Muslims, immigrants in Hamtramck seek power as race for mayor heats up

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Source: Detroit Free Press, by  , November 5, 2017

Inside a bustling Bangladeshi restaurant in Hamtramck on a recent Tuesday night, Councilman Mohammed Hassan gestured towards a window overlooking Conant Avenue.

“This used to be a ghost town here,” said Hassan of the commercial street outside Aladdin Sweets & Cafe that is filled with businesses owned by Bangladeshi immigrants. Today, “there’s not even one store empty.”

Bangladeshi-Americans like Hassan and other Muslim groups in Hamtramck say they’ve helped revitalize the aging city historically known as a center of Polish Catholic life. Today, less than 9% of the city’s 22,000 residents are of Polish descent and now whites make up only about one-third of the city, according to the latest U.S. Census figures. Emerging groups such as Yemeni-Americans and Bangladeshi Americans combined make up a majority of residents.

But many Muslims say they’re being marginalized by the government in a city where minorities are now the majority though make up only a handful of city employees. The city is also still under the control of a state-appointed board that doesn’t reflect the city’s population.

Now, Hassan, 51, an immigrant from Bangladesh, is challenging incumbent Mayor Karen Majewski, 62, of Polish descent, in a contentious race. If elected Tuesday, Hassan would be the first mayor in Hamtramck’s history who is not Polish-American and also its first Muslim and Bangladeshi-American mayor.

“They ignore” me and others when we raise issues, Hassan said. “They don’t care.”

Majewski said she recognizes the importance of Hamtramck’s diversity and has worked closely over the years with different cultural groups.

“I’ve really worked the whole time I’ve been in office and the community to be inclusive, to champion Hamtramck’s diversity … walkability, traditional urban infrastructure,” Majewski said. “Those things have really been fundamental to me, what drew me to Hamtramck and made me want to serve Hamtramck.”

Out of 6 on the council, three are immigrants from Bangladesh, including Hassan, and one from Yemen. The council will remain Muslim-majority after Tuesday’s election since four of the six council candidates on the ballot competing for three seats are Muslim.

The past couple of years have seen infighting on the council, as the Muslim members battled with city officials over staffing and other issues.

In May, the four-member Muslim majority voted to not renew the contract of a city manager who had clashed with them. In September, tensions flared again after Councilman Ian Perrotta said that some Yemeni and Bangladeshi immigrants had problems with trash disposal and sanitation, remarks he later apologized for. And at a council meeting Oct. 24, city council candidate Nayeem Choudhury, 39 and an immigrant from Bangladesh, complained that his father had been wrongly pulled over by police and detained.

Two weeks ago, Michigan State Police raided the office of Wallee Enterprises, run by Choudhury, on suspicion of voter fraud.

“We have an ongoing voter fraud investigation going in the city of Hamtramck,” Lt. Michael Shaw of Michigan State Police said in a statement. “This investigation started in August … We have served search warrants and used other investigative tools.”

Choudhury did not reply to requests for comment on the state police raid.

 Calls for diversity in government

The city needs “employee diversity in the City Hall,” said Hamtramck Councilman Saad Almasmari, an immigrant from Yemen who was elected two years ago and supports Hassan for mayor. More than a quarter “of the population are Yemeni-Americans and there are zero employees in the City Hall. Zero. I’m the only one council member or elected official. That’s it.”

A city councilman for 8 years and a mechanical engineer with math degrees, Hassan said he has the skills to cut spending. He wants to merge police and fire services, a move he said would save the city $3 million. But Mayor Majewski and her supporters strongly oppose the move, saying that strong city services are needed.

About 44% of the city are immigrants, the highest percentage of any city in Michigan. Almost 28% of the city is of Asian descent, most of them with roots in Bangladesh, more than 24% is Arab, most of them Yemeni, 15% are African-American, and 1% Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census.

But all of the city’s firefighters are white, all but maybe one police officer is white, all department heads are white, and only about three employees are minorities, including a woman of Bangladeshi descent, according to the mayor and other city officials. Some Yemeni-Americans and Bangladeshi-Americans have said the city ignores or neglects their communities, making it difficult for their businesses.

Since 1922, Hamtramck has always had a mayor of Polish descent, reflecting the city’s makeup as a place for Eastern European immigrants. In 2000, the city was still 23% Polish, but is now only 8.8% Polish, show Census figures.

Mayor Majewski’s ancestors were immigrants from Poland and she settled in Hamtramck after earning her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan studying Polish-American literature. Now running for her 4th term, Majewski was elected in 2005, becoming the city’s first female mayor. She was reelected twice, including her 2013 victory by 98 votes over challenger former city councilman the late Abdul Algazali, who would have been the city’s first Muslim mayor.

