Hammoud, Woronchak advance to November mayoral election in Dearborn

Mark Hicks and Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Dearborn — State Rep. Abdullah Hammoud declared victory Tuesday night as he and former state lawmaker and county commissioner Gary Woronchak became the two candidates to advance to the November mayoral election in Dearborn.

With all 48 precincts reporting early Wednesday, Hammoud had more than 42% of the votes, while Woronchak followed with 18.45%.

City Council president Susan Dabaja, who started the night in second place in early returns, was third with nearly 17%. Former council president Tom Tafelski was fourth with 14.8%, based on unofficial Wayne County results.

In a statement late Tuesday, Hammoud said the results "showed that Dearborn residents are demanding change from City Hall."

"I’m honored and humbled with today’s victory, and I will work just as hard to earn everyone’s vote in the general election this November," he said. "We need a mayor who will put our working families first and tackle the tough issues, like lowering property taxes, stopping speeding and reckless driving in our neighborhoods, and fixing our crumbling infrastructure."

Dabaja had earlier conceded the primary based on her own projected tally during a gathering with supporters.

"We live here, our families are here, our whole lives are invested in the city," she told a group of 60 people before midnight. "We can't just walk away because God didn’t choose me as your leader."

Hammoud's staff said he was not available for a direct comment Tuesday night and provided his statement; Woronchak did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, early county election results showed measures to extend a library millage and revise the city charter passing with more than 60% of voters saying yes for each.

Seven candidates joined the race to replace Mayor John “Jack” O’Reilly Jr., who has led one of the largest Wayne County communities outside Detroit for more than 14 years.

The top two who receive the most votes advanced to the Nov. 2 general election.

It could be an historic contest.

If elected, Hammoud would become the first Arab American and Muslim to take the spot.

Also running were school board official Hussein Berry, Jim Parrelly, a financial planner; and Kalette Shari Willis, a veteran.

The seven candidates competing to be Dearborn's mayor are City Council President Susan Dabaja, clockwise from top left, Hussein Berry, Gary Woronchak, Jim Parrelly, Kalette Shari Willis, former Council President Tom Tafelski and State Rep. Abdullah Hammoud.

Some in the community who headed to the polls Tuesday saw the chance to make history; others said they wanted to weigh in and register complaints about the city's response to recent flooding and issues such as taxation.

"There’s a lot of excitement in the community. Not just the excitement, but there’s a lot of backlash," said Majed Moughni, a Dearborn attorney and activist who runs a Facebook page for residents. "We’re hoping that there is change — at least the positive change that we want."

Robert Murillo, 46, a resident for more than 20 years, voted for that change.

"I believe in Dearborn that it’s time for a change especially after recent weather has opened our eyes to the weak infrastructure of Dearborn," he said. "We believe collectively in Dearborn that there’s things to be addressed that we’re put on the back burner. ... Let’s just say those who were incumbent let us down. We felt it was time for a change across the board.”

While Hammoud's primary success is significant in a city the U.S. Census Bureau estimates has more than 47% of residents identifying as Arab, it signifies how his message transcended demographics, said Sally Howell, an author and associate history professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn who directs the Center for Arab American Studies.

"He's a progressive political figure. He's cut his teeth on environmental, and labor and equity issues," she said. "There are a lot of concerns right now in Dearborn. Now that the flooding has become such a major issue, that’s something that’s going to be on the next mayor’s plate: how do you deal with climate change and take this infrastructure and make it work for people? I think he has the skill to tackle it."

Hammoud, who is finishing his third term in the state House representing the 15th District, won praise after he and volunteers helped residents clear their flooded homes. 

The 31-year-old has said he would prioritize lowering property taxes, reckless driving and furthering the city's economic recovery.

Mohamed Sohoubah, a pharmacist, developer and business leader who organized a protest last month, supported his bid.

“I think we need a dramatic change in the city," he said.

Assad Turfe, a Dearborn resident and chief of staff for Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, who endorsed Hammoud, welcomed the results.

Voters, he said, are “looking for real leadership in tough times. … The overall feel is: We want Dearborn to be in a better place.”

Dabaja, who has been council president for more than seven years and was backed by Dearborn's police and fire unions, had said her experience would help start tackling revitalization of small businesses, reviewing city expenditures and improving government efficiency and transparency.

