In Michigan, an Arab Candidate Perseveres


 Allan Lengel


 Washington Post


 1 October 2001

Abed Hammoud
Abed Hammoud's supporters say anti-Arab sentiment after the attacks has made his run for mayor of Dearborn, Mich., difficult, but not impossible. (Jennifer Hack - The Washington Post)

Native of Lebanon Gets Spot in Dearborn Mayor Race in Test of Tolerance

     DEARBORN, Mich. -- On primary day Abed Hammoud woke up brimming with optimism, hopeful of winning enough votes to get on the ballot in the November election for mayor of this Detroit suburb, headquarters of the Ford Motor Co.

But primary day was Sept. 11. And hours later, his hope, like the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, began to crumble.

"We heard non-Arabs coming to the polls and looking at my poll workers and saying, 'Not today, not anymore, not for an Arab,' " said Hammoud, 35, an assistant Wayne County prosecutor and native of Lebanon. "One lady told my mom, 'How dare you stand here, your people killed our people.' "

Surprisingly, his supporters say, he succeeded: In the nonpartisan primary election he came in second in a field of four. Now he will square off in November against the first-place finisher, Mayor Michael Guido, in a city where people of Arab descent make up at least 20 percent of the 100,000 residents.

The popular Guido, 47, is a native of Dearborn, a first-generation Italian American, a four-term mayor, a man of self-deprecating humor with a gift of schmooze. Even before Sept. 11, the odds were against Hammoud unseating Guido. Now it is a challenge of mountainous proportion, both supporters and detractors say.

"Given the circumstances right now, Mr. Hammoud has a tough battle," said Osama A. Siblani, publisher of the Arab-American News and a campaign team member. "But I don't think we should give up."

Here in Dearborn, ethnic tolerance is being tested in a singular fashion at a time when the entire nation is examining its views and prejudices.

Dearborn was once known as a bastion of racial intolerance. Orville Hubbard, mayor from 1942 to 1978, proudly took credit for keeping the city devoid of blacks for decades. After he left office, attitudes changed somewhat. African Americans now account for more than 2 percent of the population. But some white residents, like Josephine Dolinshek, 84, still speak longingly of the Hubbard era, saying he spoke his mind and "kept the alleys clean."

Arabs first migrated to Dearborn in relatively small numbers about 100 years ago, many working as peddlers. In the 1920s, they came in larger numbers to work for Ford. Some had relatives here already and others heard of the factory jobs, said professor Ron Stockton at the Center for Arab-American Studies at the University of Michigan at Dearborn.

The protracted civil war in Lebanon, which started in 1975, and the Israeli invasion of that country in 1982 sparked an increasing wave of migration to the city. The Arabic population comprises primarily Lebanese, Yemeni, Syrians, Iraqis and Palestinians.

Hammoud, a Muslim, was raised in southern Lebanon and received undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering in France. In 1990, he came to Dearborn, two years after his parents. In 1995, after receiving a law degree at Wayne State University in Detroit, he became a Wayne County prosecutor and was active in both the local Democratic Party and the Arab community.

Married and the father of two young boys, the articulate, spirited Hammoud decided this year to become the city's first-ever "serious" Arab mayoral candidate. He studied the issues, raised $110,000 for the primary and was confident of winning a spot in November.

Then came the attacks. By 10:30 a.m. on primary day, Siblani, the newspaper publisher, called him to say, "You are done."

Some Arabs refrained from voting because they "were scared of going out," Hammoud said.

His mother, Soubhye Hammoud, stood outside the polling place at Henry Ford Elementary School trying to drum up last-minute support. "It was really good in the morning when we started," she said. "People encouraged me. Then the news came. I couldn't talk to people anymore. I could see anger."

Since the primary, the questions have changed, Abed Hammoud said.

Before, he said, non-Arabs would ask if he would pay more attention to the Arab community. "I told them I would work for the whole community," he said. "That was the end of it."

"The question now is different," he said. "The question now is, 'Can I trust Arab Americans? Are they all terrorists? Or do they all worry about their safety like we do?' "

Both candidates said they had refrained from out-and-out campaigning after the Sept. 11 attacks, explaining that voters were not ready for it. Both made appearances at functions such as fundraisers for the victims. But this week, Hammoud said he had resumed campaigning.

Guido said he doesn't see the Sept. 11 attacks as an issue. "It's who's the better person to be mayor, and I believe it's me," he says, adding: "I'm sure there's some people who don't like Italians."

Mark Guerrieri, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, says it "will come down to the issue of money and name ID, and I think Guido will win."

There are non-Arab voters who say they will vote for Hammoud, and Arabs who will vote for Guido -- like Mohamad Berry, 74, a longtime Dearborn resident of Lebanese descent. He says Hammoud's ethnicity "has nothing to do with" how he will vote.

Other Arab Americans see him as a symbol of hope.

"We have to show people that we have very good points, that we do believe in modern life," said Nana Haj, sitting at a mosque, collecting money for terrorist victims.

Hammoud hopes it was a knee-jerk reaction when angry citizens told his poll workers they would not vote for an Arab. "What I hate to lose is a voter who looked at [my] flyer and said, 'This guy has what it takes to be my mayor' and that morning woke up and said, 'Oh, he's Arab, forget it.' "

"If I did lose that person that day," he said, "I want to get them back."




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