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Elections 2004

Arab-Americans, American Muslims Pump up Political Influence
Contributions to Political Action Committees rising

This election year, Arab-Americans and American Muslims will deliver more votes to candidates, contribute more money to them, and attract closer attention from them than ever before.

At the Republican convention this week in New York, activists are wearing yellow T-shirts with the slogan "Yalla Vote" ("Let's Go Vote"). There has been a decade-long "shift" toward voting among Arab-Americans and American Muslims in the United States, according to Abed Hammoud, director of the Arab American Political Action Committee, in Dearborn, Michigan. "In the first half of the nineties, it wasn't important, politically correct, or even cool to vote or get registered," he said, but voting by Arab-Americans in Dearborn now tracks that of the general population.

In 2000, Arab-American and American Muslim groups made campaign contributions at a level quadruple of what they gave during the early nineties, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). And, in the first eight months of 2004, these groups have already given close to what they gave in 2000, with two months left before the election.

Some Arab-American and American Muslim organizations are taking a page from the Democratic primary campaign of Howard Dean and holding "house parties," in which members invite friends and family to dinner and ask them to donate.

"Traditionally, Arab-Americans participated as individuals" in supporting candidates, said Jean Abi Nader, director of the Arab American Institute (AAI) in Washington. But he added that Arab-Americans have a growing awareness that they can exert greater political influence by contributing to organized fund-raising groups, known as Political Action Committees (PACs).

While only a handful of these PACs will endorse a presidential candidate, they are getting unprecedented attention from the campaign staffs of President George W. Bush, Senator John F. Kerry and Ralph Nader, a third-party candidate. The directors of PACs believe it is because a close contest between Bush and Kerry could be decided by a small percentage of voters in several hotly contested states, where Arab-Americans and American Muslims are concentrated. In Michigan, "we have 50,000 votes -- we can carry a swing state," said Hammoud.

Michigan, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania are the focus of Zogby polls of Arab-Americans. A shift of one to three percent of voters in those states can turn the outcome of the election, and Arab-American voters make up that much of the population in those places, according to Abi Nader. (The Census Bureau reports that Arab-Americans make up less than one-half of one percent of the total U.S. population.)

The most recent Zogby poll, taken in July, shows Arab-Americans favoring Kerry, with 51 percent. He is followed by Bush, with 24 percent, and Nader, who is Lebanese American, with 13 percent. Whether Nader will appear on state ballots is subject to legal wrangling likely to continue into October.

Forty-three Arab-Americans were delegates at the Democratic Convention. "The participation of the Arab-American community in the Democratic Party continues to grow," said Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe. AAI reported that 15 Arab Americans were delegates to the Republican convention.

The Bush campaign will distribute talking points on issues important to Arab-Americans and American Muslims during the Republican convention. In the last two weeks, Abi Nader said, the Bush campaign has established "Arab-Americans for Bush-Cheney."

A major reason for more robust political participation by Arab-Americans and American Muslims during this election cycle is the perception that the Patriot Act, passed in 2001, hinders civil rights and allows their communities to be unfairly targeted by law enforcement. Agha Saeed, chair of the American Muslim Taskforce, in Fremont, California, said Muslims have been reduced to "second class citizenship" and cited what he called a "mind-boggling" incident in Concord, California, in which police questioned a Muslim for reading a newspaper article about Osama bin Laden in the local library.

"Civil liberties has people bent out of shape," said Abi Nader, "but it's very good for coalition building." He said the 12 state chapters that form AAI's Arab American Leadership PAC are raising more money and are making connections with other ethnic groups concerned about civil rights -- Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans. For Arab-Americans, this kind of political activity is "innovative ... it's not just a thing of going down to the mosque," he said.

Foreign policy -- specifically the U.S. stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- has long dominated Arab-Americans' agenda, but now domestic matters are attracting younger voters' attention. Hammoud predicts increased turnout by Arab-Americans in local elections. "To vote for school board members affects our lives more than anything else," he said.

Arab-American and American Muslim PAC contributions favored Democrats in 2000 and then tilted toward Republicans in 2002, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) data. This year the pendulum is swinging back. So far, Democrats have been given $31,000 and Republicans $11,000, according to a report by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) based on data released by the FEC in August.

The money is coming from just a handful of PACs, led by the Arab American Leadership PAC. Yet new PACs are forming. The New Dominion PAC was registered last year by Arab-Americans who want to influence state elections in Virginia. Also in 2003, the American Muslim Taskforce (AMT) grew out of a predecessor group to embrace 10 groups, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations. If AMT decides to endorse a presidential candidate in mid-October, as expected, it will register as a PAC at that time. By then, it will have attended the Democratic and Republican conventions, met with the candidates, and held 50 town hall meetings.

The PACs are diverse in terms of their partisanship, the office-level of candidates they support and issue orientation. Most question candidates on policies and then decide which ones to support financially.

The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee's PAC, in Washington, supports candidates who are Arab-American themselves or who favor certain views. The group neither donates to nor endorses presidential candidates, according to its spokeswoman, Laila Al-Qatami. "We are small," she said, "and haven't given out a large amount of money -- maybe $5,000 this year." The PAC will likely support California Democrat Ferial Masry's run for a seat in the state assembly. If successful, Masry will be the first Saudi-born woman to serve in the California legislature.

The Legislative Council PAC, a branch of the American Task Force for Lebanon in Washington, supports congressional candidates who are of Arab or, more particularly, Lebanese descent, and candidates who support economic development in Lebanon and other policies specific to the country.

Campaign contributions by PACs, in general, have grown over the past several election cycles, according to the FEC. It reports contributions up 6 percent in 2003 over the last non-election year. But PACs devoted to the interests of Arab-Americans and American Muslims are clearly outstripping that growth rate. Abi Nader expects AAI's Leadership PAC to raise $200,000 this year. Hammoud expects his Arab-American PAC to raise about $65,000 this year.

Still, major fundraising is the unconquered frontier. Consider that during the 2000 election cycle, American Muslim and Arab-American PACs donated $114,000 to candidates, compared to $1.9 million contributed by pro-Israel PACs, according to CRP.

"Our community has huge amounts of money they can spend," said Hammoud. "A local mosque earns $200,000 in a quick fund-raiser." He said he does not want to funnel charitable giving to politicians, but hopes to convince Arab-Americans and American Muslims to donate to PACs, in addition to charity.

Arab-American and American Muslim PACs are planning ways to tap into money they feel certain is out there. "We want to bring our website up to the 21st century," said Al-Qatami. Her PAC will soon accept donations online.

Elizabeth Kelleher - Washington File Writer
Created: 02 Sep 2004 Updated: 02 Sep 2004

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