Local elected officials of color on race and politics in the age of Trump, part 1: State Reps
Although it's hardly unique among the states, Michigan's government has a representation problem. According to the Reflective Democracy Campaign's 2015 "Who Leads Us?" survey, 64 percent of the state's elected officials were white men—despite the fact that white men make up only 38 percent of Michigan's population.
In light of that issue, and the greater national discussions of racism that have arisen around Donald Trump's candidacy and presidency, here is the first in a three-part series on our region's elected officials of color. This series is presented in conjunction with Concentrate and Metromode, our sister publications in Ann Arbor and the metro Detroit area.
Each installment will focus on a different group of government officials—beginning with state representatives in this installment.
Abdullah Hammoud: "As American a name as any other"
When Abdullah Hammoud sent out his first campaign mailing, someone mailed a shredded copy of it back to him with no return address and a note reading: "No more Arab-Americans. No more Muslims. Go back to your country."
Hammoud says he frequently encountered hateful reactions to his race and religion throughout his campaign to represent the 15th district (covering Dearborn) in Michigan's House of Representatives. And the Democrat notes that the bigotry wasn't concentrated on one side of the political aisle—his campaign focused on likely Democratic voters.
Hammoud suspects that his campaign might have been easier had he run under a nickname that was less easily identified as Arabic, as some of his supporters encouraged him to do early on.
"I refused," he says. "I said that at the end of the day I think Abdullah is as American a name as any other name ... I wanted to set a precedent that it's okay to run regardless of your identity. You run on your skills, you run on your accomplishments, and you run on what you bring to the table. And it paid off."
Hammoud handily defeated opponent Terrance Gerin in November, taking 61.8 percent of the vote and becoming the first Arab-American Muslim to represent his district. Having taken office, the former professional health advisor's main priority is making healthcare more accessible and affordable for Michiganders—a task he admits will be no easy feat if President Trump succeeds in repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA). However, Hammoud expresses hope that Michigan might forge ahead with "an ACA-like model" of its own, and is prepared to work within that framework.
"If it comes down to state control, we're going to need to appropriate funds to support families purchasing and paying for these premiums," Hammoud says.
Hammoud expresses concern that people of color, already underrepresented in government, will be made to feel even less a part of the system under the new Trump presidency. He says the onus is on people of color to follow in his footsteps and pursue roles in government.
"A vote goes a long way, but at the same time the vote is the preschool of becoming civically engaged," he says. "It's the first step. November 8 isn't when the hard work ends. November 9 is when it begins."
Stephanie Chang: November's small victories
Stephanie Chang at the Michigan State Capitol
Stephanie Chang didn't set out to be a role model to people of color or women seeking more civically engaged roles, but she's pleasantly surprised to have become one.
Over her two terms representing Michigan's sixth district (covering southwest Detroit, Ecorse, and River Rouge), Chang, who is Taiwanese-American, says has been repeatedly approached by people who tell her she's inspired them to become more engaged in their communities or to run for office. She's realized that an important part of her job is to support those people and to continue to make them proud.
"This year there's not a lot of positives I see that came out of the election in November, except for that there's some really wonderful women of color ... that won and are progressive and strong, bold leaders," she says. "We need more people like that to run, but it's going to take people encouraging them to do that and supporting them."
In addition to her role as exemplar to the next generation of public officials, Chang proudly cites her advocacy for issues of environmental justice, education, and criminal justice reform during her time in office so far. Most recently she sponsored a bill to provide reentry services for wrongfully convicted prisoners, which has since been signed into law
. She's also a founding member of the Asian Pacific American Legislative Caucus
, which has worked to improve language access issues in Michigan's governmental bodies and elections.
"As a state government we should be doing the best that we can to make sure every person has access to services," Chang says. "Some departments are really making an effort and probably others could be improved."
Chang hasn't faced the sort of blatant and pervasive racism that Hammoud has, although she has regularly encountered the "perpetual foreigner" stereotype when people assume she's not American-born simply because of her appearance. She recalls political opponents who would call out the fact that she was born in Canton, rather than the district she now represents, insinuating a broader concept of foreignness.
Given the small Asian-American population in her primarily African-American and Latino district, Chang says she initially worried that her race might hinder a run for the House. But in the end, the election results were reassuring.
"I think that ultimately what we found, even just in my first election, is that people really want someone they know is going to work hard, that they can trust, and that shares their values," she says.
Yousef Rabhi: "I want to take action"
Yousef Rabhi at the Michigan State Capitol
Yousef Rabhi's critics have derided him as an Arab and a Muslim. He's not offended by those characterizations, but they're both incorrect.
The American-born Rabhi is of Algerian heritage, and while much of his father's side of the family is Muslim, he is not. Over his five years as a Washtenaw County commissioner, Rabhi was more shaken by members of the public who suggested that he might sympathize with Islamic terrorism, that he wasn't born in America, or that he didn't understand how America works. But as he begins his first term representing Michigan's 53rd district (covering the city of Ann Arbor and the townships of Ann Arbor, Scio, and Pittsfield) in the state house this year, Rabhi has moved past the negativity.
"I think people in the community know me a little bit better and I think I've also learned to tune out the haters a little better too," he says.
As Rabhi gets to work in Lansing, he says his most immediate focus is on participating in Michigan's redistricting process, "making sure citizens have the opportunity to choose their representatives, because right now we have representatives who are choosing their constituents." He'll also be focusing on the "four 'E's" he highlighted in his campaign: education, equity, the economy, and the environment.
But an even larger concern for Rabhi at the moment is the issue of transparency in Michigan's government. Rabhi wants to prioritize improving access to the democratic process and expanding Michigan's Freedom of Information Act to apply to the governor's office and legislature.
"We're not going to make much progress ... if we continue to live in a state where we're ranked 50th out of 50
in the nation in terms of our transparency laws," he says. "So I want to push those issues to the forefront as well."
Although Rabhi has moved beyond some of the prejudice he faced earlier in his career, he expresses a renewed commitment to reaching out to those who misunderstand him—particularly in the context of the racist rhetoric surrounding Trump's candidacy and presidency. While he knows it's not necessarily his responsibility to do so, he says, "at the end of the day it's something I can do and I want to take action."
"Not everybody's receptive," he says. "But for those that are receptive, you can build that relationship. And even if it's not much at first, I think it can build over time if that door is open."
In the next installment of this series, we'll check in with three local city councilmembers of color.
All photos by Doug Coombe.