Posted on May 18, 1992 in Washington Watch
While incumbents have reason to be concerned about the wave of discontent being expressed by voters in the ongoing 1992 elections, the mood of the electorate also presents challengers with great opportunities.
As the count now stands, more than 60 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and eight members of the Senate have resigned. Those numbers are already much greater than the normal election-year turnover in the House and Senate. With 19 new Congressional seats being created due to reapportionment and many current members of Congress expected to lose in November, political analysts are now predicting that the turnover could be as high as 150 in both houses.
Two Arab American office holders are among those who could benefit from this volatile atmosphere. Brenda Elias is Mayor of Franklin, a town in New Hampshire. She is running for the U.S. Senate and could become the first Arab American in a decade to hold that office. The other candidate is Wadie P. Deddeh, a State Senator in California who has an excellent chance of joining two other Arab Americans—Mary Rose Oakar (D-OH) and Nick J. Rahall (D-WVA)—in Congress. He would be first member of Congress born in the Arab world.
Both Elias and Deddeh are believed to have a good chance of winning because they are respected elected officials and have laid the groundwork it takes to win an election.
As Mayor of Franklin, Elias has become the spokeswoman of the average taxpayer in the state of New Hampshire, a role that has earned her a reputation as a feisty political infighter. She strikes campaign themes that are increasingly familiar in an election year of disaffection and discontent. Not only does she vow to seek no more than two terms as a Senator, she stresses the need to bring “accountability and responsibility” back to Washington.
She is a self-styled fiscal conservative who supports a balanced budget amendment and a “healthy business climate”—important issues in a recession-racked New Hampshire. She also claims to have a “social conscience” and supports women’s rights.
As a Mayor, she has developed a reputation for challenging the powers that be and has criticized New Hampshire Gov. Judd Gregg for imposing educational and regulatory requirements on local governments without providing the money to implement them. Elias contends this is a violation of the law.
In her announcement on May 5, she stressed her populism. She depicted Washington politicians as out of touch with the average American. “Our leaders in Washington can’t hear what you and I have to say because they’re too busy listening to multi-national corporations and writing tax laws that benefit millionaires,” she said.
Her two opponents in the Democratic primary on Sept. 8 are businessman John Rauh of Sunapee and Dr. Terry Bennett, a dentist from Hampton. Should Elias win the primary, she may well face Gov. Judd Gregg, who is leaving his post to seek the Republican nomination for the Senate. The current Senator, Warren Rudman, resigned his post last month claiming to be frustrated with Washington politics.
Elias is considered a serious contender because of her professional staff, her sophisticated campaign strategy and her personal appeal as a candidate. She will utilize direct mail and targeted precinct work to raise funds and shore up her grassroots support. She also could benefit from the high negative ratings saddling both her main primary opponent, John Rauh, and Gov. Gregg. Rauh is a Ohio businessman who moved to New Hampshire about six years ago. Two years ago he ran for the Senate and financed his campaign with over $400,000 of his own money. He received only 12 percent of the vote.
Another positive factor aiding the Elias campaign is the fact that she is a woman in an election year political analysts are calling “the year of the women.” With only 29 women in the 435-member House of Representatives and two in the 100-member U.S. Senate, women historically are not perceived as “insiders.” They bring a fresh perspective voters seem to like, as shown by two recent races in which virtually unknown women candidates scored stunning upsets over well established opponents.
On March 17, Carol Moseley Braun, a recorder of deeds, shocked the nation by beating the state’s senior Senator, Alan Dixon, in Illinois’ Senate primary. A few weeks later in Pennsylvania, Lynn H. Yeakel overcame obscurity and a strong opponent, the State Lieutenant Governor, to win the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate. She will challenge incumbent Republican Senator Arlen Specter, whose sharp (some argue rude) questioning of Anita Hill during the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas angered women all over the country and prompted Yeakel to run.
At last count, 140 women are running for seats in the U.S. House and 17—Elias among them—are seeking Senate seats. Hundreds more are hoping to win local and statewide offices.
Elias, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, has support from Arab Americans around the country. She supports the peace process now underway and argues that fairness is the key to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. She also supports Arab American empowerment and is active in a number of Arab American community organizations.
“I haven’t met anyone of Arab American background who doesn’t have a lot of pride in their heritage. As more of us get elected to local, state and federal office, we will have more input into the political process. That’s one of the reasons our grandparents came here.”
Deddeh’s is a success story in which all Arab Americans can take pride. Born in the Iraqi village of Telkeif, his interest in politics was first piqued by his uncle, who was a member of the Iraqi parliament in the 1930s. Deddeh, who is Chaldean, came to the United States in 1947 and remained fascinated by politics and government. He would often watch the California General Assembly debate important issues facing the state and hoped that he, too, might some day make a contribution.
