Posted on June 22, 1998 in Washington Watch

Although Arab Americans have made real political progress in the United States during the past two decades, the community remains disturbingly vulnerable to attacks of bigotry. This fact was brought home by the war waged against the congressional campaign of Sarkis Joseph Khoury.

Khoury was an ideal candidate who ran an extraordinary campaign in the Republican primary in California’s 43rd Congressional District. This area is quite conservative in both politics and religion. It is inland from Los Angeles, with the city of Riverside as its population center. Since 1992 the district has been represented in Congress by Ken Calvert, a Republican.

Khoury is married and a father of four daughters. A native of Lebanon, Khoury is a classic American success story. He holds a Ph.D. in International Finance from the prestigious Wharton School. For a number of years he has been a professor at the University of California in Riverside. He has authored 20 books and is widely known and respected in his field.

Khoury ran for Congress twice before, in 1992 and 1994, losing on both occasions by an extremely narrow margin. In 1994 he lost to Calvert by only a few hundred votes. This time, in an effort to run the most effective campaign possible, Khoury began early, raising money and seeking professional campaign assistance.

With over $400,000 in his campaign war chest and an unbeatable political team made up of two of the Republican Party’s premier political strategists (Ed Goas and Ed Rollins), Khoury had everything going for him.

Khoury began his campaign to unseat the incumbent by spelling out the principle differences between his candidacy and that of Calvert.

In addition to the issues he raised, Khoury also reminded voters of his opponent’s past outrageous behavior. In 1994, Calvert was caught by the police engaged in a sex act with a prostitute in an automobile.

Calvert’s team struck back with a vengeance. Using a multi-pronged approach, their campaign against Khoury focused both directly and indirectly on ethnicity.

Early in the campaign, for example, Calvert’s manager publicly denounced Khoury for raising large amounts of campaign contributions from Arab American donors. When a number of national Arab American leaders demanded an apology for this bigotry, Calvert excused his campaign manager’s behavior saying that he had only sought to point out that Khoury’s support was coming from outside of the district.

This tactic was reminiscent of Calvert’s 1994 attack on Khoury in the form of a mailer that included a cartoon of Khoury flying into the congressional district on a “flying carpet.”

As in 1994, the tactic worked. What Calvert sought to establish in the minds of those among his constituents who were fundamentalist and chauvinistic was that both Khoury and his supporters were “foreign.”

To pound this theme home, Calvert’s campaign sent a mailing to all of the households in the district charging that their investigation of Khoury’s publicly filed list of campaign contributors “revealed an attempt to buy Riverside’s seat in the U.S. Congress.” The long list of names printed in the mailing only included the Arabic sounding names who had sent money to the Khoury campaign.

But Calvert’s use of bigotry didn’t stop there. A letter that was distributed by a Calvert supporter charged that Khoury “must seek foreign campaign contributions because he cannot win the support of his own people in his own home town.”

Further developing this line of attack was another letter sent by Calvert’s Jewish supporters in the 43rd District. The mailing began by describing Calvert as “one of Israel’s most loyal supporters in the U.S. House of Representatives.” (Remember this word “loyal”, it will come up again in a very interesting way.) But the most lethal blow delivered in the letter is its description of Calvert as “a native of our country, county and district.”

This echoed a phrase used frequently by Calvert, himself, who often reminded voters that “unlike my opponent, I was born and raised in Riverside City.” Now it is not unusual for a candidate to charge that he has more familiarity with an area than his opponent, especially if the opponent has only recently moved into the district. But Khoury has been a long-time resident of the area. Calvert’s point, and that of his supporters, however, was not the issue of residency and familiarity, it was that Khoury was born in Lebanon and is not a “native of our country.”

This line of attack was also echoed by other supporters of Calvert. One Republican leader questioned whether Khoury had “dual citizenship” and whether or not his loyalty was to the United States or Lebanon. “Frankly,” this Calvert supporter stated, “I would prefer that my Congressman pledge allegiance to America only.” (Apparently this issue of loyalty to America was not a concern of Calvert’s Jewish supporters who had outright boasted that Calvert was “one of the most loyal supporters of Israel” in Congress!)

“The Arab campaign connection,” and questions of Khoury’s foreign birth and loyalty were the bases of the Calvert campaign’s attack on Sarkis Khoury. The mailings sent by that campaign were augmented by an insidious telephone campaign that repeatedly called Republican voters in the 43rd District asking questions like, “Would it bother you more if your Congressman was caught with a prostitute or if he were receiving Arab money?”

Another such “phone survey” deliberately mispronounced Khoury’s name in order to accent its foreignness.

In the end, Calvert’s effort was successful. Bigotry won and Khoury was defeated. Even in victory, Calvert could not help but boast on TV that his campaign won with “all American dollars,” as if to suggest that Khoury’s Arab American contributors were less than American.

By seeking to taint Arab American contributors as foreign and to question Khoury’s loyalty because he is an immigrant, Calvert threatens the civil rights of Arab Americans in particular and immigrants in general.

The targeting of Arab American donors to campaigns is an old story from the 1980s. To see it resurface in the late 1990s is ominous. It is clear that this tactic could not be used in many other areas of the United States–where Arab Americans are more numerous and have become more politically recognized. But if bigotry is allowed to win anywhere it will ultimately effect the entire community and country.

The fact that Khoury’s birth in Lebanon was used against him is especially galling. What, in effect, Calvert’s campaign has done is most un-American. They have raised issues and themes that undercut the very principles on which this country was founded.

If there is any silver lining, however, in Khoury’s defeat, it is the resolve shown by the candidate and Arab Americans nationwide that there must be a firm response to this bigotry.

Arab Americans realize that if such attacks go unchallenged and unpunished, they will only grow. They must be fought and defeated.

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