Posted on December 21, 1992 in Washington Watch

A steady stream of major political interest groups and constituent organizations have paraded in and out of the Clinton Presidential Transition offices in downtown Washington in the past three weeks. They go in with positions papers, hoping to influence future policy; or with stacks of resumes, hoping to secure important positions for their members and supporters.

This is how the transition process works. On one level it’s functions are threefold: to prepare for the incoming Administration the detailed technical information it will need to fulfill the manifold responsibilities of government; to select the personnel who will staff this new Democratic Administration; and to outline the policy options which the new Administration can pursue in each of the many areas where government action will be called for over the first few months in office.

On a second level is an organized effort to provide access to Democrats representing each constituent and advocacy group in the country—to give them the opportunity to present their concerns and seek senior appointments the new government. More than 100,000 resumes from Democrats across the country have been collected and fed into a computer database by the Transition team, and thousands of Democrats representing the whole spectrum of the party have visited the transition offices.

From my personal vantage point what is unique and important about this Transition is that, for the first time, Arab Americans are a part of the process, having been recognized with the respect by the Clinton Presidential Transition team. In just this past week Arab American leaders have had nine separate meetings with Transition leaders to discuss hiring Arab Americans for posts in the new Administration, foreign and domestic policy, and to institutionalize the Arab American relationship with the Democratic Party and the Clinton White House.

Of course, all of this has come about because Arab Americans played an active role in the Clinton-Gore campaign. It is a tradition in U.S. politics that “To the victor belong the spoils”, meaning that the winning campaign gets to appoint its supporters to government jobs to help the new Administration implement its policy goals. As a result of their participation in the campaign of the winning team, Arab Americans are receiving an opportunity to share in the success.

Becoming a part of the Clinton-Gore campaign was not easy. From the outset there have been genuine obstacles placed in the way of Arab Americans who wanted to play a role in Democratic campaigns. In 1972, for example, a group of Arab Americans sought to endorse the Democratic campaign of then-Senator George McGovern, but a campaign staffer rejected and returned the endorsement. In 1980 President Jimmy Carter, while running for reelection, formed an Arab American committee to support his candidacy but it lasted only three days before he disbanded it in the face of pressure from pro-Israel forces in the campaign. And in 1984 and 1988 only Jesses Jackson’s campaign gave Arab Americans a chance to participate in an organized way in his campaign.

This year started off with a similar difficulty. Early overtures to the Bill Clinton campaign went unanswered. While individual Arab Americans played important roles in several states, Arab Americans, as an organized group, were denied full access. Later, after the primary process was completed, we were still trying, but without success, to arrange a meeting with the Clinton campaign officials.

The story of how we gained access appeared in this past Sunday’s Washington Post (and 380 other U.S. papers) in a syndicated column by the highly influential political columnist David Broder. Broder’s story began:

One of the more intriguing footnotes to the election came my way last week…. The story came from Dr. James J. Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute, that community’s political arm in Washington. Zogby, who is a Democrat, had been having what he calls “a very frustrating” time all year establishing contact with Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. Many overtures were made and rebuffed in what Zogby took to be an excess of concern among Clinton’s political advisors about a possible back-lash from pro-Israel Jewish groups.

Finally, [after trying to gain access through a dozen or so political leaders, members of Congress and others,] Zogby tried what seemed the most unlikely intermediary. He called Sen. Joseph I. Liebermann (D-Conn.), an orthodox Jew who never campaigns on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Zogby knew Lieberman was esteemed in Little Rock for endorsing Clinton last January, when few other Washington insiders were giving the Arkansas governor much of a chance.

“The Senator and I had debated Middle East policy on a CNN `Crossfire’ show,” Zogby told me, “and I think we were both surprised at the wide area of agreement. CNN thought the show was a bomb, because we didn’t holler at each other.”

So in September, seeing no other way, Zogby called Lieberman’s office and pleaded his case to be allowed access to the Clinton campaign. “The next day,” Zogby said, “the Senator called and said, `Call George Stephanopoulos (Clinton’s communication’s director). He’s waiting for your call.’

