18 seek seats on Dearborn City Council in Aug. 3 primary

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Dearborn — A long list of City Council hopefuls are challenging a handful of incumbents in the Aug. 3 primary in a bid to shake up the city's leadership.

There are 14 new faces vying for seven seats on the panel, which is majority Arab American.

The 18-candidate race includes four hoping to keep seats for another four years: Robert Abraham, Erin Byrnes, Leslie Herrick and Michael Sareini.

The sign in front of the Dearborn administrative center off Michigan Avenue on July 22.

The sprawling field includes Ziad Abdulmalik, who serves on the City Beautiful Commission; Khalil Othman of Dearborn's recreation and parks commission; Ken Paris, a former police officer; Kamal Alsawafy, a business development manager for Wayne County; tax preparer Saeid Alawathi; attorneys Jon Akkari and Houda BerriSilvio Davis, an insurance agency supervisor; business ownersGary Enos and Lola Elzein. Kamel Elkadri, director of dining services at Henry Ford Village; activistsSam Luqman and Khodr Farhat; and Ford Motor Co. engineer Mustapha Hammoud

The pool of candidates reflects recent political trends across the state, said Matt Bach, assistant director of strategic communications at the Michigan Municipal League.

"From our general observations of local elections in recent years, we have noticed that candidate pools and interest in seeking locally elected office have increased and that more and more candidates from varied backgrounds and ethnicities are vying for local office," he said. "This is a welcome trend that we hope continues."

Akkari, 28, whose father emigrated from Lebanon, said he is grateful for his upbringing in the city, but believes Dearborn has "stagnated" in the past decade. 

"I focused more on politics on the local level in the last year or so and saw what the trends were, how we got to this point, and realized that the current leadership was not interested in diverting course," he said. "And I've kind of felt like, if not me, then who else is going to step up to the plate to try and bring the city back to where it once was?"

If elected, Akkari said he plans to address city's services, infrastructure and charter-mandated public safety staffing requirements.

"The overall theme of my campaign is: we need to rethink how we do public safety in the city of Dearborn if we want to advance the community," he added. 

Jon Akkari, whose father emigrated from Lebanon, is one of 18 candidates running for Dearborn City Council on Aug. 3. Akkari, an attorney, said he plans to address city's services, infrastructure and charter-mandated public safety staffing requirements.

Among the incumbents, Abraham, a financial executive, has been on the council since 2002. Sareini, an attorney and auto salesman, seeks a third term.

Byrnes, an educator who has chaired the City Beautiful Commission, was first elected in 2017. So was Herrick, who has worked for Dearborn Public Schools and the Dearborn Community Fund.

Three current members — President Susan Dabaja, who is running for mayor, along with Brian O'Donnell and David Bazzy — did not seek reelection.

Abraham, Sareini and Herrick have been endorsed by a Dearborn firefighters union.

Herrick has also been endorsed by the Sierra Club and the American Arab and Muslim Political Action Committee. She said her accomplishments include supporting staffing, training and equipment for city fire and police departments; protecting funding programs for seniors and youth; keeping pools open amid budget cuts; and introducing tougher penalties against polluters who violate a fugitive dust ordinance.

If she wins another term, Herrick said she would "not ask residents to pay more taxes than absolutely needed," boost relationships with fire and police as well as work to address environmental issues and identify new resources to improve Dearborn's infrastructure.

"I am already working to bring state and federal funding to improve watershed management particularly in Dearborn, in the east and south ends of Dearborn, which are at the lowest elevation and most heavily hurt by floods," she said.

Councilwoman Leslie Herrick, who is seeking reelection, listens during a special meeting on July 22 at the Dearborn Administrative Center.

The race is generating interest and dollars. Wayne County campaign finance records show 12 candidates have gathered more than $10,000 through late July.

Of those, Elzein had the most, with more than $59,000 raised, according to the filings.

Elzein, 35, who runs Venture Title Agency, was inspired to run by families leaving the city and said she believes her business background has "afforded me the knowledge and experience needed to make tough decisions that will positively impact my fellow citizens and our city at large, bringing a much needed and fresh perspective to city council."

Among the largest issues, she said residents are concerned about high property taxes, which she says have been driving away investment and young families.

"Another challenge I hear about most often is the lack of vision in the area of economic development, which disincentivizes many small businesses from launching in Dearborn," she said. 

Elzein noted the race is another step in better reflecting a "vastly diverse" city that has historically been a landing pad for immigrants seeking greater opportunities.

Lola Elzein, 35, a business owner and volunteer, was inspired to run for Dearborn City Council on Aug. 3 by families leaving the city. She's one of 18 candidates vying for seven seats on the council.

While the Dearborn Historical Museum notes it wasn't until 1989 that an Arab American was elected to the City Council, shifting demographics along with a charged political climate this decade have spurred "a significant increase" in civic engagement, said Sally Howell, an author and associate history professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn who directs its Center for Arab American Studies.

“Socio-politically, the last four to five years were very trying for the Arab and Muslim community. We’ve seen a lot of Arab American participation,” she said. “Some of it was happening at the same time (former President Donald) Trump was running for office, but also as a response. We’ve seen an increased response by Muslim American candidates. … People feel really supported. They feel encouraged. It’s been a very positive story.”

While the mayor’s race appears to be the largest in city history, the council race is crowded but it's not record-setting, Dearborn City Clerk George Darany said. “I ran for City Council numerous times. One year there was 22. One year in the '70s, we had 40 people that ran for seven council seats. That’s the record.”

On Aug. 3, voters can choose up to seven candidates. The top 14 advance to the general election on Nov. 2.

Amid concerns about high property taxes and the city administration's response to recent flooding, the many choices on the ballot highlight the need "to get rid of the old guard," said Majed Moughni, a Dearborn attorney and activist who runs a Facebook page for residents.

"Many residents are very angry with what's going on with the flooding, the wasteful government spending. ... I think we're going to see a lot of new faces."

mhicks@detroitnews.com