Prevailing Over Hatred And Racism To Lead one of Michigan’s largest communities
Photo: Model D Media

Photo: Model D Media

State Rep. abdullah hammoud

Abdullah Hammoud is a passionate and inspiring State Representative from Dearborn, Michigan, and the first Arab American Muslim to hold the seat. As is evident in our interview, his will to lead and advocate for his community surpasses any challenges he has endured and continues to face. At the age of 27, Rep. Hammoud brings health policy expertise, a global mindset, and leadership to the table. He earned his bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Michigan - Dearborn and his master’s in public health from the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, and is currently enrolled at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Keep reading to find out more about his run for office in a tight-knit community and triumphing over hatred and racism along the way. 

What prior experiences led you to feel ready for public office?

There were multiple things that positioned me nicely to work at the state level. For many years I worked in health policy at the University of Michigan Health System and Henry Ford Health System. I also volunteered with the United Nations overseas, so I had a broad range of health care policy experience. I sat on the board of directors for the state’s leading environmental group, so I have environmental policy under my belt as well. I also got involved in policy in undergrad with student government. 

When it came down to running for office in the city of Dearborn, it was home first and foremost. I’ve been active in my community for a long time. I was eleven during the first campaign I ever worked on. The guy running was Abed Hammoud and I just wanted the shirt that said his name because it sounded like my name, and to get that, you had to stand at the polls. Since then, I’ve worked on many campaigns, year after year. 

How did you identify the requirements needed to run for your position? 

You can look up the official age and residency requirements online. I knew you had to be above 21, live in the district and file the appropriate paperwork. Otherwise, there are no requirements. You can have any educational and work background. At the end of the day it comes down to who can garner the most votes. There is no checklist.

What do you wish you would have known during your campaign? 

I wish I would have known how the endorsement process worked and understood who the major players were in terms of the outside forces that can influence the race, and how to submit your applications in order to garner their endorsement and support. That’s probably the biggest gap we had and needed to learn along the way. Having this information before we started would have been helpful because we could have been more proactive in our approach. 

What was your strategy to garner their support? 

We drafted a letter saying we were seeking their endorsement and started mass mailing organizations. 

What, if any, were the biggest obstacles during your campaign? 

Age was certainly an obstacle being younger in the overall community and within the Arab American community, which has very much a ‘wait your turn’ mentality, among the older generation. I had to shatter that stereotype. The city of Dearborn has a history of racism. Given the political climate of 2016, we received much racism based on my race, ethnicity, and religion than I expected, but that just added fuel to the fire. 

When we sent out our first mailer, we had someone rip it up and mail it back to us with no return address having written, “Go back to your country. No more Muslims. No more Arabs” on the mailer. Even a neighbor down the street from my house...I knocked on his door while canvassing and told him I was running for office and when I said my name his response was, “I’m disgusted that you’re my neighbor. Get out of here.” This was one of the easier ones. 

I stepped on the sidewalk in front of another house, and I’m not really identifiably Arab based on my physical appearance, and they yelled out, “I don’t vote Islamic, get out of here.” I said, ok no problem, didn’t know you could vote Islamic. It obviously wasn’t the consensus of the majority, you have your cases. As an epidemiologist you start calculating how many doors it takes. We probably experienced one racist interaction per every twenty-five to thirty doors that we knocked on.  My team had warnings every time they went to canvas. If they were wearing the hijab or if a male had a bigger beard, darker skin and was more identifiably Arab, we had a conversation about being careful when going out. 

Money is a large perceived barrier for some who might be considering a run for office. What fundraising strategies did you use? Do you have recommendations?

1. I took the first $5,000 from my own money and put it toward my campaign. The idea behind that was if I’m not willing to invest in my own campaign, I can’t tell others to invest in my campaign. Maybe you don't have $5,000, but you have $500. Start with that. Start with investing in yourself to get you rolling. Then you want to go to your first circle of friends and family - your closest friends and family - who will give you a donation just because of the relationship you have with them. I messaged my group of friends and said, I need $1,000 from each of you who are able to give, or $500 or $200. I mapped out how much I thought they could give. Call people you have good relationships with and ask them for small donations and a commitment. I even had people giving me five to ten names and I started calling them and expanding my circle. From there, I held my first event free to the public for people to come and meet me, which actually brought in money. 

