Posted on October 11, 1993 in Washington Watch

The work of becoming a respected political force in a democracy is a continuing process. And so Arab Americans, though fully engaged in the dramatic developments taking place in the Middle East are keeping one eye focused on important November 1993 elections and our domestic political work.

There is a saying in American politics—” All politics are local.” For an ethnic community, this saying means that, in order to become a political force, they must be organized and be able to deliver votes and money to support candidates on the local level.

In the past, too many Arab Americans focused simply on the Middle East. When they organized at all, they organized to educate or to lobby on Middle East issues. Their assumption was that if the public and politicians knew the truth, they would change their behavior and policy and support the Arab cause.

This is not the case. Political power in a democracy is a function of a group’s organized voting strength and its ability to support and work in the campaigns that elect the politicians who, in turn, make the decisions that shape foreign and domestic policy.

For at least ten years now, a strong core group of Arab Americans have taken seriously the challenge of becoming a more effective political force. They have worked in their local communities to increase Arab American voter strength, they have formed political clubs in both the Republican and Democratic parties, they have raised money for candidates for city council, school board and mayors and Senators and Congressmen. And on a number of occasions they have run and been elected to public office.

This is the kind of work that elected 55 Arab Americans as delegates to the Democratic National Convention in 1988 and forced the party, for the first time, to debate the issue of Palestinian rights. This is the kind of work that secured for Arab Americans, for the first time, official recognition as a group in both the Democratic and Republican parties. This is the work that helped Arab Americans win recognition in their local communities, and assisted them in gaining elective office, appointments to political posts and access to every level of government. And, this is work that has earned Arab Americans unprecedented access to both foreign and domestic policy makers in the Clinton Administration.

Their hard work during the 1992 elections earned Arab Americans respect from the Clinton team. Arab American Democrats knew Clinton needed to win the states of Michigan and Ohio; and so, working with the national Clinton/Gore campaign, Arab American Democratic activists in these states mobilized their community to win votes for Clinton. The national campaign produced material in Arabic, worked with an Arab American coordinator and organized events to win this vote.

And, this summer, when the President needed extra support to pass his budget through Congress, the Democratic Party turned to their network of local activists to mobilize a grassroots lobbying effort to urge local members of Congress to vote for the President. Again, Arab Americans were directly involved by the Clinton team. Arab Americans wrote letters, called and visited the 57 members of Congress they were assigned to lobby. And when the budget passed, Arab American Democrats were invited to the White House, together with other constituent group leaders, in recognition of the efforts they made on the President’s behalf.

And now, while Arab Americans are actively working with the Administration to pursue the peace process, they have not forgotten the lesson that it was their local political work that gained them the recognition and access in the first place. And so they are involved in many of the election campaigns taking place across the U.S. this fall.

Although the November 1993 races are considered “off-year elections” (since there are no Congressional, Senatorial or Presidential races), the many local contests that are being decided are important to both the local issues that affect the lives of millions of Americans, and also to a group’s ability to maintain its position as a respected political force.

The activity of Arab Americans, in just this past week alone, demonstrates the new political savvy of the national community.

In Virginia, the Arab American Democrats and Arab American Republicans combined to host that state’s fourth bi-annual Hafla and Candidates’ Night. The respect accorded that state’s Arab Americans was seen in the fact that the even was attended by both the Democratic and Republican candidates for Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General—the three highest offices up for election this year.

This was only one of a few occasions when all six candidates attended the same event to court the vote of a community. All the candidates, including the Democratic candidate for Governor, Mary Sue Terry, and her Republican challenger, George Allen, addressed the concerns of Arab Americans in an effort to win their support. Another sixteen candidates for local office also participated and mixed with the 400 Arab Americans in attendance. The fact that 400 members of the community came to the even was important, because the Candidates’ Night was competing with a number of other Arab American social events taking place at the same time in the area.

To be sure that their seriousness was appreciated by the state’s political leadership, before the night’s event began, the Arab American Democrats hosted a small fundraiser for Mary Sue Terry. At the event, Terry committed to working with Arab Americans to support an expansion of Arab Americans’ political role in the state and to studying the formation of a Virginia-Arab Trade commission.

On the weekend, Arab Americans in Michigan gathered at a political leadership training conference. Cosponsored by ten Arab American organizations, the event drew 150 Arab American activists to a full day’s program of workshops and panels on political organizing, voter registration, lobbying, and involvement in the political parties.

The event was addressed by a number of local elected officials and political leaders. The night before the conference, the entire community was invited to a Candidates’ Night which drew 50 candidates for local and state offices. Especially important to the Michigan Arab American community are the reelection campaigns of two Arab American city council members, Suzanne Sareini in Dearborn and Peter Nicholas in Ann Arbor.

Both of these incumbents first won their seats four years ago, with strong Arab American community support, becoming the first Arab Americans to win elections in their communities. Their reelection, with organized Arab American support, is vital to show that Arab Americans will continue to be a committed political force.

Winning local office is important not only for the access that it provides to government and decision-makers, but also because an ethnic community’s elected officials earn local respect for that community and elevate its standing nationally as well. That is why Arab Americans are coming to understand the need to support these Arab Americans as they run for office, wherever they are located.

This fall 20 Arab Americans are running in the “off-year elections.” They include 7 candidates for mayor (of whom 6 are incumbents seeking reelection), 4 candidates for state legislature and 5 for city council. Already the Arab American community’s only national PAC for local races has raised and contributed nearly $20,000 to these races, and in addition to local funds raised by Arab American activists, national mailings have raised thousands more to support these candidates.

While the Israel-PLO agreement has reduced problems for most Arab Americans who are seeking to gain influence in U.S. politics, in few isolated cases there are remnants of the old “Cold War.”

In one race for state senate in California, an Arab American woman, Amal Barkouki, is running for the Democratic nomination. Her opponent, who is Jewish, has sent out a fundraiser to local Jewish Americans which calls for their support to stop what he describes as the “anti-Israel candidacy” of Barkouki. Indicative of the new political winds which are blowing in the U.S. today, this crude effort to defame respected Arab American political activist has been repudiated by many Jewish leaders, and was denounced by the Chair of the California Democratic Party.

Another sign of change could be seen at the semi-annual meeting of the Democratic National Committee. (The DNC is the ruling body of the Democratic Party.) The DNC, which had in the past been the site of heated political battles between Arab American Democrats and Jewish American Democrats, witnessed a quite different scenario this year. Arab Americans and Jewish American Democrats and the National Party Chair introduced and passed a combined resolution supporting the Israel-PLO accords as providing a step toward “ensuring Israel’s security and guaranteeing Palestinian’s legitimate political rights.” Then, on Thursday night, over 200 Arab American and Jewish American delegates from across the country joined to host the “first ever combined Arab American/Jewish American Democratic reception.” Speakers at the event included the Chairman of the DNC, David Wilhelm, and a host of Arab American and Jewish American officials and party leaders.

In politics, some things change and some things remain that same. What is constant is the continuing need to remain focused on local political organizing because it is the lifeblood of a community’s political strength. And it is this strength which determines whether or not a community will be heard, respected, and able to shape the national debate on issues that concern it.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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