Change is coming to the Dearborn City Council — in the form of two women with long histories in the community.
Erin Byrnes and Leslie Herrick are the two new faces who will join the City Council after claiming victory in the November election. Both women grew up in the city, graduated from Dearborn schools and were heavily involved with the community before running for office.
They join incumbents Robert Abraham, David Bazzy, Susan Dabaja, Brian O’Donnell and Michael Sareini, who were re-elected to office.
Both newcomers said they are ready to get to work representing residents.
“My goal is to be accessible to all our residents and make sure their hopes for the city are heard and their concerns addressed,” Byrnes, 32, said. “I’m really excited to get to work.”
Among Byrnes’ goals are to continue working to make both of the city’s downtown areas vibrant and family friendly, as well as to beautify the surrounding neighborhoods.
She is the current chair of the Dearborn City Beautiful Commission and a member of the Downtown Promotions Committee and the League of Women Voters.
Those involvements pushed her to seek a seat on the council. “I started to think about how I could elevate that work, and the City Council really stood out to me,” she said.
From 2005 to ‘07, Byrnes worked as an intern in the council office and said it’s gratifying to see things come full circle. “I knew I wanted to step up my involvement in the city and represent the needs of residents,” she said.
Maintaining quality of life
Quality of life in Dearborn is the biggest issue for Byrnes, who said it “encompasses traffic safety, making sure we’re preventing littering and having quality parks and pools that are as accessible as possible. Also having businesses that are walkable and part of that community; taking care of our environment with regard to air quality — specifically in the south end where there are a lot of industrial businesses — and green technology.”
Promoting the ArtSpace project in the community is another long-term goal for Byrnes as well as encouraging development in east Dearborn and continuing to expand bike trails and walking paths.
She attributes her successful campaign to a lot of legwork — estimating she knocked on more than 10,000 doors during her run — as well as a dedicated group of volunteers.
“I knew I’d given it everything I could have,” she said. “While I didn’t know what the outcome would be, I felt good about the hard work we’d put in.”
Raised and educated in Dearborn, Byrnes graduated from St. Alphonsus High School and earned a bachelor’s degree from The University of Michigan-Dearborn before moving to New York City to teach middle school special education. While living and teaching in Brooklyn, she completed a master’s degree in education.
She moved back to Dearborn in 2010 and began working at The University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. Her job as the lead for Democratic Engagement involves increasing student voter registration rates, engaging students in dialogue across the political spectrum and preparing students to take the lead on pressing issues.
As manager of the university’s America Reads program, she helps provide literacy tutoring services to more than 1,000 elementary students, manages community partnerships and crafts training curriculum for more than 120 U of M student tutors.
Sharing crucial issues
Supporting the city’s first responders was the No. 1 issue mentioned by residents, according to Herrick, and will be her top issue as a councilperson. “My priority is to make sure we’re always at the forefront of providing fast, effective response,” she said
Traffic safety is another issue that consistently was mentioned in both Byrnes’ and Herrick’s talks with voters. “Slowing down drivers whether it’s on our residential streets or county thoroughfares, and making sure it’s safe to ride a bike on the street without taking a tumble is important to them,” Herrick said.
The rat problem currently plaguing certain areas of the city was another hot topic with voters, both Byrnes and Herrick found.
“In some neighborhoods, rats are a concern and it’s something I know the city is working to address,” Byrnes said.
For Herrick, 53, running for City Council wasn’t something she ever planned to do but was a natural evolution in her career after having worked in the city’s Recreation & Parks Department and in communications at City Hall.
“It wasn’t ever a grand plan to run for City Council … but it all ties together because this is my hometown. I’m very passionate about making it as welcoming as it can be,” Herrick said.
A Dearborn High School graduate, she earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from Wayne State University. She works as a communications specialist with Dearborn Public Schools. Her background includes working in public relations in the healthcare, financial and nonprofit industries.
Her passion to see women succeed blossomed during her time with working with Inforum Michigan, a nonprofit group dedicated to advancing women’s careers.
“While I was there, I met Debbie Dingell, Debbie Stabenow and elected officials from different cities, and seeing them and the work I was doing at the time inspired me,” Herrick said.
After working on political campaigns for several other candidates in the past, she began to see an opportunity for her to serve.
She said her skill set working for the city, the schools and nonprofits gives her a unique perspective, which boosted her enthusiasm to run, as well as the thought of getting more women on the council. “While I don’t think anyone should vote for someone based on gender, it was one more thing to consider and that did play into my decision to run,” she said.
Both women also said adding more female voices to the council is an exciting prospect.
“I think this is the first time we’ve ever had three of the council members being women,” Herrick said. “Particularly getting to work with Susan and Erin, this will be an exciting time for women in Dearborn.”
Family focused community
Herrick lives in Dearborn with her 16-year-old son, Brendan Hay, a junior at Dearborn High School. The tight-knit family atmosphere in Dearborn is part of what keeps her in the city.
“It’s heartwarming to see how many families go back generations in Dearborn,” she said. “The children often leave to spread their wings and they end up coming back because they want to live in a city with safe streets, playgrounds and neighbors who know each other.”
As a testament to that, Herrick said that three of her longtime friends lent vital support during her council run by knocking on doors and providing entertainment at fundraisers.
“Some of my dearest friends going back to kindergarten at Lindbergh Elementary School worked on my campaign,” she said.
Her sixth place finish was the result of a grassroots campaign that focused on firsthand contact with voters and talking to community groups to secure crucial endorsements.
“Historically, first time candidates do not succeed,” she said. “You have to earn that voter recognition. Those endorsements are important. In talking to those groups, they are looking for candidates who will be mindful of their concerns.
“I think what I said resonated with people. They liked what they heard and I’m honored by that. I know they put trust in me by electing me, and I’ll work very hard to live up to their expectations.”
Her extensive involvement with civic causes includes serving as president of the Ford Homes Historic District and with Friends of the Dearborn Symphony; the Dearborn Historical Society; the American Association of University Women; League of Women Voters; Dearborn Community Arts Council; Boy Scout Troop No. 1147; the Sierra Club; Greening of Detroit and the Remember Me Quilt Project.
As a councilwoman, Herrick plans to use her background to unite all segments of the population through the arts and cultural organizations. “I’d like to ensure a long-term plan that acknowledges the importance of art, music and food bringing people together as well as attracting people to come here and spend their money,” she said.
Herrick also cited ArtSpace as being a gem for the city to continue to expand its partnership.
“We’re becoming a cultural hub, and I want to capitalize on that,” she said. “People can do sculpture tours, cuisine tours … and we’ve got visitors coming from across the country to visit the Arab American Museum and Greenfield Village.”
Through her work with Dearborn schools, Herrick wants to continue to build partnerships with the city. “That’s one of the advantages I have in that the school board already knows who I am … and I have very good relationships with them,” she said.