Posted on September 10, 2001 in Washington Watch

It may be summer vacation for some, but Arab Americans have been hard at work all across the United States. While the Middle East is in flames and the response to the crisis is a full-time responsibility for major Arab American organizations, many community activists have not lost sight of the need to also fully engage in the upcoming 2001 elections.

There are only two major gubernatorial races, in the states of Virginia and New Jersey, but there are dozens of critical mayoral and city council races in U.S. cities where Arab Americans have a great deal at stake.

These elections are important for two reasons. Nationally they will help to set the stage for next year’s congressional elections where the contest for control of both the Senate and House of Representatives will be a major concern of Republicans and Democrats.

In 1993, the year after Bill Clinton ended 12 years of Republican control of the White House, Republicans bounced back winning governorships in Virginia and New Jersey and control of city halls in New York, Los Angeles and other urban centers as well. Many analysts viewed these 1993 victories as a precursor of the Republican sweep in 1994 that gave that party control of both the Senate and House.

With Democrats having already won the mayor’s post this year in Los Angeles and with their candidates leading in New York, New Jersey and Virginia, they are hoping to maintain this momentum and have a sweep of their own in 2002.

Because of the psychological impact 2001 victories will represent, both parties are focusing significant energy and resources on these races.

At the same time 2001 represents a real challenge Arab Americans must meet. Since the community established itself as a recognized and respected voting group in the1996 and 2000 national elections, they are under pressure to maintain momentum and continue to build voter strength and recognition on the local level.

Even at this early stage, the signs look quite promising. In the two governors’ races, Arab Americans are fully engaged at unprecedented levels.

In Virginia, for example, Arab Americans have been employed in critical staff positions in both Republican and Democratic campaigns. Grassroots Arab American efforts have long been successful in Virginia politics. Going back 15 years, that state’s Arab Americans have hosted town meetings featuring major candidates who came to seek community support. This year is no exception with an event scheduled and the major parties’ candidates confirmed to appear.

New Jersey is this year’s big story. Although growing in numbers, the state’s Arab American community has never played a major electoral role. Outnumbered by New Jersey’s large Jewish community, Arab Americans were often overlooked by the candidates and parties.

During the administration of New Jersey’s last Republican governor, the community did make some modest inroads. But this year is quite different. Early on, Brett Schundler, the Republican candidate for governor, made an effort to reach out and include Arab Americans and New Jersey’s large Pakistani Muslim community in his campaign.

When a Republican opponent attacked the involvement of a prominent, mainly Pakistani American Muslim group in Schundler’s effort, Schundler rejected the criticism and reaffirmed his support for the group.

A few months ago, the Democratic candidate Jim McGreevey initially issued the same attack against Schundler. After Arab Americans intervened, however, McGreevey apologized for the flap and publicly welcomed both Arab Americans and the Muslim groups into his campaign.

Now both candidates have begun on outreach effort unparalleled in New Jersey political history. They will be attending community events, visiting Arab American churches and mosques and attending an Arab American sponsored ‘candidates’ night’ event. Both candidates have also added Arab American liaisons to their campaigns. And after his initial misstep, McGreevey has even indicated that if he is elected he will work to appoint an Arab American liaison committee to the governor’s office.

On the mayoral side, there are important races for Arab Americans as well. The leading story is in Cleveland where former Congresswoman Mary Rose Oakar is currently leading in the race to become that major Midwest city’s mayor. Oakar is an Arab American who distinguished herself during her 16 years in Congress. After losing her congressional seat in 1992 elections, she has been staging a political comeback, winning state a representative seat in 2000.

Three Arab Americans are also favored to win mayoral posts in Connecticut. Heading this list is Joseph Ganim who is running for reelection as Mayor of Bridgeport, the state’s largest city.

An Arab American is running for mayor in Dearborn, Michigan, the U.S. city with the largest percentage of Arab Americans. Also on Dearborn’s ballot are nine Arab Americans running for city council posts. Notable among this group are Suzanne Sareini who is running for her fourth term and Tariq Salmaci a popular former middle-weight boxer who is making his first try at elective office. In nearby Dearborn Heights, incumbent Jumana Judeh heads a list of Arab Americans who are seeking office.

These are only some of the more than 40 Arab Americans who are running this year. While Arab Americans are involved in other cities in mayoral and other local contests, one of 2001’s most interesting success stories is unfolding in New York City. After initial progress in mobilizing Arab Americans in New York’s elections, during the mid-1980s, the community experienced real setbacks in the1990s. Candidates shied away from dealing with Arab Americans, for fear, they would say, of alienating extremist Jewish activists. While mainstream Jewish leaders stated publicly that they could not support the exclusion of Arab Americans, too many candidates and political operatives allowed more extreme Jewish spokespersons to dictate their policies.

This year I wrote an editorial in one of New York’s major dailies exposing this problem and challenging the candidates to show leadership and respond. I noted that New York’s 175,000 Arab Americans have a century of history in the city and as business people and citizens have made a real contribution to the larger community.

I am writing this as I return from having attended our Arab American candidates’ night in Brooklyn, the section of New York with the largest Arab American community. Hundreds of Arab Americans participated in the event and more than 20 candidates attended, and made their appeal for Arab American votes.

Two minor party candidates for mayor spoke as did major surrogates for two of the election’s leading candidates. In addition, the candidates for Brooklyn Borough President and a number of city council candidates also spoke. They were uniform in their opposition to discrimination against Arab Americans. They all pledged funds for Arab American social services and a number committed to creating an Arab American advisory council in city government.

It was a proud moment for Arab Americans, not just in New York, but nationally. New York had been the last city in the United States where Arab Americans continued to suffer exclusion. As one of the Brooklyn Councilmen noted “if you follow the Arab American Institute’s motto and ‘Organize, Register and Vote’ you can become a powerful voice in this city.”

2001 may represent a turning point in New York while providing further evidence that the “Arab American vote” has become a fixed feature in U.S. politics.

For comments, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org.

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