Posted on November 11, 1996 in Washington Watch

By any measure, 1996 was an extraordinary year for Arab Americans in politics. From the Arab American Institute’s National Leadership Conference in November of 1995 through the November 5th Presidential election, Arab Americans established new markers on their path to political empowerment.

While the 1995 conference, Arab American involvement in the presidential campaigns, and the Republican and Democratic conventions were impressive, Arab Americans accorded their most significant accomplishments to date in the November elections. In California, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Virginia Arab Americans were full participants on every level of the electoral process—as candidates, campaign officials, donors, volunteers, and voters.

The Arab American voter turnout was higher than the national average. AAI voter surveys and polling shows that over 60% of Arab Americans voted—in targeted areas where voter mobilization efforts were organized the voter turnout was as high as 70%.

Arab Americans voted for President Bill Clinton by a 53% to 34% margin, higher than the national average of 49% to 41%. In the Midwest and East, home to almost two thirds of the Arab American community, the President’s margin among Arab Americans was a substantial 60% to 28%.

When the 105th Congress convenes on January 6, 1997, there will be six Arab American members of Congress. The four sitting Arab American members all were re-elected. To their ranks we now add Chris John, a Democrat from Louisiana and John Sununu, Jr., a Republican from New Hampshire. Sununu is the son of the former Chief-of-Staff of President George Bush.

An additional 22 Arab Americans were elected to state and local offices. Especially noteworthy is the victory of Marianne Yared from Michigan who won 1.7 million votes in her campaign for the State Board of Education.

In all these campaigns Arab Americans were not only the candidates —but the Arab American community turned out to volunteer, to contribute, and to vote. In fact, a new political action committee was formed this year by some Arab American leaders specifically to raise campaign contributions for Arab American candidates for national and local offices.

Overall, Arab American fundraising increased in 1996, with Arab Americans making record contributions to candidates and parties. In addition to supporting Arab American candidates, the community worked hard in a number of other elections around the country. In a few close races Arab Americans provided contributions, votes, and have assisted in the victories of their favorite candidates.

What is significant to note here is the difference between 1996 and 1986. Ten years ago I co-authored a study called “the Politics of Exclusion”—a report on how, in several instances, some candidates and parties excluded Arab American political involvement. And how, in a few cases, the involvement of Arab Americans and support for Palestinian rights was used as campaign issues against a candidate. For the most part, this did not occur in 1996. But when it did occur, the candidates stood firm by their Arab American supporters and remained firm in their support for Palestinian rights and they won.

Arab Americans made a difference in these campaigns and emerged as a trustworthy, hard-working, and productive political constituency. As a result we have buried the legacy of the 1980’s.

An important article in the New York Times two weeks ago discussed the growing importance of the Arab American vote and pointed to increased recognition being given to our community by the White House and leaders in both political parties. The article discussed how there are emerging voter blocs that are being considered crucial for victories in big states: “Asian Americans in California, Mexican Americans in the South West, Russian and Caribbean Americans in New York, and the Arab Americans in Michigan.”

In 1996 Arab Americans showed that this recognition is well-deserved. This is not say that all of out community’s problems have been solved, or that we will not be attacked in the future. What has become increasingly clear, however, is that Arab Americans are developing both the political muscle and the experience needed to address problems and in some cases resolve them.

Several examples of this growing Arab American political sophistication were in evidence during the past week.

A Michigan newspaper and the Republican Party attempted to make an issue of the fact that several prominent Iraqi Americans made contributions to the Democratic Party. Although all of the individuals were U.S. citizens, the Republican Party spokesperson referred to the incident as “fit[ing] the pattern of we’re seeing of foreign contributions to influence U.S. foreign policy.” Arab American efforts have been successful thus far in securing a new article in the Michigan paper that corrects the record and in defending the right of Arab Americans to donate to the Democratic Party.

At the same time, Arab Americans nationally and in new Jersey were able to mount a press campaign against New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman’s proposed trade mission to Israel which was to have included a visit to the tunnel entrance recently opened next to the Haram as Sherif. As a result of our campaign and our meetings with the Governor’s staff, this site visit has now been canceled and the Governor will meet with Palestinian trade representatives to discuss the possibilities of New Jersey – Palestinian trade as well as New Jersey – Israeli trade.

Arab Americans will face other challenges in the areas of civil liberties, community relations, and foreign policy concerns. But in each instance the lesson of ‘96 and the record of the past ten years will not be forgotten. Arab Americans have discovered that politics is the key to empowerment—and that by becoming a recognized political constituency Arab Americans will be more protected, more respected, and better able to have their voices heard and concerns met.

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A final note: the headline in the November 7, 1996 USA Today newspaper said it all, “At last one pollster was right on target.” The article noted that of all the nation’s pollsters only one called the Presidential election exactly. John Zogby, who has polled for the Arab American Institute and this newspaper, has now established himself as one of the nation’s best political pollsters. John is the pollster for the widely respected Reuters News Agency. He has also polled for the New York Post, Fox Television Network, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

John not only called the Presidential election correctly, he was also right on nine other Senate and Congressional races.

On one occasion when John first began his polling, he was dismissed as “that Arab pollster.” After 1996 his work will no longer be dismissed.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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