Posted on June 08, 1992 in Washington Watch

It is becoming increasingly difficult to write about U.S. politics without focusing on Ross Perot.

Once again, this week Perot dominated the media—winning a majority of support in exit polls in California and Ohio, qualifying for the ballot as an independent in two more states, conducting a television pep rally by satellite for supporters in six states, and hiring two top political organizers (1976 Carter campaign manager Hamilton Jordan and 1984 Reagan campaign manager Ed Rollins).

Perot has been so successful in staging events and appearances that focus press attention on his campaign that he has all but pushed President Bush and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, the Democratic challenger, off the front pages. In fact, when President Bush attempted to hold a prime-time press conference this week to discuss budget issues, the three major networks refused to televise it, and reporters hounded the President not with questions about budget issues, but about Ross Perot. (Only CNN cameras were there, though they offered free time to the Perot campaign to respond to Bush’s remarks.)

And even now, as negative stories are beginning to appear in the press about Perot’s past business dealings, they are being virtually swallowed up in a sea of positive stories.

A recent study released by the Center for Media and Public Affairs showed that in the past few months 72% of all network news stories about President Bush have been negative, while the coverage of Bill Clinton was 70% negative until after the New York primary (though it has been 62% positive since then). But 71% of the reporting on Ross Perot has been positive. With that kind of treatment, is it any wonder that Perot is rising in the national polls while Bush and Clinton are dropping?

I had two hours of discussion with Ross Perot last week and discovered quite a bit about how he thinks and how he deals with people. I will write a future article about what I learned but, in brief, I left the discussion deeply concerned about what a Perot presidency would mean for America and especially for U.S.-Middle East relations.

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There is much more going on this week, however, than news about Ross Perot. Momentous changes are taking place in the American electorate as well as in the congress and Senate, changes that have been all but obscured by the Perot-mania of the press.

The Six State Primary
This week six states (Alabama, California, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico and Ohio) held Republican and Democratic primary elections. President Bush and Governor Clinton won their respective primaries in all six states. Bush has now won all of the Republican primaries and Clinton has won 29 of the last 35 Democratic primaries. The president’s margin of victory has grown a bit from the beginning of the campaign: he now safely wins 75% of the Republican vote, up from the 65% he was winning in the early states. Clinton is now averaging about 55% of the Democratic vote.

Yet doubts about both candidates remain. According to exit polls, 40% of primary voters in both parties would prefer a candidate other than Bush or Clinton—a fact which must be causing disturbances in both Republican and Democratic circles. For although both parties have settled on their nominees, roughly 40% of the party faithful—potentially the margin of victory in a three-way race—have not committed to supporting their party’s candidate. In this light, it comes as little surprise that neither Republican loser Pat Buchanan nor Democratic loser Jerry Brown have endorsed their parties’ winners.

Nonetheless, the primaries are now over and the first stage of the presidential election process is complete. Having secured their parties’ nominations and put together their campaign teams, Bush and Clinton now must prepare for their conventions. There they will seek to sharpen their messages and campaign themes, and develop their own strategies for this fall’s three-way presidential race.

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While most of the early primary states do not mix the Senate and Congressional primary contests with the presidential elections, these last six states are among those that do. This week’s contests were quite revealing about national trends and the major changes we can expect in the 1993 congress. Of course, the biggest races were in California which, as a result of reapportionment, now has 52 congressional seats (12% of the entire congress). But important developments also occurred in Ohio, Alabama and North Carolina.

California and the Year of the Woman
The big news is that two women, Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer—both Democrats, won their primary elections as candidates for the U.S. Senate. More than anything else so far in politics, 1992 is the year of the woman.

Sixteen Democrats and two Republican women won primary races in California, while a total of 29 women won primary campaigns in the six states that voted this week. So far this year, 51 women have won primary races and will be running in the fall; but this number will rise considerably in the coming weeks and months, since 29 states have yet to hold their congressional primaries this year.

On the Republican side in California, Senator John Seymour and Bruce Herschensohn captured their party’s nomination for Senate. While both will have a difficult time against their female opponents (Seymour against Feinstein and Herschensohn against Boxer), the combination of the two may well help the Republican party in the state come the fall. This is because the Republican party in California is very deeply divided along ideological lines. Having both a moderate Republican like Seymour and a very conservative Republican like Herschensohn on the ticket may well help President Bush’s standing in the state by encouraging both the conservative and moderate wings of the party to actively participate and vote in the general election.

Another interesting element in the California primary was the four Arab Americans and four Muslims challenging for congressional seats, which was the first time that either group had fielded so many candidates. The results in these races were both extraordinarily impressive and encouraging.

In the 50th congressional District, Democratic State Senator Wadie Deddeh waged a very competitive race against former congressman Jim Bates and San Diego Councilman Bob Filner. Filner received a great deal of money from pro-Israel individual donors and PACs, with much of the money coming late in the race when spending decisions were being made. Despite being Arab-baited and very heavily outspent Filner, Deddeh still ran a very close race and finished second among seven candidates, ahead of Bates, and lost to Filner by less than 1,000 votes.

