Posted on July 22, 1996 in Washington Watch

1996 will be a record year for Arab American involvement in electoral politics. Already, plans are underway to insure the community’s participation in both parties’ national conventions, the campaigns of President Bill Clinton and Republican Bob Dole, and state and local elections across the U.S.

When the Republican and Democratic National Conventions meet next month in San Diego and Chicago, respectively, a combined number of over 100 Arab Americans will be active participants as delegates or party leaders. This represents the largest number of Arab Americans to have won election to party posts, and reflects a decade of work by Arab American political activists.

As in the past, this year’s conventions will feature major Arab American events in honor of the respective parties. This year’s events, however, will be even more prominent than those of previous conventions.

At the Republican National Convention in San Diego, the Arab American reception will take place directly across from the Convention Center in a special pavilion built for the convention by the Chrysler Corporation.

The Arab American event will be organized by the Arab American Institute (AAI) in cooperation with Chrysler and under the sponsorship of Senator Spencer Abraham, who will serve as the event’s chairman.

A local host committee of prominent Arab American political leaders and businessmen worked to insure adequate funding and community participation in the tribute. Senator Abraham’s involvement has guaranteed that the Arab American will be well-attended and recognized by party officials as a major convention event.

The fact that this year’s Democratic National Convention will have the largest number of Arab American delegates elected is significant in and of itself. Since President Clinton ran unopposed, securing delegate positions was more difficult than in previous years when Arab Americans could win by running attached to competing candidates. The previous record number of Arab American delegates to a major party convention came in 1988 when Arab Americans were elected as Jesse Jackson delegates. To win this year Arab Americans had to be elected and slated by the Clinton campaign; and thus the larger number of those elected reflects the respect given to the Arab American community by the Clinton White House and campaign.

This year’s Arab American event in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention will take place in the Democratic Party’s headquarters hotel. It’s co-chairs will be the three Arab American Democratic Members of Congress, Nick Rahall of West Virginia, John Baldacci of Maine and Pat Danner of Missouri; and, like its Republican counterpart, the event’s success will in part be due to the active involvement of Chicago Arab American businessmen and political leadership.

As Arab Americans enter the fall campaign, their roles will be insured because both the Clinton and Dole campaigns have sanctioned official Arab American support committees. Arab Americans have been recognized as a constituent group by Republican campaigns since the Reagan campaign established an official committee in 1984. In September of 1992 and the Clinton campaign organized the first such an Arab American Democratic support committee. The early recognition and establishment of Arab American campaign groups this year represents a new breakthrough for the community.

The Arab Americans for Dole Committee will be chaired by George Salem, a Palestinian American attorney who served as an official in the Reagan and Bush campaigns and was also an official in the Reagan Administration.

Already in formation, the Arab Americans for Dole Committee includes dozens of prominent Arab American Republicans in 20 states, including such recognized leaders as Honorary Chairman Senator Abraham, Congressmen Ray LaHood, former Assistant to President Reagan Mitch Daniels, and Honorary Dole Chairman and former Oregon Governor Victor Atiyeh.

The Arab Americans for Clinton-Gore Committee is being chaired by the Democratic Arab American members of Congress and an unusually prominent list of Arab American leaders including five trustees of the party and the president of a major labor union, the United Auto Workers – the first Arab American to hold such a post.

The presence of five trustees is itself a significant breakthrough for Arab Americans, since trustees are those who have contributed in excess of $100,000 to the national party. This year those Arab Americans have already raise in excess of $1.5 million for the party, evidence of the new seriousness Arab Americans are demonstrating in their national political involvement.

I will be heading the Arab American Clinton-Gore steering committee and coordinating the work of the Arab American Democrats. This group includes 40 elected officials and 28 Democratic party officials.

This year Arab Americans are central to the Democratic party’s efforts to create a National Democratic Ethnic Coordinating Committee, which is to represent all the ethnic groups in the party. Since the ethnic vote in key electoral states (Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey) is considered critical to the victory in November, Arab Americans will play a noteworthy role in this year’s election. Although it has yet to be formally announced, the Dole campaign will in all probability also form an ethnic council.

