age in Dearborn is close to 30. That’s also an advantage for us.
Hammoud sees a future for Dearborn that draws upon its diversity to be more fair and effective in policing, advanced in technology and savvy about climate change. | Junfu Han/USA Today Network
How do you convince those young people to stay in Dearborn?
What we’re trying to do is make sure we’re making the right investments and what we’ve dubbed “the Dearborn advantage.” What is the advantage to being a Dearborn resident? We’re trying to lay down that value argument.
So we’re doing free books for kids between the ages of 0 and 5 mailed to your doorstep every month through Dolly Parton’s Imagination Foundation. We have 45-plus parks, five community pools, so probably more parks and pools per capita than any other city in the state of Michigan. We’re doing a $30 million investment in our parks and green spaces.
An early action you took as mayor was to establish a Department of Public Health for the city and have since brought several lawsuits against companies. Do you see a new, aggressive role for cities in fighting environmental threats?
Absolutely. The EPA and the state level can only do so much. There are certain things even they do not regulate. … Municipalities have to take this onus on them. Each and every decision we make as a city is a public health decision, and that’s what our public health department focuses on. It’s less the 1.0 model of delivering direct health care and services, and this is more the 3.0 model where we are ensuring that every zoning of a parcel contributes to the health of the overall community.
Reinvesting in community pools and green spaces and parks, that’s a public health decision.
Holding these companies accountable and forcing them to make investments, that’s a public health decision.
“Many of us in Dearborn are here because of our union roots and because of Ford Motor Company,” Hammoud said. | Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty Images
You set out to address racial disparities in traffic ticketing in the aftermath of a police accountability group finding that Dearborn police were arresting Black suspects and issuing citations to them at significantly higher rates compared with white suspects.
Have you found it difficult balancing requests from the community to address policing issues with appealing to the rank-and-file within the police department who may be resistant to change?
No. I have faith with who I appointed to lead that department. That’s really where it starts. What we found was when we shifted our efforts, you can do both. You can keep a community safe and you can also do it in an ethical and sound way which is not disproportionately impacting communities of color, just by shifting our focus on things that people care about: speeding and reckless driving, running a red light or stop sign.
We actually dropped the proportion of tickets issued to Black drivers within one year by 50 percent. What we actually do with it is we significantly decreased the number of car accidents in the city of Dearborn by 10 percent. So we have a safer community, less people speeding, less accidents and we addressed the racial disparities, not by changing who the officers were, but by changing how we measure success.
Success was no longer enforcing dangling ornaments, expired license plates and broken tail lights. As long as you measure success in the right way, the rest falls in line.
What other structural changes do you have planned for the police department?
From a hiring practices perspective, we eliminated some policies which we think prevented us from having a more diverse police force. For example, there was a no beard policy. For many men in the Muslim community, a beard is something they do have and for some they believe to be a religious obligation. So by doing that and by being the home of Arab America, we actually increased the number of officers that we hired from the Arab American community.
We had a no tattoo policy, we got rid of that.
The third was you had to have your hair tied into a bun if you’re on the force, which is an anti-Black woman hair policy.
By eliminating all that, what we found was our most recent recruits are one of the most diverse in the city’s history.
A Hanover Street resident surveys the damage along Currier Street following flooding in Dearborn Heights, Mich., May 1, 2019. | Max Ortiz/Detroit News via AP Photo
To what extent are you taking climate adaptation and mitigation into account in city planning?
Extremely. Every time we have a developer coming forward with a proposal, we’re asking how many parking spaces do they actually need versus how many would they like. We’ve had some negotiations already where developers have come forward and we’ve given signoff on their projects with the caveat that they will convert acres of their parking lots into green spaces to help with the absorption. We require 100 percent of retention on your parcel to make sure it doesn’t impact our water and sewer system.
Last year we actually authorized the first-ever two-year study of our water and sewer system for us to understand the impacts of climate change and what that means for the resiliency of our infrastructure in the long term. Our results come back in 2024, and that’s going to help us devise our 10-year investment plan for water and sewer infrastructure to ensure flood mitigation is taken care of taking into account the impacts of climate change in the long run.
Michigan is at the center of the political world this year. How should the party utilize this renewed energy in the Midwest?
We need stronger communication around the successes that we’re delivering. … We have to be talking about these wins in a much more tangible way for people to actually see.
Let’s go city to city and say, “Hey, that highway you constructed, that sinkhole you had fixed, this new water or sewer infrastructure that came in to help prevent water coming into your basement, that was funded because of Democratic leadership and their priorities putting you first above politics.” We have to be bolder in our messaging.
We have to speak in terms that our residents understand. My residents, if I say, “Hey, I’m doing a two-year climate resiliency climate change study,” they would tell me, “What the heck is that?” But if I tell them, “Hey I’m doing a two-year study to understand our water and sewer infrastructure, to stop flooding in your basements,” they get that. So sometimes we also have to make sure we’re speaking to residents and not speaking above them to the researchers and the people on Twitter but moreso to the average, everyday family.
If you’re the DNC chair, what’s the strategy for winning the Midwest in 2024?
It’s organizing now. Don’t wait ’til 2024. We should have been knocking on doors 3-4 months ago. We should have been organizing within communities 3-4 months ago. We should be making sure we have diverse recruitment to understand the unique demographics that are within the Democratic party. Knocking on doors is everything. That’s been my pathway to success, whether in the state Legislature or as mayor, and having those conversations at the doorsteps. People will remember that forever.