Posted on October 27, 1997 in Washington Watch

Although 1997 is considered an off year for electoral politics, Arab Americans are deeply engaged in key campaigns across the U.S.

In the two key gubernatorial races to be decided this year, Arab Americans are organizing campaign activity and in twelve other states Arab Americans are running for a number of posts with strong community support.

Heading the list of positions up for election in 1997 are the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey. In both states Arab Americans are well organized and participating in both the Democratic and Republican campaigns.

In Virginia the Arab Americans Democrats and Arab American Republicans will host their 10th annual candidates’ night to which both parties’ candidates for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General have been invited as have the candidates for the State House of Delegates. Over twenty-seven candidates for office have so far confirmed their attendance at the event, which has become recognized as one of the staple political events in the state.

The New Jersey community effort is newer but still significant. After her controversial visit to Israel earlier this year, New Jersey’s Republican Governor Christine Whitman began an outreach effort to the Arab American community. This culminated in the creation of an Arab American Advisory Commission to the Republican Party. On the Democratic side, Arab American Democrats play a leading role in the state’s Democratic Ethnic Coordinating Committee.

Heading the list of Arab Americans running across the U.S. are five Arab American candidates for Mayor of their respective cities.

Joseph Ganim, listed recently as one of the U.S.’s top twenty-five mayors, is running for his fourth term in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Joan Saliba of Hartwell, Georgia and Ruth Joseph of Waterville Maine are also running for reelection as mayor of their communities.

State Senator Dan Issa is running for mayor of Central Falls, Rhode Island with strong support from the state’s leadership. In Houston, Texas, six year city council member, Helen Bishara Huey is running for Mayor in that city’s non-partisan election.

Other key Arab American candidates include:

· Jeanine Ferris Pirro running for reelection as District Attorney in Westchester County, New York. Pirro, who gained national recognition last year, has recently been discussed as a possible Lieutenant Governor candidate in New York in 1998.

· Anthony Shaheen is seeking reelection to New York’s Supreme Court.

· Ben Baroody a State Representative is running for Alderman in his hometown of Manchester, New Hampshire. Baroody also serves as the chair of the Manchester Democratic Party and is looking into a run as Manchester’s mayor in 1999. With New Hampshire being the first in the U.S. Presidential primary in 2000, the mayor of New Hampshire’s capital city can play an important role in national politics.

· Ray Hanania, a journalist and long-time Arab American activist, is running for Chicago’s School Board.

· Dr. Charles Ara is running for School Board in Los Angeles.

The center of Arab American political activity in the 1997 off-year elections will be in Dearborn, Michigan where this year a record number of Arab American candidates will compete for city wide posts.

There are five Arab Americans among the fourteen candidates for the seven city council posts and there are two Arab Americans running among the four candidates for the two school board positions.

Suzanne Sareini is an incumbent city council member running for reelection. Joining her are Robert Abraham, Abdul Mackie (who was elected chair of Dearborn’s Republican club), Dr. Hussein Abdel-hak, and George Durany.

The two Arab American candidates for Dearborn’s Board of Education are Kalid Kalid, the city’s first Yemeni American to run for office and Dr. Abdul Saadi.

What is important here is that these seven candidates were all winners in the September Dearborn primary election beating out dozens of other candidates for the city positions. By their victory in the primary election and their position on the November ballot, they have clearly established the importance of the Arab American vote in this southeast Michigan city.

The fact was brought home just a few weeks ago at the annual banquet of the Arab American Chamber of Commerce in Michigan. Michigan’s Governor and the State’s two Senators attended and all spoke at length of the importance of the Arab American community and recognized its growing political and economic power in Michigan and the nation.

Given all of this, however, the situation for Arab American is not without difficulty. In part due to growing Arab American political involvement, some politicians both seek community support while reacting in negative ways to what they perceive as a threat from this emerging voting block.

In Cleveland, the increasingly organized Arab American business community has come to play a strong role in city elections. Upset at the Mayor’s level of concern for their needs and some past activities taken by the Mayor which they perceived as hostile, the Arab Americans organized strong support for a number of city council candidates and for a candidate opposing the mayor’s reelection bid.

Recently aides to the mayor have been sending out feelers to the Arab Americans promising greater responsiveness in exchange for an Arab American endorsement for his reelection.

Much the same has happened in Dearborn. There the issue was a campaign for term-limits—an effort to pass a citywide referendum limiting elected officials to only two terms in office. While the referendum was placed on the ballot with strong support from all segments of the city, the initiative has been identified with some Arab Americans who are most active on its behalf.

The campaign for term-limits is a national phenomenon and has passed in some twenty-seven states. Arab Americans in Dearborn have legitimate grievances. Although they are over 20% of the city’s population and over 40% of the city’s school enrollment, Arab American only hold a few percent of the city’s police and staff positions and feel that they do not receive an adequate share of the city’s budget and services.

While the situation can change if this year more Arab Americans are elected to city council and the school board, those members of the community supporting term-limits have their eyes set on a different way of displaying their concern.

The Mayor and some of his allies, while needing Arab American voter support (in fact the Mayor is being challenged by an Arab American who is given little chance of winning in November), want to defeat the term-limit initiative. They have circulated some highly inflammatory literature and made some statements that have inflamed not only Arab Americans but resulted in their being denounced in newspaper articles for defamatory attacks on Arab Americans.

At the same time that they are attacking the initiative and its sponsors, however, the city officials have reached out to other leaders in the community offering campaign promises to support greater access and empowerment for the city’s growing Arab American community.

Regardless of the outcome of this battle, the continued growth of the Arab American community and its increasing political power remains an important fact that can be observed in the 1997 elections setting the stage for even greater possibilities in 1998.

Next year already a record number of Arab Americans will be running for national office. In addition to the six incumbent Arab American congressmen, three Arab American challengers with strong chances for success have announced for Congress and at least one Arab American has announced for U.S. Senate and one for a Governor’s race.

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