Hamtramck – the city that lies entirely surrounded by the city of Detroit – held its city council election on November 3 that had a unique slate of candidates. When incumbent councilmember Robert Zwolak lost his re-election bid that day, an era may be said to have passed. The victor - Saad Almasmari – was jubilant upon learning that he would join two fellow Muslims on the council. According to the Hamtramck News, Almasmari said “I expected this (sic) results…I asked God to help me, and I promise to serve the community.” Hamtramck is thus a first for the nation: the first city council with a Muslim majority. Four out of six members are Muslim
Almasmari, who came in first place, was part of a slate that included incumbents and fellow Muslims Anam Miah and Abu Musa. That was the only slate in this election. Miah and Musa are returning to their posts on the council.
This was Almasmari’s first successful election, having previously failed to win a seat on the Hamtramck Public School Board. On November 4, there was a turnout of 2,230 voters. There were no other state, county, or local proposals on the ballot.
Hamtramck, for the first time in its history, now has a Muslim majority on council. In 1970s, the presence of Polish immigrants and Polish-Americans in Hamtramck was so significant that it merited a visit in 1987 from none other than Pope John Paul II. Once predominantly Catholic, Hamtramck is increasingly diverse. A growing Bangladeshi and Yemeni presence is being felt. Those two ethnic communities now represent approximately 50 percent of Hamtramck’s population, according to U.S. Census figures. In addition, there are at least 12 mosques located there and in surrounding Detroit neighborhoods. In 2004 the city council voted unanimously to allow mosques to broadcast the Muslim "adhan" call to prayer on public streets, thus making Hamtramck one of the few U.S. cities to allow this. A media firestorm had ensued when activists organized rallies against the practice.
Like other jurisdictions in Michigan, Hamtramck is still under the control of the State of Michigan. The state has oversight on all important city decisions. In December 2014, Hamtramck emerged from a financial crisis after a state-appointed emergency manager left after 18 months. Currently, a state Transition Advisory Board has control of all financial decisions of the city, with no end in sight. It has notably high rates of crime and unemployment.
Born in Yemen, the 28-year-old Almasmari is a local businessman. According to Almasmari, 27 percent of his fellow residents of Hamtramck are Yemeni. Thus he believes he is the better representative for his community. He served for six years at the Yemeni American Leadership Association, and is currently a student at Wayne State University.
During his campaign, Almasmari said he wants to add “value to the diversity” in Hamtramck. Moreover, lowering taxes, improving roads and schools are his priorities. "If we want a better future, we have to have better schools," he said in October. He plans on encouraging businesses to establish themselves in Hamtramck. He said that Hamtramck has the highest tax rate in Michigan. Bringing in new resources, he said, rather than bankruptcy, will reduce the high tax rates.
Campaigning for the August 4 primary, followed by the November 3 general election, was marred by the vandalizing of 40 of Almasmari’s campaign signs that were painted with large, spray-painted Xs. Subsequently, flyers that said "Let's get the Muslim out of Hamtramck" appeared on social media websites. At the time, Almasmari said "The hateful flyers that we see around are trying to divide the community, but that will never happen."
However, Hamtramck City Clerk August Gitschlag questioned whether the flyers were indeed circulating in Hamtramck and adding to a tense atmosphere. Glitchlag says no one has brought to him in physical form and he's only seen in cell phone pictures, was posted on City Council candidate Susan Dunn's Facebook page. "This ridiculous filth was brought to my attention this afternoon," Dunn posted to her Facebook page in October, "I would never be involved with anything of this nature ... "