Iraqi refugee hopes to shake up Ohio politics as Trump looms large

Montgomery County is not only a political microcosm of Ohio, but of the US as a whole

Mohamed Al-Hamdani is looking to head the Montgomery County Democratic Party. Photo: Stephen Starr
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Mohamed Al Hamdani has always been ambitious: an Iraqi refugee whose family fled the Saddam Hussein regime in the early 1990s for the US state of Ohio, he became an immigration lawyer and has served as president of a local school board.

Now, Mr Al Hamdani is setting his sights on becoming chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Party. If he wins June's in-party vote, he will make history by becoming the first person of colour and first Muslim to hold the office.

“My dad was part of the resistance to Saddam Hussein growing up; it leaves a mark on you,” he says.

“Politics has always been something that’s part of my life and I want my kids to see that we are just as much a part of this country as everybody else," Mr Al Hamdani told The National.

He is seeking to help reinvent his local chapter of the Democratic Party at a time when it is floundering on both the national stage and in small communities outside traditional liberal centres.

“There are not a lot of examples of people like me [in politics], but there’s a growing network of Muslims supporting each other,” he says. “I was lucky and privileged enough to have developed a lot of relationships over time.”

The 2024 presidential election may be a long way off, but primary elections next week will decide who contests November’s congressional midterms and, by extension, who represents the state of Ohio — for decades an important political bellwether — in the US Senate.

Republican Senator Rob Portman announced last year that he would not run for re-election due to “partisan gridlock”, setting the scene for an open race to replace him.

But Democrats believe Ohio is one of their best chances to flip a Senate seat in the November election — possibly allowing the party to keep control of the upper house.

The shadow of former president Donald Trump, however, looms large.

Last week, venture capitalist and author JD Vance won Mr Trump’s endorsement for a seat in the US Senate.

Since then, Mr Vance has received millions of dollars in campaign funding from conservative donors and surged in the polls. This is despite Mr Vance previously calling Mr Trump “noxious” during his 2016 presidential run.

JD Vance greets former president Donald Trump at a rally at the Delaware County Fairgrounds in Delaware, Ohio. AP

“I think that [Mr Vance] is somewhat of a fraud. He’s tried to go as far into Trumpland as he can,” says Charles “Rocky” Saxbe, a Republican who served four terms in Ohio’s House of Representatives and a vocal critic of Mr Trump.

The former president remains a potent force in the Republican Party: in Ohio, Mr Trump holds a favourability rating of about 80 per cent. His enduring popularity is largely down to the fact that “he gives a lot of people something to hate, to be against”, Mr Saxbe said.

For decades, Ohio mirrored the US political pulse. Before the 2020 presidential election, voters had backed the eventual winner in every election since 1964 and in all but four elections since 1888.

But Mr Trump’s big win in Ohio in 2020 has mirrored the state’s shift to the right. While cities such as Columbus, the state capital, have boomed, former manufacturing centres, such as Youngstown and the Appalachian region, have struggled with unemployment, crime and the fallout from the opioid crisis.

These are many of the same issues that dominate Mr Vance’s autobiography, Hillbilly Elegy, which was turned into a 2020 Netflix film starring Glenn Close and Amy Adams that depicts his life growing up in a town that neighbours Mohamed Al Hamdani’s Montgomery County.

Mr Saxbe’s concern is that Mr Vance could win the Republican nomination, which would work in favour of the Democratic Party.

“I don’t think he is as well-known as he likes to think that he is. He’s like a lot of celebrities — he’s believing his own reviews,” he says.

With a mix of urban and rural communities and demographics, Montgomery County is not only a microcosm of Ohio, but of the US as a whole.

In the 2020 presidential election, voters backed President Joe Biden over Mr Trump by 50 to 48 per cent — at the national level, Mr Biden prevailed 51-47.

But a scandal last year has soured many people’s views of the Montgomery County Democratic Party. Before a local election in November, the Ohio State Democratic Party mailed out attack ads against two African-American Democratic candidates seeking the role of city commissioner in Dayton, Ohio’s sixth-largest city.

Though the commission race is officially non-partisan, all four candidates were Democrats, but the local party had endorsed the other two candidates. The party leadership later apologised.

“It was wrong,” says Mr Al Hamdani. “If I become chair, I want to have not just one vice-chair, but a number of people in that position that represent different parts of our community.”

For Mr Al Hamdani, even if he becomes chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Party this summer, he and Democrats across the state will face huge challenges.

Since Republicans control Ohio’s top political structures, they can shape electoral mapping, which allows them to gerrymander districts to their own advantage.

But Mr Al Hamdani is undeterred.

“Change is always uncomfortable [and] you’re pushing against ingrained powers,” he says.

“My job is going to be about selling that change in a positive way.”

Updated: April 28, 2022, 11:29 AM