Posted on October 23, 1995 in Washington Watch

Over recent years Arab Americans have made steady inroads into the U.S. political system. And when the Arab American Institute (AAI) convenes its Tenth Anniversary Conference in Washington next month, its national leadership will reflect on both a decade of past success and a future filled with new challenges.

The Institute’s founding in 1985 marked the growing awareness of Arab Americans that the further advancement of the community required a concentrated effort to develop political power.

1984 was the first year that Arab Americans participated as an organized community in the presidential campaigns of both major political parties. The 1984 Reagan-Bush campaign established the first ever Arab American committee, as did the Jesse Jackson for President campaign on the Democratic side.

But that same year also saw Arab Americans excluded from other national and local campaigns.

With the founding of the AAI as a bipartisan electoral project, Arab American Republican and Democratic leaders declared their intent to build on the successes of 1984 and end political exclusion once and for all.

The AAI founding event in 1985 was significant in a number of ways. It opened with an Arab American leadership meeting with then-President Ronald Reagan. The conference also featured presentations by Senator Robert Dole (R-KS), James Abdnor (R-SD) and Dennis DeConcini (R-AZ). Most importantly the AAI conference issued the document “A Plan that Works” – which served as the Institute’s political program for the next decade.

The plan was simple: increase Arab American voter registration; target Arab American involvement in local elections in order to build grass roots political networks; increase Arab American participation in both the Democratic and Republican parties; focus Arab American community support on Arab American candidates for public office; and bring Arab American issues into the mainstream of American electoral politics.

Although there is still much to be achieved, during the past ten years Arab Americans have recorded significant progress in all of those areas.

In some communities, voter registration has more than doubled.

For example, in Dearborn, Michigan candidates once campaigned against Arab Americans – now they actively seek the community’s support. Dearborn now has an Arab American City Council member and will soon elect a school board member. And in a recent election the Arab American vote was a critical factor in securing approval for a new bond issue for the Dearborn school system.

The number of Arab Americans in politics has increased dramatically. In seven states Arab Americans sit on the Executive Boards of their state party organizations. In 1988 and 1992 Arab Americans elected almost one thousand of their number to state party delegate positions. And the AAI has established the Arab American Leadership Council, a vehicle which now includes over 250 Arab American elected officials and party leaders, including dozens of high ranking judges and state senators and legislators.

Arab American access to government has improved substantially from the past on both the national and local levels. In major cities across the U.S. Arab Americans sit on appointed boards and commissions and, in some communities, receive grants to support Arab American social services. And on the national level Arab Americans are national party leaders and have regular access to major branches of government.

With five Arab American members of Congress and Arab American serving in the Administration (there have been high ranking Arab Americans in the past three administrations), the community now has leaders to whom they can bring their concerns and with whom they can work.

And finally, Arab Americans have developed the expertise to bring their issues into the American political mainstream.

In 1988, for example, after electing over 500 delegates to state party conventions and passing platform planks in ten state conventions which supported Palestinian rights and the sovereignty and independence of Lebanon, 55 Arab Americans were elected delegates to the Democratic National Convention. This was the largest number of Arab Americans ever to attend a national convention. The previous high was four.

Those 55 formed a coalition with 1,200 other delegates and forced the Democratic party for the first time to debate the issue of Palestinian statehood. They also succeeded in passing planks for Lebanon and against ethnic stereotyping.

Similarly, AAI’s efforts to raise public awareness about Israel’s request for $10 billion in loan guarantees in 1990 and its coalition effort to raise awareness of the dangers to civil liberties posed by the anti-terrorism bill this year also demonstrated Arab American expertise in raising issues in the political process.

And so it is after years of political activism and growing political sophistication that Arab Americans will gather in Washington from November 9-11 to address the new challenges faced by the community and to plot a strategy for the 1996 elections.

An impressive array of U.S. political leaders will head this year’s AAI anniversary program. Two Clinton Administration Cabinet officials are already confirmed: Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown and Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala. The Arab American delegates will also receive a briefing at the White House and then the National Chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

At least twelve members of the 104th Congress will address the Arab Americans, including the five Arab Americans in Congress and both Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) and House Minority Whip David Bonior (D-MI).

Leading the Republican presence at the conference will be the Arab American Senator from Michigan, Spencer Abraham, and two candidates for the Republican presidential nomination – Senator Arlen Specter and Pat Buchanan.

And there may yet be more. Other Republican challengers have yet to finalize their schedules for that week, and may include a visit to the conference. The Institute’s invitations to President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore to address the conference are also still pending.

In its continuing effort to provide an organizing focus to Arab American political activity, this year’s conference will feature three unique and important sessions. The first will be the convening of the a national organization of Arab American judges. There are currently more than 60 Arab American judges presiding in courtrooms across the country.

The conference will also witness the first national effort to form a network of the more than 7,000 Arab American merchants who own and operate stores in the heart of many major U.S. cities. AAI has been working with the merchants in several cities, dealing with their relations with the African American community, the violence and crime they face daily and the untapped economic and political power of this important group within the Arab American community.

Finally, the conference will host a discussion on the question of Arab American identity. Arab American leaders nationwide have complained in recent years about the fragmentation of the community along religious, subnational (and even village) and generational lines. The AAI leaders felt a need to convene a national dialogue on the challenge to our unity and communal identity.

As always, the conference will chart both Arab American achievements in 1995 and prepare for the community’s involvement in the 1996 elections.

This year Arab Americans face serious issue challenges that require the community to respond. On the domestic side, immigration reform, the need for social services, the threat posed to civil liberties by the anti-terrorism bill and intra-communal relations in our major cities. On foreign policy, Arab Americans will continue to speak out on the ongoing struggle for Palestinian rights, for recognition of Syrian and Lebanese sovereignty over all of their respective territories, and security, stability and better U.S. relations with the Arab world as a whole.

Arab Americans have learned that the political process in this country provides an extraordinary opportunity to secure our rights and improve out lives. It provides our community with the opening to act as a bridge between our U.S. home and our countries of origin.

We have also learned that we can play a significant role in helping to shape the national debate on issues that concern us – and that we can best play that role by becoming participants in the political process.

While there are those who still sit on the sidelines and insist no changes are occurring, a brief look at where we were twenty or the years ago compared with where we are today makes clear that our march is succeeding. Our plan is working.

If we continue to grow in strength, register more voters and increase our involvement in the political process, the next ten and twenty years will see even more progress.

My invitation to those who wish to participate in this march, or to those who wish to support our programs, is to join us in Washington from November 9-11 to work with us on our “Decision `96” program.

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