After working in several campaigns and teaching political science and American government at Southwestern College, Deddeh ran for and won his own seat in the California General Assembly in 1966, representing an area that included the city of San Diego. Then in 1982, he ran for a seat in the state Senate. He won that election and has continued to win reelection by wider and wider margins.
Having spent close to 25 years in California government, Deddeh has earned the respect and admiration of both political parties. He has served on numerous committees and was considered for an Ambassadorship by the Republican Reagan Administration.
Deddeh is running for Congress in the newly created 50th District, which stretches from the border of Mexico to San Diego and includes East San Diego and Chula Vista. Registration in the district is 51.4 percent Democrat and 35.8 percent Republican. The ethnic makeup of the district is 41 percent Latino, 14 percent African-American and 14 percent Asian. There are about 5,000 Arab Americans in the area. The current and very popular Mayor of Chula Vista is another Arab American, Jim Nader.
Deddeh downplays his age, 71, and emphasizes his desire to serve Americans of all backgrounds.
“I feel so much energy, so much strength, so much determination, so much desire, that I feel like I am 50 years old,” he said.
Deddeh stresses issues such as drug use, crime, the huge federal deficit and the loss of U.S. jobs to foreign countries. He opposes abortion, but this will not hurt him as much as it might in other Democratic districts because of the strong Catholic presence in the 50th.
“My campaign,” he notes, “is not Wadie Deddeh’s crusade, but this is the crusade of all Americans—the forgotten ones, the helpless, the needy, the poor, the kids in school.”
Deddeh’s will be a tough race. His opponents include former U.S. Congressman Jim Bates and San Diego City Councilman Bob Filner. They are joined by three other less known candidates.
As a former Congressman, Bates might be considered Deddeh’s main competition if he were not saddled by a host of improprieties, including charges that he sexually harassed staff members and used bank overdrafts at the House Bank to cover 1990 campaign loans. Filner, as a San Diego City Councilman, is also a formidable opponent.
Deddeh is finding support from across the community. Labor groups, realtors, law enforcement and firefighters organizations and the American Legion have all lined up behind his campaign, not to mention San Diego Mayor Maureen O’Connor.
Unfortunately, the Congressional campaign has been marred by certain elements in the community who have tried to exploit post-Gulf War sentiment in a nasty smear campaign challenging Deddeh’s patriotism because of his Iraqi background. Until this year, no one had made an issue of his ethnicity. Deddeh’s supporters and the press have responded, noting that Deddeh gave two passionate speeches in California supporting President Bush’s stand during the Gulf War.
“People did not vote for me or against me because I was an Arab,” he said two years ago. “They voted for me because I knocked on their door, I taught their kids, my wife taught their kids. I listened to their problems. They said, `hey, this is a good man. I’ll vote for him.’”
Another Arab American who hopes to ride the outsider wave into Washington, D.C. is Sam Zakhem, a former ambassador to Bahrain and a former state legislator in Colorado.
Zakhem is not now holding office and faces a tough Republican primary campaign against Terry Considine, a State Senator in Colorado who looks to be the frontrunner.
Even so, Zakhem’s energetic personality and his record of achievement as an immigrant from Lebanon have earned him respect around the state. He is particularly strong in rural areas, but it remains to be seen if he can overcome the powerful urban forces supporting Considine.
Zakhem came to the United States in the mid-1960s with only $23 in his pocket. He worked his way through graduate school and obtained his Ph.D. and his U.S. citizenship in the same year, 1970. He later obtained a job as Director of International Student Affairs at the University of Denver. In 1974, he was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives, one of only two Republicans in the state that year (in the midst of the Watergate scandal then embroiling the Republican Nixon Administration) to defeat a Democratic incumbent. In 1978, he was elected to the Colorado State Senate.
Though he failed in his primary bid for the U.S. Senate in 1980, Zakhem was later appointed ambassador to Bahrain by President Reagan. Zakhem assisted the Bush Administration during the Gulf War by testifying before Congress and by meeting with Congressional members. He cites his experience in international affairs. Though he once had a reputation for his strong right-wing politics, Zakhem says now that he has matured and is more open-minded.
“You live and learn,” he said.
When the 103rd Congress convenes in 1993, a record number of new faces will be among those sworn into office. Among them could be additional Arab American elected officials.
The importance of this possibility should not be underestimated. These new leaders will bring with them a record of leadership and community service and the support of constituents for their issues and concerns. They will serve, if elected, not only their states and communities but as role models for young Arab Americans and they will contribute to the future empowerment of our community as a whole.
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