Ignoring Arab-Americans in '08?
- Ignoring Arab-Americans in '08?
By STEVEN GRAY/DEARBORN, MICH.
Sunday, Oct. 28, 2007
An Arab American walks in Dearborn, Mich.
Bill Pugliano / Getty Images
In 2003, Arab-Americans believed they were at a positive turning
point. Most of the presidential candidates appeared in person or via
satellite before that year's Arab-American Institute's National
Leadership Conference. It was a far cry from two decades earlier, when
a major candidate, Walter Mondale, very publicly returned donations
from a group of Arab-American businessmen, saying it was his
campaign's policy not to accept them from the ethnic group.
But 2003 may have been the high-water mark. At the same conference,
held in Dearborn, Michigan, last weekend, none of the top-tier
candidates from either party showed up. New Mexico Gov. Bill
Richardson, a Democrat, was the most prominent candidate to attend.
Several Democrats submitted videotaped messages, but none of the major
Republican candidates bothered to send even those. The absence of
major candidates from both sides of the political fence underscores
the perception among many Arab- and Muslim-American leaders that
they've been deemed politically expendable even as some of the 2008
election's key issues (such as the Iraq War, the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict and the debate over balancing domestic security and civil
liberties) are of particular interest to their community.
Arab-Americans constitute a relatively marginal share of the U.S.
electorate just 1.3 million voters, according to independent polling
firm Zogby International but make up a potentially crucial voting
bloc in battleground states like Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. They
account for roughly 4% of all voters here in Michigan, home to the
highest concentration of Arab-Americans. They tend to be better
educated and more affluent than the U.S. population at large, and in
recent years have swung between Republican and Democratic presidential
candidates. "This is a community that is very much up for grabs,
that's waiting to be wooed," says George Salem, a longtime Republican
and the Arab-American Institute's chairman.
None of the campaigns offered a significant explanation for their
candidates' absence from this year's conference, or their failure to
accept an invitation to participate in a question-and-answer session
via satellite. A spokeswoman for former North Carolina Sen. John
Edwards, a Democrat, said he had previously scheduled campaign events
Part of the blame may lie with the Michigan primary, which has been
scheduled for Jan. 15. Some Democratic candidates have pledged not to
campaign in Michigan because the primary's new early date violates
Democratic National Committee rules. Some candidates have pulled out
of Michigan's primary altogether. However, Democratic officials in
four other early-primary states New Hampshire, Nevada, Iowa and
South Carolina have made an exception for the Arab-American
Institute's conference, permitting Democratic candidates to attend the
event if they wish. Given that exception, says Jim Zogby, the
institute's president, whose brother heads the Zogby poll, says of the
candidates: "They should have been here."
The conference opened Friday with speeches from two lower-tier
candidates who did attend: Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a Republican, and
former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, a Democrat. On Saturday, New York Sen.
Hillary Clinton delivered a brief videotaped message, as did Barack
Obama and John Edwards on Sunday. Speaking in person at the Doubletree
Hotel in Dearborn, Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National
Committee, drew applause from the conference's 600 or so participants
with the observation that the field of Republican presidential
candidates "looks like America in the 1950s, and when they open their
mouths, sound like they're in the 1850s." Bill Richardson played up
his diplomatic credentials and pledged that, if elected, he would
swiftly close the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base and more vigorously engage
Iran and Syria.
The conference had an unmistakably Democratic tone, reflecting the
fact that nearly 40% of Arab-Americans identify as Democrats (about
26% identify as Republican, down from 38% a decade ago). Particularly
pronounced was the anxiety of many Arab-American Republicans. In 2000,
President Bush won significant support from many Arab-American groups
after expressing sensitivity toward racial profiling of Arab-Americans
during the second presidential debate. But following his
Administration's response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks,
that support began to erode.
Randa Fahmy Hudome, a longtime Republican consultant, reflects that
alienation. She points to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's
recent television ads, in which he says, "It's this century's
nightmare: jihadism violent, radical, Islamic fundamentalism. Their
goal is to unite the world under a single jihadist caliphate. To do
that, they have to collapse freedom-loving nations like us." Hudome
complained about the ad to the Romney campaign. Now, she calls herself
a "DR" a "Disaffected Republican" and is considering supporting
Many people at the conference said that in order to win the support of
Arab-Americans, candidates on both sides of the fence must at least
show a willingness to meet with them in person. Still, despite the
absence of major candidates, Rebecca Abou-Chedid, the institute's
national political director, says the conference wasn't a failure. She
points to heightened interest in the institute's grassroots voter
campaign, dubbed "Yalla Vote 2008" Arabic for "Let's Go Vote 2008."
Still, she says, "For a community that's still fighting to have a
place at the table, you don't want to feel like you're going backwards
if part of your measurement is how many presidential candidates attend."
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