Posted on September 26, 1994 in Washington Watch

September’s primary elections launched two more Arab Americans into national political prominence.

In the state of Arizona, Eddie Basha, a populist Arab American Democrat, scored a major upset victory in becoming his party’s nominee in the race for that state’s Governor. Basha is the owner of a chain of 67 supermarkets which have made his name a popular one statewide. He campaigned hard as a moderate business-oriented democrat and is well-positioned to win the final election in November. An Arizona poll conducted last week shows Basha with a 6% lead over his Republican opponent, incumbent Governor Fife Symington.

Basha is proud of his Arab ancestry. He both actively sought and received the support of Arab Americans across the U.S. In his campaign literature, Basha describes the core values he learned from his heritage and how they have been applied in his business and professional life.

“My father taught me that the community is not something a business only takes from, but rather a partner….The community gives us livelihood. And, for its part, the business gives back to the community in service, in caring and in commitment to community growth and prosperity.”

Basha is being heralded by the National Democratic Party as one of its most promising candidates. In an election year where the Democrats are concerned about their overall standing in the country, Basha stands out that much more. He will be hosted by President Clinton at the White House next month.

Across the continent in Connecticut, thirty-four year old Joseph Ganim won the right to be on the November ballot in that state as the Democratic nominee for Lieutenant Governor.

Ganim, twice elected as Mayor of Bridgeport (the largest city in Connecticut), is one of the rising stars in the Democratic Party. He won his last election with 80% of the vote, having established his reputation by bringing back the city from the brink of bankruptcy to the solid credit standing it enjoys today.

Ganim and his family have long been involved in Arab American community activities.

With the primary election season now complete, Arab Americans add Basha and Ganim to the slate of other Arab Americans running in the finals in November.

These include Representative Nick Joe Rahall II (West Virginia Democrat), and Representative Pat Danner (Missouri Democrat) who are incumbents running for reelection to the U.S. Congress. And new candidates E. Spencer Abraham, the Republican nominee for Senate in Michigan, and Ray LaHood of Illinois and Ernie Farhat of California, both Republicans running for the U.S. Congress.

In addition, there are over 40 Arab Americans running for other state and local office elections in 17 states.

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Looking at this impressive slate of candidates and the recent record of Arab American political activities brings the real progression of the Arab American agenda into sharper focus.

While some lament the fate of the Arabs and Arab Americans in the “new world order,” the Arab American mainstream is hard at work staking its claim to power by participating in the political process. In just a two-week period, for example, Arab Americans in Washington have placed the community’s name on the U.S. political map in a series of major political events.

The first of these was the Builders for Peace press conference with Vice President Al Gore. Seven leading Arab American businessmen were introduced by the Vice President and commended for their early investment in projects in the West Bank and Gaza. Many of these investors are combining their significant personal investments with support from U.S. government agencies to bring new economic opportunity to Palestine. The sum total of all the projects announced by the Vice President will bring $268 million in U.S., investment and create over 5,000 new Palestinian jobs.

The thrust of the Vice President’s remarks was to praise these Arab Americans for taking a risk and putting their economic power to work to support peace.

On the political side, Arab Americans sponsored a number of significant political forums in September.

On the domestic front, the Arab American Institute featured a major debate in Virginia featuring all the Senate candidates and the congressional candidates in this November’s elections. Participants included Senator Charles Robb, and his opponents Oliver North and Marshall Coleman. Members of Congress Jim Moran and Leslie Byrne and their challengers also participated. In addition to debating issues, all of the candidates made strong appeals for Arab American votes in November.

Since this event occurred the day after U.S. forces landed in Haiti, that issue as well as the candidate’s positions on the status of Jerusalem were hotly debated. Because the timing was so good and the participation of the candidates was so impressive, the event received major national news coverage.

Foreign policy issues were the focus of other Arab American events this past week. Two major forums were hosted; one featuring Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, and the other featuring Jordan’s Finance Minister Anani.

Both events marked a turning point in Arab American politics in Washington. Amr Moussa’s appearance, for example, marked the first time that an Arab Foreign Minister sought out Arab American sponsorship for a major policy address. In his remarks, Minister Moussa pointedly addressed Arab American community on the key role it could play in shaping U.S. policy and serving as a bridge between the U.S. and the Arab world.

The only major U.S. event marking the first anniversary of the September 13th signing of the Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles, was co-sponsored by Arab Americans and a major American Jewish group. The AAI and Peace Now event featured Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin and Palestinian Minister Nabil Sha’th.

If this were not enough, Arab Americans in this nations’ capital also sponsored fundraising events for political candidates during this period. Among them were fundraising events for Spencer Abraham and Ray LaHood (a Basha event is being planned for early next month). The most significant of these fundraisers was co-hosted by Administration Cabinet member, Secretary Donna Shalala and Najeeb Halaby, for Virginia’s incumbent Democratic Senator, Charles Robb.

It is important to note that these events are only those held in Washington this month. Similar political events were taking place during this same time in Ohio, Michigan, California, Illinois and New Jersey – states with strong Arab American populations.

The community has turned a corner: it is now empowered and fully engaged in the political process. To some extent, the work of the community has become routine. Just five years ago, the mere presence of a major U.S. political leader at an Arab American event would send shockwaves through the media. In 1990, then-Chair of the Democratic National Committee (now Secretary of Commerce) Ron Brown’s appearance at an AAI event was the subject of national television and print news stories. Such meetings are now so commonplace that they are no longer, in themselves, newsworthy.

Political exclusion and discrimination in the political process are rapidly becoming an item of our past. Arab Americans now receive the recognition they deserve. Just this week, for example, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton presided at an awards ceremony sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) at which Arab American `Oud player Simone Shaheen was given the NEA National Heritage award for Excellence. He was the first Arab American to receive that distinction. In her remarks, the First Lady spoke of the contribution that Shaheen and other ethnic musicians have made in bringing out the rich and diverse culture shared by all Americans.

Arab Americans now have more opportunities in the U.S. than ever before. The challenge the community faces now is to recognize the new possibilities that an open political process holds for them – and to take advantage of them.

Without forgetting their principled commitments to justice and even-handedness, Arab Americans can now fully engage the system and shape the political debate over U.S. Middle East policy. They can respond to the challenge posed by Egyptian Foreign Minister Moussa: to be full partners in U.S. society, and full partners in the quest for a comprehensive Middle East peace.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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