Posted on August 17, 1992 in Washington Watch
A record number of Arab Americans were delegates to this year’s Republican National Convention. The more than 30 Arab American delegates who went to Houston represented a significant increase over the average 4 or so who attended Republican conventions in past years. They also signaled a breakthrough for Arab American political work within the party.
The Arab Americans came from 16 states and included both established party leaders as well as a number of grassroots activists.
Because the Republican party’s delegate selection process is different from that used by the Democrats, those who became delegates had to earn their positions through years of hard work and loyalty to the party and its candidates.
Democratic party delegate selection is based on a wide-open electoral process. In general, becoming a Democratic delegate requires strong identification with and work for a Presidential candidate, and organizing a large number of voters to support both yourself and your preferred candidate. It was the openness of this process which allowed Arab Americans to secure their first large-scale involvement in presidential election politics by running as Jackson delegates in 1988. By organizing Arab American voters, American Muslims and other allies to their cause in 1988, more than 50 Arab Americans won delegate positions that year.
That experience was institutionalized by Arab American Democrats so that even without Jackson running this year, Arab Americans still won more than 40 delegate slots to the Democratic National Convention—most as Clinton or Brown delegates.
The Republican process is very different. It could more properly be described as a selection process, with state party chairs and local party committees responsible for forming the slates of delegates to fill their state’s allotment. Thus, in order to become a Republican delegate an individual must have established a record and reputation as a party activist, contributor and loyalist.
It is, therefore, a tribute to the hard work done by many Arab Americans that a record number of them were delegates to this year’s convention.
In addition to the local activists in the delegation there were an impressive number of Republican leaders of Arab descent who become a part of this year’s Arab American caucus. While these individuals had been involved in party leadership roles for some years now, some have only recently come to identify with and participate in the activities of the Arab American community—for one basic reason. In the past there really was no organized, responsible and representative Arab American presence with which they could identify. Now there is.
A highlight of this year’s convention activities for the delegation was a gala Arab American “Tribute to the Republican Party” co-sponsored by the Arab American Institute (AAI) and the National U.S. Arab Chamber of Commerce (NUSACC).
The committee formed to host the Republican event demonstrated the breadth and depth of the Arab American delegation. The Honorary Chair of the event was George Salem, a co-founder and Executive Board member of the AAI. Mr. Salem also has long been active in Republican presidential campaigns. In 1984 he was director of the Ethnic Voters Division in the Reagan/Bush campaign, and in 1988 he again served as chairman of Arab Americans for Bush/Quayle ‘88, and this year he has been tapped to serve the Bush-Quayle campaign as Director of the Coalitions Division of Bush/Quayle ‘92. (Unlike the Democrats who have no such ethnic committees, the Republican Party appoints national and local committees for each of the U.S.’ major ethnic constituencies every election year.) During the Reagan Administration Mr. Salem served as Solicitor of Labor in the U.S. Department of Labor from 1985 through 1988.
The co-chairs of the event brought together an impressive group of Republican leaders of Arab descent including: former U.S. Senator James Abdnor (South Dakota); former Governor Victor Attiyeh (Oregon); E. Spencer Abraham, National Chair of the National republican Congressional Campaign Committee and former state Chair of the Michigan Republican Party; Michael Baroody, former Assistant Secretary of Labor and Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of Public Affairs for President Reagan; and Mitch Daniels, who served as Assistant to President Reagan for Political Affairs. Daniels is currently serving as an advisor to Vice President Dan Quayle.
The more notable guests included Jim Schaefer, Associate Director for Public Affairs at the White House, staff members of the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Republican Heritage Group Council. A sizeable number of delegates from South Dakota accompanied Senator James Abdnor, and former Senator Paula Hawkins led a large contingent of delegates from the state of Florida. Diplomatic guests included H.R.H. Prince Bandar b. Sultan, Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States, His Excellency Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni, the Algerian Ambassador to the United States, His Excellency Saud Nasir Al Sabah, Ambassador of Kuwait to the United States, and Egypt’s Consul General in Houston, Dr. Ahmad Gomaa. Prince Sultan and Ambassador Zerhouni had also attended the Arab American Democrat Reception in New York earlier in the summer.
The AAI and NUSACC co-sponsored a similar even at this year’s Democratic convention. It was co-hosted by U.S. Representatives Mary Rose Oakar (Ohio) and Nick Joe Rahall (West Virginia), and a number of Arab American state and local elected officials. Attending the event were Hollywood stars Casey Kasem and Richard Dreyfuss, Presidential candidate Jerry Brown, Reverend Jesse Jackson, U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone (Minnesota), a number of U.S. congressmen and over 500 delegates. The event received wide press coverage.
Among the 30 delegates who participated in the Republican convention activities were Arab Americans who represent a broad range of experience and public service:
Suzanne Sareini, of Dearborn, Michigan, was the first Arab American elected to that community’s City Council. She also serves as Chair of the Arab American Republican Federation, an official group of the Republican Party.