Until December, Majewski worked at U-M’s Institute for Research on Labor, Employment, and the Economy and she also owns a clothing store, Tekla Vintage, on Jos Campau, a commercial street in the heart of Hamtramck that has struggled in recent years.

On a Thursday night last month, Majewski held a campaign event at Oloman Cafe and Gallery, opened last year by Bosnian immigrants, that drew a mix of Hamtramck residents of different backgrounds. The cafe reflects the city’s artistic community, which sees Hamtramck as an urban alternative to increasingly high-priced areas in midtown or downtown Detroit.

Across the street is a Yemeni grocery story that replaced Polish Market, which closed last year after being a longtime grocery for European communities. A couple of blocks north, another mosque is set to be built in a city where the Muslim call to prayer is heard in public 5 times a day.

“I support the mayor because she’s like the city of Hamtramck, which is 2.2 square miles of diversity,” said James Warunek, 66, of Hamtramck. “We’re a very diverse community of so many different religions and races … She probably celebrates diversity better than any political figure that I’ve met in my whole life. She walks the street by herself, visits all the business people, listens to their concerns.”

Regarding diversity, Majewski said that the city encourages all people to apply for city openings in departments like police

“We’re always asking people, ‘Please, apply.’ If you know of anybody who’s been through the academy or who qualifies, they got to apply,” she said.

One challenge in hiring city employees is that the pay and benefits aren’t comparable to other cities, she said.

“I know that we had someone and they left for another department,” Majewski said. “We can’t offer the pay and the benefits that people can get other places.”

Majewski also said that Hamtramck City Hall has diversity in terms of gender: “we have a lot of women.”

 Financial challenges

Hamtramck’s budget is about $16 million, a majority of which is for police and fire services, Majewski said.

Facing financial problems, the city was placed in 2000 under the rule of an emergency manager the state appointed, and then again in 2013. In 2014, the emergency manager was replaced by a Receivership Transition Advisory Board (RTAB), whose members are appointed by the state.

Last month, the board voted to overturn a resolution passed by the four Muslim members of the council that had called for an investigation into the work computer of a former city manager the four council members were at odds with. Hassan says the state board is undemocratic.

“RTAB board has to go right away,” Hassan said. “No question.”

Ron Leix, a spokesman for the Michigan Treasury Department, said: “At this time, there is no timeline for Hamtramck being released from receivership. Aside from the RTAB, the state Treasury Department is currently working with the city as they conduct their search for a new city manager and fill their finance director position.”

Hassan said the city is spending too much for government services and is concerned about future pension costs. He said his plan to merge police and fire services would save money and allow the city to hire eight more police officers.

Hassan said he wants “to balance the budget. … If you don’t have money, how are you going to spend the money? How are you gonna fix the streets? You have to have the money from somewhere.”

He said that if needed, he would have the city declare bankruptcy to fix its finances.

“If I have to take this city to federal court, I’ll take it to fix the pension and other things,” he said.

Hassan believes his experience handling big budgets working for auto supply companies like Visteon will help him manage the city better. He said voters should choose him not because he’s Muslim, but because he is the most qualified.

“She’s a good lady, but not a good administrator,” Hassan said. “What did you get in 16 years from Karen? … Try the guy who has all kinds of degrees, experience, and 8 years of council experience. Let’s try him one time and see how it goes.”

Majewski said Hassan’s plans to cut spending would hurt the city.

“I think that’s a very foolish idea,” she said. “We are never going to cut ourselves to prosperity. We are already down to the bare bones. In fact, we have no economic development director. … The only way we will have a healthy economy is by growing the economy.”

“It’s important we continue the economic progress that Hamtramck has been making,” said Majewski.

She also rejects the idea of merging police and fire departments, saying it’s important to have a professional fire department in a densely-populated city of 2.2 square miles where homes are so close to each other.

The city has many small lots that “touch the house next door,” Majewski said. “We depend on professional and at-the-ready fire fighters to protect not just the houses on fire, but the buildings next door that are so close and old and in such close proximity.”

“A public safety program that combines police and fire may work in some kinds of communities, like rural communities, where there is distance between buildings,” she said. “But that won’t work in a closely built urban community like Hamtramck.”