As part of their organized effort, Arab Americans will be engaged in local organizing, voter registration, and voter mobilization. Already, the AAI has compiled an Arab American voter database of more than 550,000 registered voters, with plans underway to update the database by registering least another 50,000 new voters by November.

Targeting the key Midwestern states, where more than 40% of Arab Americans reside, will be important to the community’s success in establishing itself as a recognized voter group in 1996.

In addition to the national race, this year a record number of 41 Arab Americans are running for state and local positions. This number includes one new candidate for Senate, four Arab American members of Congress running for reelection and three new Congressional candidates.

Richard Ieyoub, the current Attorney General of Louisiana is running for the Senate seat being vacated this year by J. Bennet Johnston. Ieyoub is a Democrat who has already won two statewide races by large margins, and is one of the favorites to make the two-candidate run-off election in November. Ieyoub, who is of Lebanese descent and a strong supporter of the Arab American community’s concerns, has gathered support from the Arab Americans nationwide.

Congressman Nick Rahall II is the senior Arab American Member of Congress. A ten-term Representative from West Virginia, Rahall has been at the forefront of national Arab American organizing efforts, and one of the leading voices in Congress on U.S.-Middle East issues, particularly Palestinian rights and Lebanese sovereignty.

Congresswoman Pat Danner, a two-term Democrat from Missouri who has a long record of public service in her home region. Having defeated an eight-term incumbent in 1992, Danner handily cruised to victory in the 1994 elections and is considered a strong favorite to win reelection.

John Baldacci, the Congressman from Maine’s second district briefly considered an effort to draft him for the Senate race against incumbent Republican William Cohen, but opted to run for reelection in his district. Baldacci has spoken eloquently of his Arab American roots, and shown strong growth as a national legislator during his first term in office.

Ray LaHood, a freshman Republican Congressman from Illinois is a veteran of Capitol Hill, having served for four years as Chief of Staff to former House Minority Leader Robert Michel after a career in the Illinois State House. LaHood has been an active participant in the Arab American Caucus in Congress and has established a reputation as a diligent and hardworking member of the 104th Congress.

The new Congressional candidates include Democrats Chris John (Louisiana’s open 7th district) and Clem Balanoff (Illinois 11th district), and Republican John Sununu, Jr (2nd district of New Hampshire). Both John and Sununu face primaries in September to make it to the November race in districts where they would have a good chance of winning. Balanoff has already won his primary and faces a rematch with the incumbent, freshman Republican Jerry Weller.

Additionally, 10 Arab Americans are running for state Senator and Representative and 14 judgeships in states across the U.S.

On top of a full electoral program, Arab Americans are active this year in a range of Middle East peace issues as well.

A major national petition on Lebanon is gathering signatures across the country, from Rhode Island to Michigan to California. The petition – which urges the U.S. to push for Israeli compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 425 including withdrawal from Lebanon, and calls for increased levels of aid to help rebuild the Lebanese infrastructure – currently has tens of thousands of signers.

At the same time, a lobbying effort is underway to get members of Congress not to endorse an anti-Lebanon “Sense of the Congress” resolution, and endorse instead a pro-Lebanon bill being supported by Senator Abraham and Congressman Rahall. And Arab Americans are working to build a broad consensus in support of the Middle East peace process.

This is a dangerous time for the Middle East, and Arab Americans seek to play a role speaking to the Administration, Congressional candidates and the larger U.S. public about the dangers should the peace process be stalled, and the steps that must be taken to insure continued progress toward a comprehensive peace.

While clearly facing challenges beyond their resources, Arab Americans have made remarkable progress toward their carving out a role in U.S. politics.

The community has a central role to play in advancing its own social and political interests as an American constituency, while at the same time working to become a bridge of understanding between the concerns of the Arab world and those of the U.S.

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