Mounzer Chaarani of Orange County, California, is the founder of the Orange County Arab American Republican Club and a member of the prestigious inner circle group of California Republicans. Mr. Chaarani is the most prominent Arab American Republican in his state and has played a major role in the campaigns of a number of Republican elected officials. In 1988 he was a National Co-Chair of U.S. Senator Robert Dole’s Presidential campaign.
Raymond Howar of Washington, DC is a businessman from a prominent Palestinian American family. He was recently elected Vice Chair of the District of Columbia Republican Party. He is not only a delegate to the convention but also serves as a member of this year’s Platform Committee.
One area where Arab Americans Republicans still have work to do is in securing a role for themselves in their party’s policy debates. The forum where the policy debates take place is in the shaping of the party platform. It is important to note that the platform is not the same as an Administration’s policy. Rather, it is a political document designed to court domestic voters. It is also a test of the strength of competing coalitions and ideologies within the parties. In this area Arab American Democrats have more experience and have had somewhat more success than have Arab American Republicans.
Although Arab American Democrats are not yet sufficiently strong to be courted by their party platforms or to win battles over the language in the national platform, they have gained the requisite strength and experience to shape the debate and actually win platform fights on the state level. On the other side of the political aisle, Arab American Republicans are still new to this process—and they have their work cut out for them.
This year’s National Democratic Platform was highly unbalanced and has been criticized by Arab Americans both in the press and within the party. They organized successful debates on the national and state level in several key state conventions. And in at least four state conventions Arab American Democrats won victories regarding the wording of platform language. Arab American Republicans did not fare as well.
Many of the Arab American Republicans are party loyalists who have used their positions as insiders to raise issues and serve the needs of the community but who for the most part are not yet prone to fighting with their party leadership. Arab American Democrats, on the other hand, have built a broad coalition with African Americans and others who support their positions and are not reluctant to enter into fights with their party. Hence the Democratic debate on Middle East issues has been much more public and intense than that in the Republican Party, and the differences in results are striking.
This year at the Texas State Democratic Convention, Arab Americans negotiated a compromise with party leaders which gave the platform balance on the Middle East. Even though the pro-Israel Democrats broke the agreement and forced a floor vote on their amendment to the platform, most of the agreed-upon compromise language remained in the platform.
Conversely, Texas Republicans would not even consider a moderate Arab American proposal to support the Middle East policy of George Bush in the platform language. Instead, they passed a resolution at their state party convention that was very strongly supportive of Israel and, in effect, repudiated the policy of their own Republican Administration.
The same was true in Iowa, where Arab American Democrats won a compromise for a balanced Middle East platform while Iowa’s Republicans would not even support their President’s position. In fact, only in California did Arab American Republicans show their political muscle and coalition-building ability as they defeated a pro-Israel resolution submitted to their state’s party convention.
This year’s Republican National Platform position on the Middle East reflects this lack of balance in the party’s internal debate. While many Arab Americans praise George Bush’s more balanced policy on the Middle East, the platform drafted by Republican Party regulars only partially reflects this balance.
Fully 75% (61 lines out of 82 total lines) of the Middle East section of the Republican platform are about Israel.
Some passages do restate U.S. policy under Bush and relate to U.S.-Arab relations. For example, there is a paragraph restating U.S. support for UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 (without identifying the principle of land-for-peace which underlies these Resolutions—something President Bush has done in the past), and supporting the peace process begun in Madrid.
There is also a line “recognizing the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people” (the word `people’ here is new), but there is also the explicit statement “opposing the creation of a Palestinian state.” Support is offered for “Egypt and other pro-Western states against revolution and aggression”, but that is balanced in the same sentence by a “call for an end to the Arab boycott of Israel.”
The Republican Platform also supports the “establishment of a strong central government in Lebanon democratically elected and representative of its citizens.”
Probably the strongest statement of balance in the platform “salutes all the countries in the Middle East who contributed to the success of Desert Storm and share our goal of stability in the region. With them, we hope to build upon that triumph a new future for the Middle East, founded on mutual respect and a common longing for peace.”
But all of this must be weighed against the 61 lines recalling Administration support for Israel and calling for a renewal of support for Israel. For example, “we believe Jerusalem should remain an undivided city, with free and unimpeded access to all holy places by people of all faiths. No genuine peace would deny Jews the right to live anywhere in the special city of Jerusalem.”
And then there are the phrases which state, “Consistent with our strategic relationship, the United Sates should continue to provide large-scale security assistance to Israel, maintaining Israel’s qualitative military advantage over any adversary or coalition of adversaries.” “Israel’s potential strategic importance to the United States, as our most reliable and capable ally in this part of the world, is more important than ever.” “We will continue to broaden and deepen the strategic relationship with our ally Israel—the only true the only true democracy in the Middle East—by taking additional concrete steps to further institutionalize the partnership.
The platform aside, Arab American Republicans who went to Houston were aware that their work in the party is beginning to pay off, and that their numbers have significantly grown in recent years.
The bottom line for Arab American Republicans (and Democrats) is that while they have not yet emerged as forces to be fully reckoned with, they have finally emerged as a recognized constituencies within their parties. This has been the result of hard work and as they grow stronger, their contributions to their parties and their parties’ policy debates will increase.
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