Article Thumbnail

The Muslim Politician Who Laid the Smack Down on a ‘SmackDown!’ Star

Abdullah Hammoud defeated WWE legend Rhino to become a state congressman in Michigan

A few months ago, I wrote about Rhino, the 300-pound WWE tag team champion who decided to run for state congress in his hometown of Dearborn, Michigan. I didn’t write the piece to gawk at him — STUPID JOCK DO SMART GUY THING; I mainly wrote it because I love professional wrestling, and I wanted to talk to Rhino (birth name — Terrance Guido Gerin), a hardcore legend who has Gored many a fool through a table en route to championships in every major wrestling promotion.

As far as I could tell, he was also attempting to make history. That is, while other wrestlers had won political office before (Jesse “The Body” Ventura chief among them), Rhino was the only one hoping to do so while still under the employ of Vince McMahon or any other major wrestling promoter. Further, he seemed to be one of the last moderate Republicans (an advocate of unions and social services who lists FDR and JFK among his favorite presidents) and completely sincere about why he was pursuing public office: “I understand some people might be hesitant thinking [my candidacy is] a gimmick, but my friends and family know my love for this country, my passion for politics and my love for helping people out,” he told in an interview.

The Wrestling Man-Beast Running for State Rep in Michigan

Unlike Rhino’s day job, his state congressional victory didn’t seem preordained, but it certainly appeared likely. As one Detroit–area reporter told me via email:

“I believe [Rhino] has a very good shot at winning his district. He has a huge following, which continues to grow as he’s now back in WWE, and I’d imagine he has the ability to get his message out via social media more so than his opponent. To be honest, I have no idea who his opponent even is, but I think that’s the case with many elections like this.”

As it turns out, however, his Democratic opponent, 26-year-old health-care policy adviser Abdullah Hammoud, was the most interesting part of the story — such a progressive’s progressive that he seemed more like an optical illusion than a real live person. For starters, he looks a bit like a stubbled, Arab-American Chris Hayes. Then there’s his background and agenda: Hammoud is the highly educated son of an immigrant, Muslim family who already has a strong grasp on health care and the environment (both of which he thinks about in perfectly progressive ways). In other words: He was, by any measure, the epitome of Obama’s America — a virtue made only more stark by the rhetoric and platform of the Trump campaign.

And weirdly, he faced similar circumstances to Hillary Clinton in his campaign — competing against a political outsider who had an outsized TV presence (Rhino appears on WWE’s SmackDown! nearly every Tuesday night). (In fairness, though, that’s where the comparisons between Trump and Rhino end: Rhino voted for John Kasich in Michigan’s primary, and said of Trump, “If you think you can just walk in as an outsider and just change everything you’re kidding yourself.”)

Not that Rhino’s edge in visibility bothered Hammoud when I talked to him in September:

“Certainly Mr. Gerin has name recognition that comes given his position and what he does for a living. But it doesn’t change our game plan. Our game plan is, and always will be, to focus on the issues and to do the hard work. We’re always confident in the work that we put into our campaign. Regardless of who we’re running against, I always believe that my biggest opponent is myself, and that if I wake up every day and put forth the work necessary, then we can take this thing home in November. So we’re focused on our campaign and not distracting ourselves with others’ campaigns.”

That is to say: It’s the issues, stupid!

Hammoud also had more of an advantage than anyone was letting on. For instance, Wayne County, which is where Dearborn is located, isn’t exactly Trump country. In fact, no Republican had held the state congressional seat Rhino and Hammoud were campaigning for since 1988. And its Muslim population is among the largest in the United States , with Dearborn almost always serving as the place journalists parachute into for the Muslim-American angle on any number of national and/or international Muslim issues. “I think now it’s between 40–50 percent [Arab American],” Hammoud explains. “We don’t have a census that categorizes Arab American as its own race/ethnicity; on the census, we check the white box. So it’s never 100 percent certain, but I’d put it at about 40–50 percent, if not a little bit greater.”

In the end, those two facts — a heavily Democratic, heavily Muslim base — are probably what led to Hammoud’s “upset” victory as well as his large margin of victory (62 percent to 38 percent). And, in fact, Wayne County went 2-to-1 in favor of Clinton.

Not that being Muslim in a highly charged election season full of the specter of government watch lists, internment camps and deportation didn’t make for some occasional campaign trail misery. Or as Hammoud put it to me over the phone:

“Certainly when we knocked on doors, we came across some individuals who didn’t like me because of my name and made some bigoted remarks. But it’s certainly not the majority in this community. The fact that I won goes to show that I have the collective support from all races and all ethnicities in this community, which is very diverse and largely made up of non-Arab Americans and non-Muslims. And that contrary to the national scene, Dearborn is an example of how individuals of various cultures can live harmoniously.

“On a national level, what I’ll say is now more than ever we’re going to have to hold our leaders accountable. I also think President-elect Trump needs to send a message to the people [who are threatened by his election]. It would go a long way toward [assuaging their fears].”

As far as reaching across the aisle in his own district, Hammoud and Rhino are already chill. “Rhino and I go the same gym,” Hammoud says. “So I see him all the time. He’s a great guy, and he really wants to be involved. We already have lunch scheduled. He’s got a lot to offer our community, and I welcome his voice.”