Posted on April 03, 2006 in Washington Watch

For over 20 years, Sami Merhi, a Lebanese immigrant businessman in New Jersey, worked to support his local Democratic party. He raised money, volunteered in campaigns and participated in party functions.

Two weeks ago, his county party leadership rewarded Merhi’s efforts by endorsing his candidacy for Freeholder (a county supervisor position). It was, Sami said, one of the proudest days of his life as a US citizen–the fulfillment of the American dream.

The very next day, a state legislator, Gary Shaer, attacked the endorsement, pointing to a four-year-old New York Times story in which Merhi was quoted as saying that the 9-11 attacks on the US were different than terror attacks against Israel. Shaer and a few others argued that if Merhi’s name remained on the ballot, New Jersey’s Jewish voters might not vote for the Democratic ticket.

For four years now, Merhi has insisted that the Times quote was partial and inaccurate. He has made clear, that he opposes all forms of terrorism, including attacks on Israeli civilians. But it has been for naught.

Shaer’s denunciation of Merhi was followed quickly by equally harsh criticism from New Jersey’s newly appointed Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, who is also running for election in November. Menendez’s rejection of Merhi was seconded by a spokesperson for the New Jersey Democratic Governor Jon Corzine. Upping the ante, Menendez’s Republican opponent Tom Kean joined the fray, chiding Democrats for placing the Arab American on their ballot.

No one listened to Merhi’s denials and none of these leaders even spoke to him. As momentum against his candidacy grew, one local newspaper likened it to “mob rule.” And some Arab Americans termed the effort a “political lynching.”

County Democratic leaders who know Sami Merhi recognized that the charges against him were both unfounded and unfair. Driven, however, by fear that a campaign would be mobilized against their entire ticket, they resolved to rescind Merhi’s nomination.

Sami Merhi was “Dubai’d”–that’s when you are demonized by unfounded allegations spread by opponents seeking political advantage and then dumped by so-called friends who fear defending you. It is a kind of political terrorism that mixes fear, character assassination, and crass politics.

The county Democrats who dumped Merhi hoped that this would be the end of the story, that they could now, as one noted, focus on “winning in November.” But the matter is not over. There are lessons to be learned from this sordid affair. And there will be consequences, as well.

First, the lessons.

Politics, shorn of personal loyalty and principle, becomes a crass and hollow exercise. Those Democrats who know Merhi and knew the charges against him were unfair should have defended him. Call me naïve, but I believe that voters reward truth and loyalty. Running away from a friend, at the first hint of trouble, is both cowardly and weak. Voters sense that. They might well ask, “If these leaders can’t defend a friend, how can I count on them to fight for me?”

Gary Shaer was wrong. Jewish voters are not an intolerant bloc. Merhi had significant support from Jewish leaders who knew him from business and interfaith activity. The demographics of Northern New Jersey are changing. While that state’s Jewish community remains a substantial force, there is a growing Arab American and South Asian Muslim community now demanding recognition. As former President Bill Clinton demonstrated, the Democratic Party can and must find a way to accommodate Arab Americans and American Jews–both of whom he cultivated and both of whom supported his Presidency. At the first sign of trouble, instead of submitting to threats, New Jersey’s Democratic leaders should have worked to bring both communities together. Zero-sum politics, that, in effect, excludes one group, is not a recipe for winning elections.

That being said, there may well be consequences to dropping Sami Merhi from the ticket in November, and not only in New Jersey. Arab American voters who are both energized and empowered in several key states (Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey to mention a few), show no sign of accepting to be victimized again by the politics of exclusion they endured in the 1980s. Back then, candidates rejected their contributions and shunned their endorsements.

Having been horrified by the bigoted rhetoric that characterized the Dubai ports debate, in which Arab businessmen were compared with “skinheads” and “the devil,” many Arab Americans are not inclined to walk over Merhi’s body to vote for his replacement in November.

In the real world of politics, however, the game is never over and opportunities always exist to set a new course. After the Merhi affair, however, the situation does become more complicated.

Happily some efforts are being made. This past week, New Jersey Democratic Governor Jon Corzine met with Arab American leaders, including Sami Merhi, in an effort to clear the air. The Governor has continued his outreach effort, meeting one on one with Merhi later in the week. And Democratic Congressman Bill Pascrell, a consistent defender of Merhi, addressing a major gathering of New Jersey’s Jewish community, called for reaching out and including “our Arab brothers and sisters.” These steps mark a beginning. Much work remains to be done to heal the breach, but, one senses that this story is not yet over.

For comments or information, contact James Zogby

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