During a gathering Tuesday night at the Bint Jebail Cultural Center, Dabaja thanked her supporters and said she was "not going to walk away from our city."

"We all have to work towards a better Dearborn," she said.

In a statement early Wednesday on her Facebook page, she congratulated Hammoud and Woronchak.

"It was a tough race and they ran great campaigns," she wrote.

"To everyone that helped me and supported me through this process, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Know that I will continue to do everything I can, in any capacity I can, to continue to make us one, unified community on the road to a better tomorrow."

Resident Lola Elzein, who ran for City Council, waited out election results with her two daughters. She thanked Dabaja, saying "she’s inspired me to have a voice and run for public office.”

The winner in November would lead nearly 94,000 residents, more than 770 full-time and 1,700 part-time employees, with a budget proposed to top $135 million in the next fiscal year.

They also ascend as the head of the politically and culturally significant locale with among the highest concentrations of Arab Americans in the country as the city recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic and flooding this summer. Critics and contenders claim these issues underscored the need for a change at the helm of the city.

"We believe our city is in dire need of a unifying, thorough and objective plan that can effectively tackle complex issues such as fair, equitable and legal taxation, proper representation, quality and affordable city services, reinvigorated economic development, modernized recreation, streamlined and user friendly municipal technology, welcoming and competent city departments and of course much needed infrastructure improvements,"  said Mazen Elatrache, board vice chair of the Dearborn Community Council, a grassroots residents' group.

O’Reilly, whose father was mayor from 1978-86, had retained his seat since he was first elected in February 2007, two months after predecessor Michael Guido, the youngest mayor in the city’s history, died in office.

Last month, following criticism from residents and others that he had not been visible during flooding, O’Reilly announced health issues have led to fewer public appearances.

The mayor has touted his administration’s response to the record rainfall that flooded basements and closed some businesses. He's pointed to the city's immediate emergency declaration, deployment of resources and personnel, food giveaways and other assistance.

However, dozens of residents have protested what they say is a "repeated failure" from the administration to protect homes, businesses and streets from floods.

Among the critics was Woronchak, who after viewing pileups and devastation in the days after the flooding called for an investigation into whether the issues were "the result of just too much rain, or if it was somehow preventable." 

The former state representative recently told The Detroit News, “We are reminded by the pandemic and the recent flooding that the most pressing issue changes with the moment, and strong, experienced leadership is needed to handle each issue as it arises.”

Woronchak, 66, also a former journalist and Wayne County commissioner, has said he is also focused on post-pandemic emergency health infrastructure and said traffic issues in city neighborhoods are at the forefront of his agenda. 

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Tafelski, who has served on the Planning Commission, was council president from 2007-13, and lost the mayoral race in 2017 to O’Reilly, said his focus was on prioritizing investments in the neighborhoods, business development and public safety.

The race has been costly, county finance records show.

Hammoud led the pack in campaign contributions secured through last month, according to filings submitted.

The Dearborn native raised more than $267,000 during the reporting period. Dabaja was second after having raised more than $162,000, followed by Berry, who reported more than $138,000 in contributions.

Dearborn voters on Tuesday also appeared to have approved revising  the city charter and extending a library millage, based on the unofficial county results.

The charter, which sets the framework for city government, went into effect Jan. 1, 2008. It was last amended and ratified in 2007, and contains a provision that puts the revision before voters.

As a result of the vote, a Charter Commission will be established and nine members will be elected in the Nov. 2 general election.

The library millage renews the 1-mill tax rate for six years. It was approved by voters in 2011. The City Council voted on May 11 to place the millage renewal question on the primary ballot.

“Annually, the millage generates approximately $3.7 million, or nearly 60%, of the library’s operating budget,” city officials said last month. “If the renewal is rejected by voters, library facilities, services, materials and programming would be reduced. An additional loss of annual state funding of at least $700,000 would result as well.”

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Tuesday's race also slightly shrinks the candidate field for City Council.

There are 14 new faces, many minority, vying with four current members for seven seats on the panel, which is majority Arab American.

"The most important change needed is for us to elect capable and competent public servants who will work hard to earn our trust and always act in our best interest," Elatrache said. "The most critical error we can make during this historic election is to be arbitrary and divided when making decisions on electing our public servants."