“I did, and was invited to Little Rock the next day. And from that point on, we got a level of recognition for our group that we’d never gotten from the Democrats before. Clinton wrote a letter to Arab Americans and authorized its translation into Arabic, and we ended up doing very well for him in Michigan and other states.”

Zogby made the obvious point: “Only in America,” he said, “would an Arab American spokesman call a Jewish American senator to call a Greek Orthodox campaign operative to let us help a Southern Baptist get elected president.”

Broder’s story has been read by dozens of Democratic leaders, Clinton Transition officials and major Jewish leaders, all of whom have called in the past week to express their support for Arab Americans, and to declare that such exclusion as Arab Americans have suffered should become a thing of the past. And though the story that Broder recounted represented a victory for our community, it necessitated a flurry of activity on our part to sustain and strengthen that victory.

Therefore, what is important to note is not only that Arab Americans gained access to the campaign, but also that, once recognized, we performed remarkably well on behalf of the campaign. Within days after the meeting in Little Rock, an Arab American endorsement of Bill Clinton was issued by Arab American Democrats. The list of endorsers consisted of prominent Arab American from 25 states, including two members of Congress, nine mayors, 15 other elected officials and 40 Arab American Democratic Party leaders.

Governor Clinton responded to our endorsement with a letter of acceptance which read,

“I want to thank you as an Arab American for your support. Al Gore and I are proud to represent the Democratic Party, which has always been a party of inclusion. We look forward to working in the spirit of unity with all Americans in a Clinton Administration that will promote economic opportunity and social justice. We will continue to work for and defend the civil and political rights of all Americans, just as we will work tirelessly to bring about a just and lasting peace in the Middle East and throughout the world.

“We look forward to celebrating a Democratic victory with you in November.”

During the campaign Arab Americans raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, volunteered to work, and made significant efforts to get out the Democratic vote on November 3rd in three key mid-western states (Illinois, Ohio and Michigan)—all on behalf of the Clinton/Gore campaign. The Clinton team most appreciated and recognized the Arab American effort in Michigan, a state they felt they needed to win but in which they expected difficulty, because Arab Americans are so numerous there as to make up a sizeable voting bloc.

And so in some sense, because Arab Americans—as Democrats—played their part, and because Bill Clinton is committed to policies of diversity and inclusion, Arab Americans have been provided the same recognition and access that has been given to other ethnic and constituent groups during the Transition period.

Our community has noted with pride that one of the first Cabinet appointments made by Clinton was Donna Shalala, as Secretary of Health and Human Services. Shalala is an Arab American from Cleveland (in fact, her father was the long-time president of Cleveland’s Syrian-Lebanese Club), and she is currently Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin. She will be the highest ranking Arab American in government.

Arab American Democrats have formed a task force to help secure Arab American appointments in the next round of nominations, at assistant and undersecretary level. This task force is collecting resumes from qualified Arab Americans, and working with the Clinton Transition team to make certain that these qualified candidates are considered for appropriate positions.

This was the purpose of a meeting between the Arab American leadership, Transition Chairman Vernon Jordan and the Transition’s Deputy Director Alexis Herman. At the meeting we presented the resumes of our most qualified and distinguished candidates.

There have also been lengthy meetings between Arab Americans and members of the Clinton foreign policy transition staff, and the domestic policy staff. In four separate meetings with members of the foreign policy staff we discussed a wide range of issues, including:

· the peace process and the recent Israeli expulsion of several hundred Palestinians;
· Lebanon and its process of national reconciliation, as well as its need for assistance in that endeavor;
· the continuing plight of Muslims and others in the former Yugoslav Republic of Bosnia;
· and need for the incoming Clinton Administration to understand the role of Islam in the contemporary Middle East, and the complexity of the Islamic experience.

Arab American Democrats are feeling fairly confident about their new acceptance by their party and the transition effort. While they are still concerned about the direction of U.S. policy—and their ability to be included in its discussion—toward the Arab world, they feel that their new and deeper involvement in the political process will provide them with direct channels through which to help shape the policy debate.

This, for Arab Americans, is the new lesson learned during the past ten years: politics is hard work, and you can only partake of its rewards if you participate.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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