By Charles Sercombe
You can sum up Tuesday’s election results in one word: Historic.
For the first time ever in Hamtramck – and possibly in the nation – a Muslim majority is now in control of city government.
And for the second time in the city’s history a Yemeni-American will hold a seat on council.
Saad Almasmari, a Yemeni-American businessman who owns an ice cream supply company, came out as the top vote-getter in his first attempt to win a seat on council. He follows fellow Yemeni-American Abdul Algazali who served on council until his death earlier this year.
The council now has three Bangladesh-Americans, two of whom, Anam Miah and Abu Musa, won re-election on Tuesday.
The Bangladesh and Yemeni communities have been growing in recent years. For decades Hamtramck has been a predominately Polish town, but those of Polish descent now find themselves in the minority, or nearly so.
According to U.S. Census figures Hamtramck’s Muslim community now represents 50 to 55 percent of the community, which includes those from Bangladesh, Yemen and Bosnia.
This historic turn of events was not lost on Ibrahim Algahim, a political activist in the Yemeni community.
In a recording posted on Kawsar Dewan’s Facebook page, Algahim spoke at a victory celebration held at Kabob House on Conant for Almasmari, Miah and Musa after Tuesday’s election.
What he said at that meeting might disturb some in the community.
“Today, we showed the Polish and everybody else that we are united,” Algahim said.
Before speaking about the election Algahim introduced the winning candidates from that night’s election, including Councilmember Mohammed Hassan, who he called “the future mayor of Hamtramck.”
A speaker who followed Algahim, whose name was not discernible in the recording, talked of receiving a “message” from an Imam in Yemen for the community to deliver a victory.
The speaker said voters did just that by electing Almasmari, a Yemeni-American.
Later in the meeting Dr. Khalid Almasmari stressed that the council must work for the entire community.
“It’s time to show the people what Muslims can do in Hamtramck. We’re going to work for all of Hamtramck,” he said.
You can see the recording here: https://www.facebook.com/kawsardewan/posts/10206717716434514?pnref=story
The three candidates not only won on Tuesday, they left the three trailing candidates in the dust. About 300 votes separated the third-place winner, Anam Miah, from the fourth place winner, Susan Dunn. The difference from the top vote-getter to Dunn is 480 votes.
So, does this election represent a tipping point for future elections?
There are a few theories floating around town. City Clerk August Gitschlag said there were only a handful of new voters registered since the primary election in August.
But what he did notice was a number of registered voters who had not been active before who came out for this election.
And on the flip side of that equation, he said, there were many voters who simply refused to vote because none of the candidates appealed to them.
“Do you know how easy it is to not vote?” he said.
One thing you can bet on in future elections, those formerly inactive voters who voted for the first time last Tuesday will be coming back to vote.
Gitschlag also pointed out that two years ago the mayor and Councilmember Andrea Karpinski received the vote numbers that the top three vote-getters received in Tuesday’s election.
What that boils down to is that the three top vote-getters, Almasmari, Miah and Musa, who ran as a slate, got their base out to vote.
They also actively campaigned in the neighborhoods going door-to-door. It’s a formula that has been proven effective time after time.
The losing three candidates did little or none of that.
Councilmember Musa went the extra mile on Saturday and Monday and brought in over 50 voters into city hall to vote via absentee ballot. A Review reporter witnessed Musa standing by the voting stations in city hall, telling fellow Bangladeshi voters to vote for him.
Although campaign workers must stay at least 100 feet away from the entrance of polling locations, Gitschlag said it’s legal for candidates to stand in city hall and tell those voting by absentee ballots how to vote — as long as they are not in the actual voting station.
Musa’s encouragement to voters to vote via AV ballot paid off. He received the highest number of votes, 398, using this method. Councilmember Robert Zwolak, the only incumbent to lose, received the second highest number of AV votes, 276.
In total there were about 700 AV ballots cast.
While being an incumbent is generally a guaranteed way to win re-election, Zwolak said a number of things worked against him.
He said it first started with debate over who should fill a vacant seat on council following the death of Titus Walters. There were many in the Bangladeshi and Yemeni community who insisted it should have been Rashad Almasmari.
The city administration’s interpretation of the city charter said the next person in line from the last general election was a different candidate, Ian Perrotta. The issue was settled in Wayne County Circuit Court where a judge ruled in favor of the city’s interpretation.
That issue seemed to have galvanized the Muslim community.
Zwolak said the next issue that energized the Muslim community was a formal complaint filed with the city by candidate Susan Dunn over the volume of the call to prayer from a mosque near her house.
And then, a mysterious flyer appeared, or so it seemed, that smeared Dunn, Zwolak and Cathie Gordon. The flyers alleged the three were behind an effort to “Get the Muslim out” of the city.
Dunn made the flyer public, although there was only one known person who claimed to have received the flyer, who just happened to be candidate Saad Almasmari, a neighbor of Dunn. Local media outlets went with the story despite there being little proof the flyer had even been distributed.
Zwolak criticized Dunn for bringing attention to the flyer, saying it was “stupid” to rile up the public.
As for Gordon, a former councilmember, this might be the end of her political career. Two years ago she decided to drop out in mid-term on council in order to run for mayor.
She lost out in that bid, coming in last place, and she again finished last in her attempt to come back on the council.
But as the saying goes, never say never.
The reaction to this election, which produced a Muslim majority city council, ran the gamut on Facebook. On Mayor Karen Majewski’s Facebook page there were those questioning when Sharia law would be instituted and bars closed down to those who said the anti-Muslim comments were racist.
Local television news stations also reported on the election and the new Muslim majority. The comments on those websites were venomous in their hatred of Muslims and Islam.
Those welcoming Tuesday’s election results included School Boardmember Evan Major.
“In the face of nasty Islamaphobia on the national stage, I believe Hamtramck is now the first U.S. city with a Muslim majority governing body,” Major said on his Facebook page. “That’s pretty cool. And I’m glad to celebrate this symbolic victory with my friends and neighbors tonight. Our town is a special place.”
Also commenting on Facebook was Naz Huda, a Bangladesh-American and supporter of Councilmember Miah. In his link to a WDIV Channel 4 report on the election, he said:
“Cheer to all my haters! Be Patient … So much more is coming.”
This article was updated on Nov. 5.