Posted on January 17, 1994 in Washington Watch

This week Arab American delegates from 26 states will convene in Washington for the eighth National Leadership Conference of the Arab American Institute (AAI). This year’s conference will mark the significant advances made by Arab Americans in U.S. politics. The conference will also serve as a forum for setting an Arab American policy and electoral agenda for 1994.

This year’s events will be highlighted by the appearance of two Cabinet officials from the Clinton Administration and one of the President’s closest advisors: Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown, Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, and Senior Advisor for Policy and Strategy George Stephanopoulos.

Secretary Brown will appear back in the U.S. on the opening day of the conference, following a five day visit to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, the West Bank and Egypt. He will also address the Arab American conference on Saturday, giving a report on his Middle East trip. The Commerce Secretary will describe his meetings with Palestinian business leaders in the Occupied Territories at an event co-hosted by Builders for Peace (the U.S. private sector initiative designed to bring American investment to the West Bank and Gaza).

Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Donna Shalala will appear as the Keynote speaker at a Friday night banquet saluting Arab Americans in government. Shalala, the highest ranking Arab American in government, will present an award to former Congresswoman Mary Rose Oakar for her service, both to the government and to the Arab American community. Oakar, an Arab American Democrat from Cleveland, Ohio, served in the U.S. Congress from 1977 to 1992.

In addition to hearing from these and other high-level Clinton Administration officials (the Arab American conferees will be invited to the White House for a Friday morning briefing), the conference will feature several panel discussions which show the growing political maturity of the Arab American community.

· One discussion will focus on the effects of the Clinton Administration’s policies on health care, crime and welfare on local communities across the country. This panel will be led by George Stephanopoulos and will include a number of Arab American mayors and local elected officials. This will be an important forum, because local leaders are seeking what assurances they can get that these proposals of the Clinton Administration will not place unfair burdens on local government, as was the case with many other federal initiatives over the past twelve years.

· A major focus of the conference will be a full discussion of whether or not Arab Americans ought to seek recognition from the national government as an official “minority” group. Six Arab American community leaders will present their views on this subject, and five U.S. government officials and civil rights experts will respond. Then all of the conferees will break out to discuss the issue in an effort to reach some level of consensus as to how Arab Americans should proceed.

The question of minority status is an important one, and very complex. In short, when the U.S. government recognizes a specific group of people as a “minority,” it opens the door to a variety of government assistance for business and education that are not open to most Americans. The purpose is to correct historic injustices which have led some groups, such as African Americans and Latino Americans, to have less than their rightful share of some of more lucrative and rewarding aspects of American life.

There are strong arguments and feelings on both sides of the issue, and a national discussion of it is overdue. This conference will provide the first nationwide forum on this topic.

· Another discussion, which will focus on the relations between ethnic groups in the U.S., will be led by Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat from Connecticut. This panel will feature leaders from the American Jewish, Italian American, Latino American and Korean American communities. Because most Arab Americans live in urban areas with many other ethnic groups, this is an important issue; and the presence of the leaders of other communities could open the pathway for new relations and stronger with these other ethnic groups.

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Foreign policy issues will also play an important role in the conference, as the Arab American community and political leaders in attendance discuss how they can best contribute to building stronger U.S.-Arab ties and support positive developments in the Arab world.

An important highlight of this part of the conference will be a roundtable discussion between leading U.S. and Arab journalists. The U.S. side will be represented by David Broder of the Washington Post and CNN’s Frank Sesno. The Arab journalists include Al Qabas editor Muhammad Sager of Kuwait and Jordan’s Rami Khouri.

The conference will also include a full discussion of how Arab Americans can play a constructive role in the changing Arab world. In particular, there will be a discussion of the many positive developments now occurring in the West Bank and Gaza, and how Arab Americans might be able to lend practical support.

This annual AAI leadership conference will also focus prime attention on those Arab Americans who are running for public office in the elections coming up this November. There are already 35 announced Arab American candidates who will be attracting the support of the community, a number of whom will be attending the conference. Of special note are two candidates running for high office who will be featured at a special function at the conference.

Spencer Abraham, a Republican, is a major candidate for the U.S. Senate seat in Michigan – a state that is home to 250,000 Arab Americans. Abraham comes into this election having served in a number of important posts in the Republican party. He most recently served as Chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), which is the organization responsible for electing Republicans to the House of Representatives. Before that he served as Deputy Chief of Staff to Vice President Dan Quayle, and came to that post after five years as the head of the Michigan Republican party.

One other major campaign featuring an Arab American candidate will be the race for governor in Connecticut. Joe Ganim, who was just elected to his second term as Mayor of Bridgeport, the state’s largest city, has announced his candidacy for the governor’s seat after being urged to run by many of his fellow Democrats. And Ganim is indeed a rising young star in the Democratic party. After taking over a city literally on the verge of bankruptcy in 1990, he set out on a program of cutting back spending while simultaneously increasing spending on combating crime. His austerity program was expected to cost him at the polls but he stunned observers by winning 80% of the vote, which earned him national attention.

Another important event at the conference will be the launching of the Arab American Advisory Council to the Democratic Party. This will mark the first time that the Democratic Party has given formal recognition to a national Arab American group. In even further recognition of the fact that Arab Americans have been accepted as a constituency within the party, David Wilhelm, the Chairman of the Democratic Party, will be present to make the official announcement.

On the Republican side, the conference will be addressed by Michael Baroody, an Arab American who has been named the President of the National Policy Forum of the Republican Party, which is the policy arm of the Republican party. Baroody, who served as an official in the Reagan Administration, came to the position after five years as Vice President for Communications at the National Association of Manufacturers.

This is only a partial list of the programs and speakers who will appear at this year’s annual leadership conference. There may be still more in store for the conference attendees. For example, the White House has indicated that, schedule permitting, Vice President Al Gore will address the conference. And the list of members of Congress who will be addressing the conference at a special a special luncheon forum on Capitol Hill includes Nick Rahall of West Virginia, Tim Penny of Minnesota, Jim Moran of Virginia, Craig Washington of Texas, and Nancy Pelosi of California.

It is clear from the presence of Cabinet Secretaries Shalala and Brown and a high level official like George Stephanopoulos, and the increasingly high level of government being reached by Arab Americans, that things are changing for the community.

Problems, of course, continue to exist for Arab Americans in politics, but the program of this year’s leadership conference demonstrates that the path to political power can bring about very real changes in the life of the community, its access to political decision-makers, and its ability to have an impact on both foreign and domestic U.S. policy.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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