2.  What really stood out for residents was the tenacity of the campaign. From the outside looking in, our strategy was to make it look like the campaign was being run perfectly. Obviously from the inside looking out, we knew all of the faults and errors, but we wanted to always seem flawless. Our first video online blew people’s minds, we got over 50,000 views, and it doubled our numbers on social media. 

3. I also benefited from being born and raised in the Dearborn community and knowing the majority of people. My mother is a small business owner here in the city, my uncle is a prominent Imam in the city, and my father’s family is well known in the Arab American community. I was often asked “oh, what Hammoud family are you from?” and I’d tell them that this was my mother and my father.

Was there any standout or notable resource that others should know about? 

It was my team. I had a highly intelligent and dedicated team. I first recruited my campaign manager, Ghida Dagher. From there, we started recruiting one-by-one and everyone had a specialized role on the team, which alleviated a lot of stress since everyone knew what they had to do. There were bumps along the way and we had team meetings to work them out, but I recruited people who had backgrounds in fundraising, financing, and campaigning. I looked for a few qualities [when recruiting the team] - people who were honest, dedicated, and people who were not afraid to tell me their opinion and when I was doing something wrong. That is what you need most on the campaign, obviously understanding the hierarchy of leadership, but you need those who feel like their thoughts are being heard and who aren’t afraid to share them. That dialogue is what helped us move forward and bond. These are people you’re spending sixty to seventy hours a week with. 

Now that you’re in office, how would you describe the environment?

After the primary election, I made some relationships with other individuals who were fighting to get into office. I established those relationships before we even got sworn in. Obviously right now, Democrats are in the minority here in Michigan. Of the things I’ve learned so far, I’ll share two:

Politics dictates the policy, unfortunately. I introduced a bill package about immigrant civil rights and I’ve had a lot of my colleagues distance themselves from the bill because immigration is a very sensitive issue in the public eye. I’m writing an op-ed now about democrats and the quest to regain the gavel. Do we do so by distancing ourselves from sensitive issues or do we do it by taking stances on ideals that we as a party must take a stand on?…There are two different paths to regaining a majority and these are the challenges I see us facing. 

It doesn’t matter how intelligent you are. What matters are the relationships you form with individuals in the capital city. That’s how you get things done. You don’t have to be able to draft the policy - the policy team will do that for you. You don’t even have to come up with a really sophisticated idea. You can take an old idea and dust it off and introduce it, but you need to have the connections. You need to be good with the chairman of the committee. You need to be good with the leadership of the majority part. You need to have those relationships with the stakeholders who can talk to other legislators for you and apply pressure to move things along. 

Sixty percent of the bills I’ve introduced have bipartisan support. I’m proud of that and continue to build those relationships. Obviously it’s extra difficult being in the minority. It’s extra difficult being a minority in the minority. For the majority [of legislators in the general assembly], I’m the first Muslim they’ve ever met. There is some level of ignorance with direct and indirect racism, but I can either confront it in full force and establish relationships with republican and democratic colleagues, or sometimes you have to put it behind you and not let it bother you. I have to accept it for what it is and understand that at some point I'll need that individual’s vote. 

What advice would you give to someone thinking about running for office?

1. At the end of the day, it's not who you're running against that you should be most worried about. Your biggest opponent is yourself. Are you willing to wake up every day on the campaign trail and ask yourself if you're going to put in the work today that needs to be done to win? It is a team effort, but you're leading that team. When my team was out canvassing one or two shifts, I was out there canvassing five shifts a day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. because I needed to be the one leading that front. I couldn't look like I was tired while my team was out there working hard. Be the hardest working candidate. 'Doors and Dollars' is the magic equation unfortunately. How much money can you raise to get your message out and how many doors can you knock on to do the same? There's no regression you need to run on this, its doors and dollars. 

2. When you run for office, there is always this aspect of community leaders you need to speak with. My advice for people who want to run for office is that when speaking to these community leaders, never approach it in a manner where it seems like you're seeking permission to run. Remember you are always in search of support, not permission. You're not asking if you can run, you're asking if they will support you when you run. I got asked, "who told you that you can run for office?" And I said, I came to speak to you not in search of permission, but in search of support. And I told me I can run for office.