Posted on July 31, 2012 in Arab American Institute
Meeting with Vice President Biden Reinvigorates White House Outreach
Earlier this month, I wrote to the White House, advising on the need to broaden and deepen the Administration’s relationships with Arab Americans and the many component groups who define our community. In response, the White House Director of Public Engagement brokered a meeting between Arab American leaders and top Administration officials including Vice President Joe Biden, Tony Blinkin (Biden’s National Security Advisor), and Ben Rhodes (Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications). The 1-1/2 hour meeting was a meaningful exchange on US foreign policy, particularly the situation on the ground in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq.
Later that day, Maya Berry and I met with Tonya Robinson, Special Assistant to the President for Justice and Regulatory Policy, to discuss our concerns regarding the Department of Justice's “profiling guidelines,” NYPD/CIA surveillance programs, and government training about Arabs and Muslims. White House Director of Public Engagement Jon Carson, whose office set up our meeting with the Vice President, is working with us to convene a parallel set of meetings with the White House Domestic Policy Council. The White House also has agreed to host a series of discussions with top Administration officials regarding both domestic and foreign policy priorities.
At the same time, AAI continues to advocate for a Department of Justice investigation into the NYPD and FBI’s actions. The latest tools in our kit include a video outlining the egregious actions of the New York Police Department and detailing how its questionable surveillance tactics are deteriorating Arab Americans’ trust in law enforcement agencies and officials. We also have begun circulating a petition calling on Attorney General Eric Holder to open a DOJ investigation into these civil rights abuses.
Arab and Muslim Bashing Gets a Very Public Rebuke
By now, you’ve heard about the four letters that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and four fellow members of Congress sent to the Inspectors General of the Departments of State, Justice, Defense, Homeland Security, as well as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, imploring them to investigate the degree to which the Muslim Brotherhood had infiltrated the U.S. government. The letters cited Huma Abedin’s position as a senior aide to Hillary Clinton as evidence that the Muslim Brotherhood had infiltrated top levels of American government in its bid to “destroy the Western Civilization from within.” While specifically naming Abedin, the attacks were meant to cast widespread doubt on the loyalties of Arab Americans and American Muslims serving in government.
The June 13 letters were picked up by a few blogs that began writing about the allegations in late June and Congressman Keith Ellison’s challenge received only local coverage in Minnesota. However, following my Washington Watch column and subsequent appearance on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360, the story really gained ground. CNN ran a series of news reports covering the controversy, and other outlets followed suit, spurring not just a media firestorm, but even public rebuke of Bachmann’s allegations from former presidential contender Senator John McCain from the Senate floor. Since Sen. McCain’s speech, several other prominent political officials have publically criticized Bachmann’s letter, and the Departments of State and Homeland Security have expressly announced that they will not investigate these unsubstantiated allegations.
I am pleased we were able to impact this issue in a substantive way, and this week AAI is releasing the second edition of our Leadership or Pandering: Grading Our Elected Officials series which details the responses of elected officials and policymakers to the comments and accusations in Bachmann’s letters.
Key Races to Watch
Michele Bachmann’s witch-hunt in Washington against Arab American and American Muslim public servants has had an impact on the reelection race of Rep. Keith Ellison (D- MN). In the wake of Ellison taking on Bachmann, his opponent for Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District, Chris Fields, has embraced Bachmann-esque rhetoric in his campaign. In a fundraising email, Fields called Ellison “militantly anti-American.” Fields has fared better than past Republican challengers against Ellison in terms of fundraising, but his total is still dwarfed by Ellison’s and observers are still classifying the district as safe for Ellison’s reelection. Also in Minnesota, Rep. Betty McCollum, a long-time friend of our community, came out with a sharp rebuke of Bachmann’s witch-hunt. McCollum, who might have had to face Bachmann depending on how the districts were drawn, is expected to firmly defeat her Republican opponent, Anthony Hernandez, who continues to struggle and has only $5,000 cash in his campaign coffers.
Rep. Bachmann herself is isolated among her Republican colleagues for her attacks, but unfortunately her efforts have significantly energized her Tea Party grassroots support and have resulted in a boon for her national fundraising. Bachmann’s antics in Washington, however, have also made press and voters much more interested to hear from her opponent for Minnesota’s 6th District, Jim Graves. While Graves still has an uphill battle to unseat the Tea Party star, political observers are no longer treating Minnesota’s 6th District as a shoo-in for Bachmann. Graves’ campaign seeks to highlight a record of missed votes and thin constituent services among Bachmann’s pursuit of higher office and stirring up controversy.
24-term incumbent, civil rights icon, and stalwart supporter Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) faces his toughest reelection campaign in 18 years. Conyers is facing a crowded field in his new district, the product of a Republican gerrymandering that now includes blue-collar, heavily white Detroit suburbs. His chief challenger is State Sen. Glenn Anderson, who has raised as much money as Rep. Conyers and has gained several key endorsements. Conyers, however, managed to get the Detroit Free Press endorsement and his campaign is touting his extensive efforts to reach out to voters in the new areas of his district.
We are also closely watching the race of Arab American Congressman Charles Boustany (R-LA). He faces a merged district that will pit him against fellow Republican Rep. Jeff Landry. The two are both conservative Republicans, so the race is less about substantive policy differences than it is about the old mantra “all politics is local.” The new district contains more of Rep. Boustany’s old district than Rep. Landry’s, so Boustany maintains a comfortable lead going into the primary.
Voter Mobilization Efforts Underway
AAI’s 2012 Yalla Vote campaign is now in full-swing. We are partnering with the National Network of Arab American Communities on a variety of voter education, mobilization, and registration initiatives, and taking full advantage of the wealth of online technologies that can help us promote our work. Our virtual campaign components include Twitter (#YallaVote) and Facebook outreach, as well as a revamped Yalla Vote webpage that includes state-specific information on voter registration, candidates, party leadership, and information about national issues from voter suppression to presidential candidates’ position statements.
During next month’s Congressional recess, AAI and NNAAC will host a “Week of Action,” facilitating meetings between our members and their representatives while they’re home “in district.” And throughout the Fall, we will be hosting Town Halls to talk about key issues in the race and coordinating virtual phone banks to mobilize the Arab American vote. We’ll have an on-the-ground presence at events around the nation to help register Arab American voters.
Arab Americans at the Conventions
Key AAI staff will travel to Tampa, Florida and Charlotte, North Carolina in August-September to attend the Republican and Democratic nominating conventions. We will convene panel discussions on Middle East peace, religious tolerance, and civil liberties. While the events will clearly be a draw for the dozens of Arab American delegates and Committee members attending the conventions, they will also be a potent tool to educate delegates and party leaders about Arab American concerns related to these issues, as well as the impact that our domestic policies have on US relations in the region. As we reach out to the media regarding these panel discussions, AAI will provide not just updates and analyses of these issues, but also profiles of the Arab American delegates participating in the conventions, reinforcing our community’s role in presenting and shaping political discourse both within their parties and at the national level.
PUTTING THE FACTS IN PRINT
The week of August 20, just prior to the national nominating conventions, AAI will release a new poll. We are surveying American public opinion on Arab Americans, American Muslims, and a variety of issues pertaining to the Middle East and US-Arab relations. Following the conventions, we will release our quadrennial poll of Arab American voter preferences and political concerns. Given the anti-Arab, anti-Islam climate that has been almost pervasive during this election cycle, we believe the polls will garner significant media attention. They will also serve as a good foregrounding for the Fall 2012 release of our candidate questionnaire, getting the candidates on the record about issues like profiling and Islamophobia.