Dearborn voters must replace longtime Mayor Jack O’Reilly Jr., who has been largely missing from the public eye since last year before COVID-19 hit the state, citing undisclosed health issues. Residents head to the polls for a mayoral primary on Aug. 3. More than a half-dozen candidates are vying for the city’s top job.
But whoever becomes the city’s new leader will face an old problem.
During the past few weeks, many Dearborn residents on the east side and south end of the city have been emptying water and sewage from their basements because of heavy rains and flooding. Mayoral candidates made flooding a campaign issue by sending out flyers, posting Facebook videos, some even calling for independent investigations into what happened.
“I’m very concerned about police oversight and our policing practices here in Dearborn. I want us to be good neighbors to Detroit. I don’t want people of color to be targeted.” —Geri Biggs, Dearborn resident
The flooding took center stage at a virtual mayoral forum hosted by the group ACCESS and other community organizations. Candidates on the call included Dearborn City Council President Susan Dabaja, businessman Jim Parrelly and State Rep. Abdullah Hammoud (D-Dearborn).
Parrelly says he helped secure contractors to clean up the debris in the aftermath of the deluge.
“If the flood in the last few weeks has taught us anything, it’s that politics as usual didn’t work for us. We need change in the way we approach it. My experience in business has taught me to find solutions, efficiently and quickly,” he says.
The recent flooding conjures images of 2014 when metro Detroit also suffered disastrous water damage and Dearborn officials pledged to create better infrastructure to separate water and sewer lines.
At the candidate forum, Dabaja said the last two years have been especially trying for Dearborn through the COVID-19 lockdown and now the flood. She says whoever becomes the new mayor must be a proven leader.
“I know what it’s like to make it through difficult times, and I feel what so many people on tonight’s call are feeling. No one has had to lead more during this campaign than me,” she says.
Hammoud says issues like the flooding in the city require someone who is willing to get in the trenches with residents.
“I put on my work boots. I assembled a team. They went door to door helping families. This is why I am running to be Dearborn’s next mayor, to continue to make progress and tackle the issues impacting our working families,” he says.
People in more than 436 homes signed up for assistance via a Google form, according to his Twitter account.
Despite displaying their credentials at the forum, fifth-generation Dearborn resident Betsy Cushman says she’s still not sure which candidate to support. She’s sorting through her options. One of the things she’s concerned about is the quality of life across Dearborn.
“I think people on the east side feel that sometimes that they don’t get the same services with sometimes the west side gets,” she says.
Cushman says she joined the League of Women Voters in 1967, a nonpartisan group that encourages people to vote.
“I think it’s always important to vote for the mayor, for every race. Everyone’s voice needs to be heard,” she says.
Thirty-year Dearborn resident Samra’a Luqman is a single mom who works as a legal administrative specialist and Realtor. She’s also running for Dearborn City Council as Sam Luqman. She says the candidates’ flood response is a game-changer in this election.
“When I look at the candidates. If there’s a disaster, which of them has taken the opportunity to attack another individual versus which of them has taken the opportunity to lead,” she says.
Luqman says she’s especially looking for a candidate who protects green infrastructure.
“It also means the preservation of what’s already there … by City Council, by mayors, they all together combined make a huge, huge impact on the situation that we are faced with today like the flooding problems … like climate change,” she says.
Retiree Geri Biggs and her family have lived in Dearborn for a quarter-century. She says she and her husband are former social workers. Biggs wants to know how the next mayor will serve not only Dearborn but the entire metro area.
She says the ideal candidate is someone who is working for environmental justice for everyone in Dearborn. She’s also concerned about social justice.
“I’m very concerned about police oversight and our policing practices here in Dearborn. I want us to be good neighbors to Detroit. I don’t want people of color to be targeted. And all of these things this is partly, you know this my social work side coming out and my social justice,” she says.
She and the other voters say they also want a candidate who embraces diversity, will lower taxes and unify the region.
There are four additional candidates in the mayoral race. Dearborn Public Schools Board of Education member Hussein Berry; former City Council President Thomas Tafelski, who lost to current mayor O’Reilly in 2017; former Wayne County Commissioner and state Rep. Gary Woronchak; and Kalette Shari Willis, the first Black woman to run for mayor in Dearborn.
Three of the candidates could also make history. One of them could become the first Arab American mayor of Dearborn.
This much is clear, with O’Reilly not seeking reelection after leading Dearborn since 2007, one of the top two finishers in the primary will become a fresh face in the mayor’s office.