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Elections 2004

Arab-Americans Claim Their Place at Republican Convention
Political leaders encourage community to be active in U.S. politics

The paintings on the walls were 19th century, but the talk in the galleries of the Dahesh Museum of Art was 21st century politics as Arab-Americans attending the Republican National Convention socialized after a day of speeches and meetings August 31.

The Dahesh Museum was exhibiting images of the Near East by European painters who depicted scenes based in large measure on romanticism, fantasy, and crude stereotypes about Eastern cultures, showing life not as it really was but as Westerners imagined. In contrast, those attending the reception, which was sponsored by the Arab-American Institute, were business and political leaders, journalists, and professionals involved in the very real, major issues of the day -- the Middle East peace process, U.S. energy policy, governance, the rebuilding of Iraq, civil liberties, and the election of an American president.

The Arab-American community in the United States has become increasingly politically active in the last few years, especially after the terrorist attacks of September 11.

The attacks left many in the Arab-American community wanting to be more involved in the democracy they believe in and the country they love and call home, said many of those attending the reception, which was called "An Arabian Night in New York."

A similar event was held during the Democratic National Convention in Boston in July.

U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, the highest ranking Arab-American in the Bush administration, encouraged people to become more active in the political process "not just supporting whoever is on the ballot, but becoming candidates yourselves and encouraging others to become candidates."

"We need greater representation in all levels of government," the secretary said.

Abraham, who won one of Michigan's two Senate seats in 1994, said that "the Arab-American community was a great help in my winning an election that many said could never be won."

"When we first started getting active in 1994, it was beyond our wildest dreams to think that one day there would be two -- not one -- Arab-Americans sitting in the cabinet of the same American president ... in addition to senior leadership positions in the White House, an Arab-American in charge of personnel, and also have an Arab-American heading the National Institutes of Health, (and) the U.S. Armed Services Central Command," Abraham said.

In addition to Abraham, the Bush cabinet included Mitchell Daniels, who was director of the Office of Management and Budget until 2003. Dr. Elias Zerhouni is the director of the National Institutes of Health and General John Abizaid was commander of U.S. Central Command in Iraq. Dina Habib is special assistant to the president for presidential personnel.

The first Arab-American ever appointed to a cabinet secretary post was Donna Shalala in the Clinton Administration. Shalala, the nation's longest serving secretary of health and human services, is now president of the University of Miami.

"This is really something we have to convey in the community," Abraham said. "There really is an opportunity as never before to play a role, have a voice, to make an impact on the decisions that take place at the highest levels of government."

"Every single day when I walk into my office I think with great pride not only do I have this opportunity, I have this opportunity on behalf of our community," the energy secretary said. "I am very proud that someone with an Arab-American background has a chance to serve in the president's cabinet ... in my own right, on behalf of people in my community, and in memory of four grandparents who came from Lebanon with great hopes, a dream, and a desire to see their children and grandchildren do better."

"I like to think they would be proud their grandson has done pretty well," he said.

U.S. Senator John E. Sununu of New Hampshire said that the speech of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to the Republican Convention earlier in the evening provided a strong message for Arab-Americans.

Schwarzenegger is an immigrant, Sununu noted "and his speech really celebrated for a lot of Americans, for Palestinians, for Lebanese, coming to America and being able to practice your faith, being able to celebrate the shared culture, the shared values, and beliefs he spoke of."

At the convention, the California governor, who was a world famous actor before entering politics a year ago, presented his own life's story as proof that the "American Dream" is not a myth.

"In this country, it doesn't make any difference where you were born. It doesn't make any difference who your parents were. It doesn't make any difference if, like me, you couldn't even speak English until you were in your twenties. America gave me opportunities and my immigrant dreams came true," Schwarzenegger said.

Sununu, who is the youngest member of the Senate and serving his first term after six years in the House of Representatives, said that "it is a source of enormous pride to stand in the United States Senate as an Arab-American and try to work on a whole host of issues important to the community."

But Sununu and Congressman Darrell Issa of California said that there is no "silver lining" since the terrorist attacks of September 11, which were carried out by Arab nationals. "We did feel the negative effects," Sununu said.

"There is no silver lining to 9/11," Issa said. "We will feel the negative effects for the rest of our lives. But if there is a small, small betterment it is that the Arab-American community faced the situation with action, more united to be politically active, to have a voice in the democracy we believe in, and not be branded by the same broad brush."

Issa acknowledged that "there are those who have hate for Arab-Americans" since September 11. But he added that "for the most part, I have been given great opportunity. I have achieved great personal wealth in this country and I've done it across lines of all ethnic areas. So as an Arab-American the opportunities are there."

"Will there be people who hate us because we are Arabs?" the Congressman said. "Of course. But we have to look past those who hate and look to the greater America."

A Republican, Issa said that he supported the president's re-election because "in the first term most presidents work very hard to get re-elected, in the second term all presidents look for a legacy. This man's legacy has to be bringing about peace in the (Middle East) region -- peace and security for the Israelis, peace and prosperity for the Palestinians and a Palestinian state, democracy in Iraq. All of these will be part of this president's legacy. I believe he will be just as determined to bring peace as to end Saddam's rule."

While Arab-Americans are among the party leaders at the Republican National Convention, more Arab-Americans were registered as Democrats (39 percent) than Republicans (31 percent) in 2002, according to Zogby International. Issa said that he "could never figure out why."

In the Arab-American community in which he grew up "we were small business owners, entrepreneurs, we believed in our family as a solution" not government, he said, referring to tenets of the Republic Party.

"But regardless of what party, the most important thing is to be heard, have your ideas heard. Do everything you can to have your ideas heard," Issa said. "We are a people defined by our ideas. We have a lot to give to America . . . and we have an opportunity to give" in both political parties.

In attending a national political convention, Arab-Americans "are participating in something one does not get much opportunity to do in the countries that our families came from," the congressman said.

Political participation "is special; it's growing," he said.

According to Zogby International, which conducts surveys for the Arab American Institute, Arab-Americans have demonstrated a high degree of political activity, only one component of which is financial support. In a poll conducted in 2000, Zogby found that 88.5 percent of Arab-Americans are registered to vote. Only African-Americans and Jewish-Americans have a higher percentage of voter registration.

Four key states hotly contested in the 2004 presidential election, known as "battleground states," are among the top ten in Arab-American population, adding up to more than 1.1 million voters. Arab-American voter turnout and overwhelming support for one presidential candidate could affect the election.

In Michigan, Arab-American voters are slightly more than 5 percent of the vote (235,000 voters) and are 2 percent (129,000) in Florida. Just under 2 percent of the voters in Ohio (85,000) and more than 1.5 percent in Pennsylvania (75,000) are Arab-Americans, according to Zogby International.

In 2000, Democratic candidate Al Gore won Michigan and Pennsylvania by slightly more than 200,000 votes in each state. Bush won Ohio by 165,000, and the two virtually tied in Florida.

Judy Aita - Washington File Staff Writer
Created: 02 Sep 2004 Updated: 02 Sep 2004

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