Posted on March 16, 1998 in Washington Watch

This November, a record number of Arab Americans will be running for the U.S. Congress. In all, there are 12 Arab American candidates campaigning for federal posts in 10 states.

In addition to the six incumbent Arab American congresspeople (four Democrats and two Republicans) seeking reelection, another five (three Democrats and 2 Republicans) are seeking their parties’ nomination to run in the November elections. At the same time, a prominent businessman in California, Darrell Issa, is running in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate.

This field of candidates is not only surprisingly large, it is notably strong. This should guarantee that when the new Congress is sworn in next January, the number of Arab American members of Congress should continue to grow.

Among the Arab Americans seeking reelection are:

Nick Rahall (Democrat-West Virginia)

During his 22 years in Congress, Rahall has admirably served the constituents in his district advocating on behalf of their concerns as a member of both the Transportation and Resources Committees. He has also emerged as the champion of Arab American concerns: sponsoring legislation, speaking out on issues and providing leadership and support to many of the Arab American organizations. He also led both the 1998 Arab American-sponsored Congressional delegation to Lebanon and Syria and the 1996 Arab American Institute (AAI) observer mission to the first Palestinian elections.

Rahall will face a Democratic challenger in a May primary election. He has no Republican opponent in November.

Ray LaHood (Republican-Illinois)

LaHood has no opponent in November and thus will win his third term in Congress.

A long-time aide to his predecessor, former Republican Minority Leader Bob Michael, LaHood entered Congress well known by his colleagues and respected for his experience. He is viewed as one of the leading Republican moderate voices in Congress.

LaHood, is a grandson of Lebanese immigrants. He fought against the travel ban to Lebanon and was a part of the 1998 Arab American sponsored trip to Lebanon. On an earlier visit to Israel, LaHood made news by challenging the Netanyahu government’s commitment to the peace process. LaHood is a member of the Transportation Committee where he has helped to address the problem of discriminatory treatment of Arab Americans at U.S. airports.

Pat Danner (Democrat-Missouri)

Danner is seeking her fourth term in a district that has elected her by an ever-increasing margin in her previous three elections. A granddaughter of Lebanese immigrants, she is an economic conservative with a strong record in support of cutting the federal budget.

Danner has been active in supporting Arab American concerns and participating in community functions.

John Elias Baldacci (Democrat-Maine)

Although only in his second term, Baldacci is already in a leadership role among congressional Democrats. He is of both Arab- and Italian-American descent and active in the work of both ethnic communities.

Although Baldacci will face a challenger in November, he has developed as strong base in his district and is expected to win a third term.

John Sununu (Republican-New Hampshire)

In his first term in Congress, Sununu has gained the respect of his peers and built a strong base of support in his home district.

Sununu has one the most impressive voting records on Arab American concerns and issues, and can be expected to play an ever more significant role in the years to come. He may face a strong Democratic challenger in November, and his election will be the focus of attention for both parties this fall.

Chris John (Democrat-Louisiana)

Also in his first term, John won a close race in 1996 and is expecting another close election this year.

John is a moderate Democrat, active in Louisiana political and community organizations for many years. He has been supportive of Arab American concerns and has participated in a number of Arab American community events.


These six may soon be joined by some new Arab American members of Congress. Among the very strong field of Arab Americans running for the first time are:

Teresa Isaac (Democrat-Kentucky)

Isaac currently serves as Vice-Mayor of Lexington, the largest city in her district. As a local elected official she has been active in addressing Arab American concerns. On the community level she helped to build bridges between the Arab American merchants and the African American community. Internationally, Isaac supported a successful petition drive by Arab American elected officials calling on the Secretary of State to end the Lebanon travel ban. She also participated in the 1996 AAI sponsored observer mission to the Palestinian elections.

There are at least nine candidates running in the primary for this Kentucky congressional seat, but at this early date Isaac appears to be one of the strongest candidates.

Leslie Touma (Republican-Michigan)

Touma is a former Pentagon official in the Reagan Administration. She is a “moderate Republican” running against a long-term Democrat incumbent.

Touma has been active in a number of Arab American community organizations and is already generating strong support from Michigan’s large Arab American and Muslim communities. She will be unopposed in the Republican primary and has received strong support from Michigan’s Republican Governor and from Spencer Abraham, Michigan’s Arab American Republican Senator.

Sarkis Khoury (Republican-California)

Khoury is challenging an incumbent Republican Congressman, who was involved in a personal scandal two years ago. As a result, some Republicans believe that the incumbent is vulnerable to defeat and have given Khoury strong support.

Khoury is a Lebanese immigrant. If elected, he would be the first Arab immigrant to hold federal office. He has developed a national support-base and has put forward a number of position papers on a wide range of issues from domestic economic policy to Middle East foreign policy matters.


The lone Arab American 1998 Senate candidate is Darrell Issa who is running in the California Republican primary.

The current Democratic Senator, Barbara Boxer, won a close election six years ago and is expected to have yet another close race this year. Although Issa is a newcomer to politics, he is so far making a very competitive showing in this race.

Among the Republicans seeking to challenge her in November, Issa currently is in second place. He is a self-made millionaire and is spending his own money in his election.

Issa has been active in local Arab American community work. He co-chaired the Arab American Reception at the 1996 Republican convention and participated with other Arab American leaders when San Diego’s City Council declared Arab American Day last year.


Just one month ago, AAI convened its board of directors for a national strategy meeting. As part of its two-day deliberations the AAI board hosted a dinner discussion with all six Arab American members of Congress. It was an impressive gathering and a helpful meeting. Discussions within the family are always important.

Despite the fact that some of the Arab American members at times have taken positions on issues at variance with our own, they are an important part of our community family and we benefit from their involvement and their insights.

Some activists in the Arab American community do not understand the need to support other community members and seek to impose strict litmus tests for granting such support. Such a view, however, can be shortsighted. To build a community and to nurture a family, it is important to develop a long-term mutually supportive approach. Not every elected official will take, or will be in a position to take, the same types of positions on all issues. And not all will be equally supportive of community activities and concerns. But is has been our experience, that all of the Arab American elected officials have been eager to be helpful in ways they can and the cumulative effect has been most beneficial to our overall work.

The fact that the Arab American Congressional Caucus has grown to include six members of Congress and one Senator and will most probably become larger in the next year is cause for celebration. But the presence of so many qualified Arab Americans running in one year also represents a challenge to Arab Americans to work in 1998 to help elect them and others who will be supportive of Arab American concerns in the new Congress.

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