Abdul Algazali hopes to represent residents of Hamtramck, Highland Park and parts of Detroit, which make up the 5th district, in Michigan’s state House of Representatives.
Primary elections are set for August 5.
Algazali believes serving in a complex city like Hamtramck, full of heated issues, where council meetings often degenerate into shouting matches, has given him the grit and the know-how to represent constituents at the state level.
“It’s given me the experience to lead and to face a lot of the tough issues we face in Michigan,” Algazali said.
The councilman and former member of Hamtramck’s Human Rights Commission has spoken out over the years on a series of issues that garnered national attention, starting in 1999, when, on election day, members of a residents’ group questioned voters of Middle Eastern or Asian appearance on their eligibility to vote.
“I resigned from the Human Rights Commission in protest, saying ‘This should not happen in the city of Hamtramck,'” Algazali said.
In response to complaints of discrimination and a lawsuit that followed, the Justice Department sent monitors during subsequent elections.
Later, in 2004, Algazali helped spearhead an effort to get an amendment to the city’s sound ordinance passed to allow a Bangladeshi mosque to air the Muslim call to prayer via loudspeakers.
“The Bengali community came to me wanting the city to allow them to have the call to prayer,” Algazali said. “I started by myself to help those people? until it made national headlines.”
Despite strong opposition among some non-Muslims in the neighborhood, and in the face of widespread media exposure, the City Council unanimously passed the amendment that year, and several Hamtramck mosques now sound the call to prayer several times a day, a tradition that many Muslims compare to the ringing of church bells.
After being elected a councilman in 2005, Algazali didn’t shy away from more heated issues, pushing hard in 2007 for an ordinance prohibiting city employees from policing or denying services to people based on their appearance, immigration status and other factors.
Considered an anti-profiling measure among civil rights activists and a “sanctuary city” law among anti-illegal immigration stalwarts, the effort once again put a spotlight on the city of Hamtramck.
The ordinance was initially voted down, but after Algazali was able to convince at least one other council member to vote in favor of it, the measure passed in January of this year.
“Even though I’m in the minority, the opposition, I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot,” Algazali said.
He and another council member are often up against four others who usually vote together as a bloc.
Algazali, 49, came to America from Ibb, Yemen at 12 years old, but his family’s roots in the U.S. go further back.
“Whenever someone tries to question my American values, I tell them that my grandfather served in World War II,” he said.
A doctor of chiropractic, Algazali said he became involved in politics after joining Yemeni American associations and being appointed to the Human Rights Commission.
He was also one of the first members of the Arab American Political Action Committee.
Algazali ran for mayor of Hamtramck in 2001.
That primary election was held on September 11.
“We lost big. The Muslims were afraid to come out and everyone else at the time ? they’re not going to vote for someone named Ali or Khalil or Mohamed,” Algazali said.
He hopes for a better turnout and better results this time around in his bid for state representative.
Up against eight other Democrats, including incumbent Bert Johnson, and no Republicans, the August 5 primary alone will likely determine whether Algazali will represent the 5th district in state House.
His campaign is focused on a message of untainted representation.
He said he owes no favors to anyone.
“I’m not obligated to anybody? I always think of the people first, not the lobbyists or the special interests,” he said. “You can lobby whatever you want, but I’m going to do what’s right for the people.”
He said there was once a proposal before the Hamtramck City Council that would bring a discount chain grocery store to the city. Even though his own chiropractic office, located nearby the proposed site, was poised to see more traffic as a result of the development, he voted against it.
“I would have benefited from it. It would have been good for my business. But I stood up for the people and said no because the city doesn’t have the money to give.”
The proposal, which passed despite Algazali’s objections, offered a tax break to the company as an incentive to open in the city.
He said a representative of the chain even made a personal appeal to him in an effort get more support for development.
“The guy was a nice guy, but I told him ‘Nothing personal. I’ve got to stick with the people,'” Algazali said. “We already have six grocery stores in the area. We have a lot of small family stores in the city.”
He said the plan did not offer enough jobs to justify a tax break.
“If a major manufacturing company would come in and say they’re going to bring jobs, of course we have to work with them,” he said.
Algazali is also voicing support for working on universal health care plans and fighting unfair insurance rates.
“Detroit and Hamtramck have the highest insurance rates in the area. We have to have ? somehow ? a level base where people are paying fair amounts for insurance,” he said.
At the same time, he said he wants to lower taxes by making cuts, not to education or community programs, but to the wages of government employees by 3-5 percent.
“In Lansing, I feel the politicians make a lot of money,” he said.
Just like a business, he said, “People have to make the cuts to save the company.”
“What’s better ? to lose your job or to take a small pay cut and save your job? I learned that because I have a small business.”
Algazali said that while he’s been offered donations to his campaign, “As of today, I haven’t taken any money from anyone. Not a lobbyist, not an interest group, not even from a individual.”
He said he may accept some last minute donations for a final push in the final week before the primary ? but not if there are any strings attached.