Aiyash helps campaign for other Democratic legislative candidates ahead of the 2020 election. Photo courtesy Abraham Aiyash
Aiyash helps campaign for other Democratic legislative candidates ahead of the 2020 election.

Representative-elect Abraham Aiyash explains the kind of innovation that keeps legislators and constituents connected when face-to-face events aren’t safe.

HAMTRAMCK, Mich.—The votes have been counted since the end of election week  in Michigan, and legislators in the state are looking ahead at the terms to come. Each representative is presented with a unique challenge this year, though. This year, the need to reimagine connecting with their constituents.

Abraham Aiyash, the Democratic Representative-elect from Hamtramck to Lansing, told The ‘Gander that legislators are innovating, finding new ways to reach their constituents and for their constituents to reach them in return.

“Our team is working on figuring out ways to have weekly check-ins with our community,” Aiyash said. “Whether that be on policy things or just checking in on people, sort of a wellness check.”

Aiyash won election to a seat previously held by his friend, the late Rep. Isaac Robinson, and continuing Robinson’s dedication to constituent service is an important part of Aiyash’s mission.

Robinson died of what was suspected to be a case of COVID-19 early in the pandemic. He and Aiyash were like brothers, Robinson a political mentor and dear friend to Aiyash, and Aiyash carrying on Robinson’s work, centered around social, environmental and economic justice.

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Aiyash said the fastest way to get his attention is to send him an email. Contact information for each member of the legislature is available online. He also is looking at doing video chats, like the virtual coffee hours some legislators already do.

State Rep. Angela Witwer (D-Delta Twp.), for instance, has hosted virtual coffee hours during the pandemic to keep connected with her constituents remotely. The idea has also been used on the other side of the aisle, with state Sen. Lana Theis (R-Sturgis) adding virtual coffee hours to her in-person ones. 

But, Aiyash said, livestreams and teleconferences may not be enough. 

“I think people are sick and tired of Zoom calls,” he joked.

Among the biggest problems is access to these tools.

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Not everyone has the high-speed access to internet needed for a Zoom conference with their elected official, or to even watch a livestream of that official taking questions and giving answers. People without high-speed internet, Aiyash said, are being left behind as the adaptation to the pandemic pushes more things toward streaming teleconferences. 

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the digital divide, and a majority of Americans have described internet access as essential to life during the pandemic. 

As parts of the government increasingly turn to the internet as a means of constituent service, Aiyash fears for those who will be left behind. So his office is working on new solutions for reaching out and helping constituents reach him during the crisis. 

“The other angle is the grassroots institutions,” Aiyash said. “I believe in co-governing. And I think co-governing works best when institutions and activist groups are the link with elected officials. So I think the best way to get power to leverage your elected officials is to absolutely engage an organization.”

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He cited examples like Detroit Will Breathe and Detroit Action. But he doesn’t end there. 

Aiyash plans to hold office hours to connect with his constituents in as many safe ways as possible. In addition to working with community groups, emails or even leaving a voicemail with his office, Aiyash is trying to find more innovative solutions to the problem posed by the pandemic. One example he explained was developing some sort of outreach program for the representative using the secure messaging app Signal. 

“We are going to continue to figure out what are some innovative and effective ways to reach people,” he said. 

To reach Aiyash, or any other representative, Michiganders can find the contact information for their legislator on the House’s website