Hamtramck City Council meeting on Sept. 27, 2017, left

From Bangladesh to Michigan

Born in Bangladesh, Hassan immigrated to the U.S. in 1994 to study physics and ended up working as a supervisor or engineer in auto supply plants such as Detroit Leather Works, Visteon, and Eagle Ottawa. He was elected in 2009, when Muslim-Americans became half of the six-member council.

This year, city council incumbents Andrea Karpinski and Perrotta — who have been at odds with the Muslim majority on council on some issues — are running for reelection. Four other candidates, all of them Muslim, are also running: Choudhury, Monzurul Karim, Mohammed Al-Somiri and Fadel Al-Marsoumi.

Majewski downplays the narrative of Muslim vs. Christian, saying that such labels mask complex communities. There have sometimes been tensions between Muslim groups such as the Bangladeshi-American and Yemeni-American communities.

Majewski’s supporters say she can get support from Yemenis to offset Hassan’s support among Bangladeshis. For council, Majewski has endorsed Al-Marsoumi, who is Iraqi-American Muslim, a group that doesn’t have a big presence in the city.

“I think focusing on this election as a Muslim vs. Christian narrative does our communities a disservice,” Majewski said. “There are lots of ways to divide a community, by ethnicity, immigration status, by age, by gender, to focus simply on religion I think does a disservice to the nuances within each community. … The real story will probably be a lot more complicated and a lot more interesting.”

Bill Meyer, a Hatmramck resident and community leader who heads One Hamtramck, said that racism against Hamtramck’s newer communities is a problem. At times, some older residents do have prejudices against Muslims, says Meyer.

 At the campaign event in Oloman Cafe, a 78-year-old man said Muslims were not ready yet to run Hamtramck and that Muslims could not be firefighters because praying 5 times a day in Islam would prevent them from responding to fires if they happened during the prayers.

On Oct. 28, Meyer’s group One Hamtramck hosted a forum titled “White Power & Racism’ with a diverse panel to talk about bigotry.

“The white power structure is still holding on there” in Hamtramck, said Meyer, who is white. “There is still no people of color in any position of authority. .. There are a lot of injustices in the city.”

“The state is really running Hamtramck now,” Meyer said. “We want to end this injustice.”

 ‘We are America and the American dream’ 

At Aladdin restaurant, Hassan talks about the community’s concerns as waiters around him deliver plates of spicy chicken and lamb. He said that Bangladeshi businesses owned by immigrants often face tougher enforcement from the city’s planning commission, whose members are appointed by the mayor.

“My people are getting upset,” he said. “I will need to restructure the whole city.”

Hassan says he can win the election if Muslims come out to vote, but he’s concerned about the effect of President Donald Trump and a climate where Islam is often in the spotlight.

Since Hamtramck’s council became Muslim-majority two years ago, anti-Muslim voices have attacked the city, falsely claiming it would be run by Islamic law. Hassan said that climate may make some Muslim voters reluctant to elect a mayor who is Muslim because they fear it could lead to making the city a target of hate.

“Some of them say …haters are going to be targeting” us, Hassan said, describing concerns he said he’s heard. Some Muslims fear, said Hassan, “if we elect Hassan … crazy people” may target the city.

At the event for Majewski in Oloman Cafe, Warunek, said while he supports Majewski, he realizes the future is with the Middle Eastern and South Asian population.

Sitting together with Choudhury, who is Bangladeshi, at a table in the cafe, Warunek, who is white, said that a majority of Hamtramck’s people “are not Caucasian. They’re Middle Eastern people, and Muslim.”

“So all of this belongs to you guys” in the future, Warunek said. “Can you carry on the legacy that the past 12 years (Hamtramck Mayor) Karen has done? Can you carry it on? Delivering public service from the heart instead of from the head? You look at a lot of the candidates now, it’s all about, ‘Rally around me.’ … being like Trump.”

Others are blunt in their opposition to Hassan.

“He’s not running for mayor of Hamtramck, he’s running for mayor of Banglatown,” said Robert Zwolak, a former Hamtramck city councilman who supports Majewski, using a term to describe the heavily-Bangladeshi parts of Hamtramck.

But supporters say it’s a time for a change.

“I think he will do some positive in our community,” said Councilman and Mayor Pro-Tem Anam Miah. “It’s time for a different strategy, a different way of doing business and attracting business. Bringing in new revenue for our community. It’s time Hassan be given that opportunity to prove himself and try something different.”

Regardless of their political views, both sides see Hamtramck as a unique city that represents the best of the country.

“This community … is a model of what the promise of the United States can be, of what the promise of American diversity should be,” Majewski said.

“I think we are America and the American dream writ small … That’s why I believe in Hamtramck.”