Posted on October 23, 2000 in Washington Watch
One year ago, Arab Americans set an ambitious agenda for “Campaign 2000.” We were determined to bring Arab Americans and our issues to the center of this year’s election. Early indicators point to some success. But there are danger signs that must also be noted.
When we initially laid out our strategy, we based it on several assumptions. First and foremost was the fact that we knew that this would be a close and hotly contested race–one in which every voter and every group of voters would count.
Secondly we knew that in this year’s election, as in the past three presidential contests, that the key states where the election would be fought included the Midwestern states of Illinois, Michigan and Ohio–states where Arab Americans were an important constituency. At the same time, we knew that because of our work, Arab Americans had been registered and mobilized and become recognized as a voting group that required attention.
And finally, we knew that the issues that were important to Arab Americans were also important to the national political debate.
Recent activity by the major presidential campaigns and media coverage of Arab Americans and our issues has established that our assumptions were right.
Last week, the prestigious magazine The Economist featured a major piece “The birth of an Arab-American lobby.” It noted both the political activism of Arab Americans in response to the intifada, and focused, as well, on the Arab American Institute’s efforts to contribute to building a recognized Arab American voter group in Michigan.
During the past year there have been a number of such pieces with headlines like “Candidates courting Arab American voters.”
All of this is a clear reflection of the real attention being given to Arab Americans.
Republican Governor George W. Bush twice invited Arab Americans to meetings in Austin, Texas. He also recently met with Arab Americans in Michigan.
For his part, Vice President Al Gore addressed Arab Americans in Michigan, held a meeting with that state’s Arab American leadership and has had a number of meetings with Arab Americans in Washington. Tipper Gore spent a day with Michigan’s community, as did Senator Joseph Lieberman.
What dramatically drew attention to Arab Americans, however was George Bush’s mention of the community and their concerns with airport profiling and secret evidence during the second televised presidential debate. Though Bush confused the two issues during his debate remarks, Arab Americans were excited that they and their issues were being given such a national airing. Gore quickly responded by making public his views on both of these issues at a mass rally in Michigan.
In his remarks, Gore noted his strong opposition to airport profiling and indicated his support for legislation sponsored by Congressman David Bonior and John Conyers which seeks to end the use of “secret evidence” in deportation hearings.
Both candidates have actively solicited Arab American endorsements. Thus far, two Michigan based groups have endorsed the Texas Governor, both earning wide national coverage. Gore has also been working had to earn support. This next week alone, he will send two cabinet members, including Secretary Donna Shalala (an Arab American) to win community support. Gore will then return to Michigan later in the week to receive the endorsement of a group of Arab American leaders.
All of this is, of course, a far cry from past campaigns where Arab Americans either had endorsements rejected, or, as was the case in 1996, when then Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole rejected meeting with his Arab American endorsers.
With the run up of this election occurring against the backdrops of an unraveling of the Middle East peace process, the stakes for Arab Americans and the United States, as a whole, are quite high.
Arab Americans have organized demonstrations in at least 40 major cities–some have been in the tens of thousands. They have taken out major advertisements in leading U.S. papers and they have challenged the candidates to speak in a more balanced way about the issues. For example, after both Bush and Gore used near identical one-sided language to blame the Palestinians for the violence during the second presidential debate, Gore met with Arab Americans supporters who urged him to use more measured language that was sensitive to Palestinian suffering. In repeated appearances since that meeting, Gore has done so.
It may be too much to expect a total transformation in the national discourse on Middle East issues in just one election, but the fact that the sentiments of Arab American voters are being considered this year is noteworthy.
Not only are Arab Americans being courted this year and their issues being taken seriously, but Arab Americans are being involved in the campaign as never before.
While George W. Bush has Arab Americans on his staff, Al Gore counts six Arab Americans among his senior level staff and advisors–the highest number for any campaign in history.
This bipartisan competition for Arab American support doesn’t end with staff and issues. During the next four weeks, hundreds of thousands of Arab American households will receive specially designed mailings and phone calls from candidates seeking their vote. The Gore piece, for example, in Arabic and English, will point to the reasons that Arab Americans should endorse Gore noting his respect for the community, his positions on their issues and his commitment to their inclusion. Bush will, no doubt, do the same.
This attention, novel as it is, has proven exciting to Arab Americans. Unaccustomed to such courting, Arab Americans find themselves the focus of discussions in the national media. There is a danger here. Jesse Jackson once told me that “when you arrive at the center of the stage, be careful because every thing you say and everything you do will be noted.”
Some Arab Americans haven’t learned this lesson yet. Some have made comments about Joe Lieberman’s religion that have only served to hurt the image of the community. Some have spoken with a injudicious sense of bravado that is also unwise. Attention is being paid–but it is critical not to let it go to our heads. We remain vulnerable and need to be cautious of overreaching and alienating allies whom we will need to continue to grow.
A recent poll conducted by the AAI showed that at present, 40 percent of all Arab Americans are supporting George W. Bush, 28 percent are with Al Gore and 16 percent are supporting the Green Party nominee Ralph Nader, an Arab American and 15 percent are still completely undecided. Given the softness of the Nader support–this means that almost 25 percent of Arab Americans may still change their vote during the next two weeks.
This means that Arab Americans will continue to be courted and their issues will continue to be relevant in this election.
The Middle East remains tense–a flash point that could once again explode. And Arab American civil rights are still high on the community agenda. Arab Americans will continue to insist that these issues be addressed in the election’s final weeks. This year we do so with some confidence that there are candidates who are listening and responding.
I still recall the 1980s when Arab Americans were excluded. Some had their contributions returned others had their endorsements rejected. This year is quite different.
As I’ve said many times this year “we’ve been excluded and now we’re being courted–being courted is much better.”
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