Posted on November 15, 1999 in Washington Watch

The newspaper headlines reporting on this year’s Arab American National Leadership Conference said it best.

“Candidates court Arab votes” read the Detroit News/Free Press banner headline. The sub-head read “Gore tells conference he’d work to get rid of Arab American stereotypes.” The Toledo Blade read “Politicians Rally Arab American Voting Bloc,” while the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France Presse wire stories all echoed the “Candidates court Arab American voters” theme.

The change was significant and the reporters captured it. Past election year conferences saw Arab Americans “seeking recognition” or “demanding inclusion” or “respect”. We were on the outside, insisting that the mainstream open to embrace us. The presence at this year’s event of both the Democratic Party National Chair Joe Andrew, the Republican Party Co-Chair Pat Harrison, two leading Presidential contenders, Democratic Vice President Al Gore and Republican Senator John McCain, and almost a dozen members of Congress, made it clear–Arab Americans are an organized and recognized voting constituency, and are being actively courted by both political parties.

The change is best seen if viewed over the long-term. Each year’s conference has brought new break-throughs. Last year it was President Bill Clinton’s address–the first President to address an Arab American conference. Before that, it was the conference that featured two cabinet members and 25 members of Congress in an event on Capitol Hill and White House meeting with Arab American leaders. Before that, it was Vice-President Gore–the first Vice President to address an Arab American audience. All the way back to the founding of our Institute and our first Arab American national leadership conference, in 1985, which featured three Senators and a small oval office greeting with President Reagan who congratulated us on our launching of this political empowerment institution.

Because the change has been so steady and incremental, sometimes, it’s taken for granted. But this year’s event marked the crossing of a threshold and this must be recognized.

Having both party chairs present with us in Michigan and having both Vice President Gore and Senator McCain take time from their hectic campaigning in New Hampshire and South Carolina (two early primary states that will be critical to their candidacies) to speak to our group was noteworthy. Gore and McCain spoke live via interactive satellite–making opening statements and answering some questions, as well (these appearances were also aired on my weekly MBC/ANA call-in program “A Capital View”).

Two other major presidential campaigns sent surrogates to Michigan to address the conference. Senator Bill Bradley was represented by the former Democratic Governor of Mississippi and former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Ray Mabus. The campaign of Governor George W. Bush was represented by its Michigan State Director.

Never before have Arab Americans been so actively courted by candidates for the nation’s highest office, and the press accounts reflected that fact.

The same was true of the remarks by the Democratic and Republican Party chairs. Both spoke with pride of the role Arab Americans played in their parties’ work. The Democratic Chair Joe Andrew, for example, described in some detail, the Arab American involvement in the victorious elections of five big city Democratic mayoral candidates on November 2, 1999. It was important that Arab Americans, who had been active in four of those five races, were present in the audience as he spoke.

But the conference was not only about access and recognition of Arab American voters–it was also a substantive event about Arab American foreign and domestic policy concerns. These were addressed by both presidential candidates (more on that next week). The congressional leaders also discussed them as well.

In previous years members of Congress who attended Arab American events, would, for the most part, limit their remarks to greetings and support for Arab American involvement. Not so this year. The Friday night event, attended by 700, featured detailed issue presentations by six members of Congress, from both parties, and Arab American Republican Senator Spencer Abraham. Four other members of Congress addressed the next day’s plenary sessions and workshops. Their remarks focused on domestic issues important to Arab Americans such as: the use of secret evidence in deportation cases, the practice of airport profiling and the restrictive 1996 anti-immigrant legislation. Foreign policy issues were also addressed. These included: Palestinian rights and the Middle East peace process, the continuing impact of sanctions on the Iraqi people, the rights of the Lebanese and Syrians, and the need for a more balanced and respectful U.S.-Arab relationship.

Abraham, running in a very close race for reelection to his Senate seat, was especially well received as he addressed many of these themes.

If the presidential candidates, party chairs and congressional leaders were praiseworthy, even more significant were the hundreds of Arab American activists from 12 states who made up the conference attendees. Here too, it was possible to see the progress made by Arab Americans. In workshops and panels, Arab American leaders, some with two decades of experience in American politics, participated in thoughtful discussions of how to: increase Arab American voters registration; bring Arab American issues into the political process; and engage the parties and campaigns in 2000.

There was tremendous diversity present. There were Arab American students, and Arab American elected officials. Some attendees were second generation Arab Americans and others were recent immigrants from all parts of the Arab world.

There were no internal disputes or factional squabbles. The conference participants were focused on an electoral agenda of empowerment. This, in itself, was a fact to be noted–since it suggests an even brighter future for Arab American politics.

***

I was interviewed a few weeks ago by a reporter who asked me whether or not the recent campaigns against Burger King and Disney were evidence of the new power of Arab Americans. I responded “not quite.” These efforts, I noted, were the result of other developments: the power of the Internet and Arab satellite television and the synergism these vehicles produce between Arab Americans and the Arab world.

The real and best signs of Arab Americans growing power, I stated, were the fact that Arab American are self-consciously organizing as an American political constituency and were being recognized, as such, by politicians and by the political parties.

As Democratic Chair Joe Andrew noted, “The Arab American community has become an important and crucial force in American politics. Period.”

In other words the Arab American “vote” exists and it is being actively courted.

It was only a decade ago when Arab Americans had to fight against exclusion, a fact that was pointedly noted by Reverence Jesse Jackson, who addressed the final session of this year’s conference. In 1983, for example, a candidate for Mayor of Philadelphia gave money back to Arab American contributors. This year, Arab Americans in Philadelphia played an important role in the election of that city’s new mayor. I spoke, just last month, at a major Arab American fundraising event for the winning Philadelphia candidate–standing in marked contrast to the 1983 debacle, it was a moment I will long remember.

In 1988, Mike Dukasis the Democratic candidate for President rejected the Arab American endorsement and as late as 1996, Bob Dole, the Republican candidate for president refused to meet with Arab American leaders. Not so in 2000.

In 2000, the political situation of Arab Americans is as it ought to be. We are organized and we are courted. Our concerns are central to the nation’s policy debate and they are recognized as such. California Republican Congressman Tom Campbell, speaking at the conference suggested that if we “unleash the power of Arab American…you will melt the icebergs of Congress.”

Arab Americans have arrived at their rightful place in American politics–last week’s national leadership conference made that fact clear–and American politics, the status of Arab Americans and U.S.-Arab relations will be better off for it.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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