Posted on November 11, 2002 in Washington Watch

For Arab Americans the 2002 elections produced much good news, some bad news and, in other instances, no news at all.

For starters, 70 percent of Arab Americans running for office this November won their elections. The most important victor was Senator-elect John Sununu of New Hampshire. What makes his win especially satisfying was the fact that he had been targeted for defeat by pro-Israel groups.

During the Republican primary earlier this year, Sununu’s Arab ancestry was repeatedly attacked by his opponent, Senator Bob Smith. Smith challenged what he called Sununu’s pro-Palestinian voting record and even brought former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to campaign for him. Sununu easily beat Smith in the primary elections.

In the general election Sununu faced Democratic Governor Jeanne Shaheen. Despite being married to a prominent New Hampshire Arab American, Shaheen attempted to paint Sununu as not pro-Israel enough to serve in the Senate. She challenged Sununu’s voting record and his opposition to Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as its undivided capital. In response, Sununu stood his ground, maintaining that the status of the city had to be determined in negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

Arab Americans rallied to Sununu’s campaign. They donated to his effort, volunteered on his behalf, and therefore celebrated his victory as an important one for the community.

Next door in the state of Maine, another Arab American congressman, Democrat John Baldacci, also ran for a new post, that of governor. He won as well.

The remaining four Arab American incumbent congressmen also won reelection: Democrat Nick Rahall of West Virginia; Republican Ray LaHood of Illinois; Democrat Chris John of Louisiana, and Republican Darrell Issa of California.

Another great win celebrated by Arab Americans is Theresa Isaac’s victory as Mayor of Lexington, KY. Ms. Isaac, an Arab American Democrat, and a long-time supporter of the Arab American Institute, was subjected to a last minute anti-Arab attack by her opponents. A group calling itself “Bluegrass Friends of Israel” circulated fliers in the days before the election, criticizing Isaac’s Arab American ancestry.

In response, prominent Jewish Americans from Lexington denounced the effort and Arab Americans came to her defense as well. Isaac won and became the Chief Executive of the U.S.’s largest city to be headed by an Arab American.
Overall Arab Americans fared exceptionally well in other races across the U.S. Most Arab Americans incumbents running for reelection won, as did a number of Arab Americans running for the first time.

Arab American participation was also up. The community organized get-out-the-vote mobilization efforts in 11 states. In all, these efforts directly contacted over 250,000 Arab American voters in the days before the election. In eight communities, Arab Americans held candidates’ nights that brought out over 100 candidates seeking community support.

The Arab American Leadership Council Political Action Committee (ALCPAC) raised and gave over $150,000 to over 70 congressional candidates. Eighty-three percent of these candidates endorsed by the PAC won their elections, including a number of incumbents and challengers who actively sought Arab American community support. The most important of the victories included the reelection of Michigan Democrat John Dingell and the first-time wins of Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan and Michigan Republican Candice Miller.

Not all the news was good, however. Arab Americans were deeply disappointed by Congressman David Bonoir’s losing effort in Michigan’s Democratic primary race for governor. The primary losses of congressional incumbents Earl Hilliard and Cynthia McKinney were also troubling.

In two cases this November, Arab Americans mobilized to support challengers who also lost. Texas Democrat Tim Riley failed in his attempt to unseat House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, and Pennsylvania Democrat Ed O’Brien lost in his bid to replace Congressman Pat Toomey. Despite being on the losing side in the races, Arab Americans in both states were well organized and won respect for their efforts.

In the days that followed the elections, both US and Arab journalists speculated whether President Bush would be emboldened by the outcome to hasten his plans to go to war against Iraq. “Did the President now have a freer hand?” was the question I was repeatedly asked. Here is where the 2002 elections produced no news.

While the Bush Administration will now have a bit of an easier time setting a domestic agenda, the election will not substantially alter their ability to conduct foreign policy, for two reasons. On the one hand, Democrats have not been an obstacle to the President’s foreign policy since the party took control of the Senate over one year ago.

If anything, Democrats were accommodating. They largely gave the President what he wanted in an Iraq resolution, and they have not challenged the Administration’s pro-Likud tilt with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Democratic Senator Joseph Biden’s chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was a sober and sane tenure, in comparison to that of former Republican Chair Jesse Helms. But Helms is retired and the new Republican chair of that influential committee will be a moderate and thoughtful leader, Indiana Senator Richard Lugar.

In any case, the restraints on the Administration’s Middle East policy did not come from the U.S. Senate; they came from factors outside of the electoral arena. Domestically, the uniformed military and the career foreign service officers at the Department of State have urged caution and more balance in U.S. Middle East policy. Internationally, the opposition of many of the U.S.’s European and Arab allies have also served as restraining forces.

In this post-November 2002 context, the Administration, while it will no doubt be more aggressive in pursuing tax cuts and a new Homeland Security Department, will still have to wend its way through turbulent and unreceptive international waters. In this regard, the post-November situation is no different than what came before.

The results therefore, of the 2002 elections for Arab Americans: mostly good news, some bad news, and in other cases no change at all.

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