On the Republican side in the 50th, Luis Acle also waged a very competitive race and achieved a very respectable 31% of the vote in a three-way race.

Down in the 43rd congressional District, Republican Sarkis Khoury campaigned against six other candidates in a very hotly contested primary. Khoury finished second, only 2500 votes behind the winner, which was a very respectable showing since the district is heavily Republican and competition among the Republicans was therefore very keen.

The Democratic primary race in California’s 39th Congressional District featured Arab American Garry Hamud, who waged a respectable campaign and garnered over 11,000 votes in a losing effort against Molly McLanahan.

The Muslim candidates also fared well in several races. Democrat B.H. Saker finished second among four candidates in the 45th district; and another Democrat, Nazeer Ahmad lost by less than 2,000 votes. Nizar Hai, who is the California President of the United Muslims of America (UMA) gathered almost 5,000 votes to finish second in the 31st district, while Bill Quraishi finished a disappointing fifth out of five in the 14th district.

In all, these eight candidates distinguished themselves and their communities with their competitive efforts and willingness to persevere in the face of sometimes difficult challenges to their ethnicity or religion.

The Ohio Primary
By far the biggest race in Ohio was that of veteran congresswoman Mary Rose Oakar, an Arab American who fended off six challengers to once again win the Democratic nomination for congress from the 10th congressional District. Many political pundits expected Mary Rose Oakar to lose because she was implicated in the “check-bouncing” scandal at the House Bank, but she fought back hard.

In a vigorous and aggressive campaign, Oakar emphasized her long years of service to her constituents and borrowed $135,000 to help pay for advertising to get her message out. That message had three main strands.

First, Oakar explained he personal culpability in the “bank scandal” was very small by demonstrating that the House Bank often waited weeks to credit her deposits and thereby causing checks written on her account to “bounce. Second, she exposed weaknesses in her opponent’s records and compared them to her own strengths—strengths that she has demonstrated repeatedly during her sixteen years in congress. Finally, she pointed out that she has been responsible for bringing tens of millions of dollars in federal aid and projects to her district over the years and suggested that a less experienced member of congress would be able to do less in that regard.

Oakar’s campaign was significant not only for her victory but also for the fact that, for the first time, Arab Americans in her district were mobilized to support her. Record numbers of Arab Americans were registered to vote in Ohio’s 10th Congressional District over recent months. Arab American-owned grocery stores distributed literature for the Oakar campaign and displayed signs promoting her candidacy. A large amount of money was raised within the Arab American community to help support her campaign; and the Arab American community helped to support and put on a major event, featuring radio and television personality Casey Kasem and myself, in honor of Mary Rose Oakar.

African American Candidates in the South
This week’s primaries have also been of historic significance for the African American community. Victories by African American candidates in Alabama and in North Carolina opened a new era in Southern politics.

In the 7th Congressional District, State Senator Earl Hilliard became the first African American to represent Alabama in the House of Representatives in more than 120 years. Hilliard won the Democratic primary over a crowded field of six candidates with a commanding 30% of the vote. Because the district is so heavily Democratic, Hilliard will undoubtedly win his race in the fall.

In North Carolina, businesswoman Eva Clayton, an African American, won a runoff campaign to join former State Senator Mel Watt as the first African Americans to represent North Carolina in congress since 1876. Clayton defeated State Representative Walter Jones Jr., whose father had held the seat for 28 years, by a 10% margin.

These historic victories resulted from a combination of two factors. The redistricting required by the 1990 census helped to create districts in which the majority of the population was African American. This had happened before, after the 1970 and 1980 censuses, but the difference this year was that many more African Americans were registered to vote in these states than in the past. Jesse Jackson’s two presidential campaigns registered many black voters in Alabama and North Carolina; and that increased registration when combined with redistricting helped create opportunities for African American candidates—opportunities of which they took advantage.

More Changes in the New Congress
The number of resignations and primary campaign losses by members of the House of Representatives rose this week to 71. This number, too, will continue to grow as the remaining 29 states hold their primaries. Already, the loss of 71 members represents a turnover of more than 16%, with more to come.

The most surprising and important departure from the House this week came from 19-term Representative Dante Fascell, a Florida Democrat who is the current chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Fascell is the 10th member of the 44-member Foreign Affairs Committee to leave the House so far, with several more likely to fall before the 103rd Congress is seated next January. This committee, which has some influence on American Middle East policy, will change significantly when the next Congress comes in.

Already gone this year from the Foreign Affairs Committee are a number of extremely pro-Israel members. Mel Levine, a California Democrat, resigned to run for the Senate. He lost. William Broomfield of Michigan, who is the ranking Republican member of the committee, also resigned, as have Democrats Edward Feighan of Ohio and Howard Wolpe of Michigan—all these men were strong supporters of Israeli policy.

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And so, along with Perot-mania and the presidential elections, there are real changes taking place in this year’s U.S. elections. 1993 will bring more women, more African Americans, and a number of new faces onto important congressional committees that shape U.S. foreign and domestic policy.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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