Arab-Americans are organizing like never before. How they'll change the political landscape remains to be seen.
By Associated Press
Published December 14, 2003
ORLANDO - Jim Bajalia always has voted for Republican presidential candidates. The second-generation Palestinian-American was an enthusiastic College Republican at Florida State University, and he once explained to former Democratic President Carter during an airplane encounter why he never voted for him.
But President Bush's policies in Iraq and Israel and local and state politicians' insensitivity to Arab-Americans' concerns have sorely tested Bajalia's political loyalty. He thinks it's time Arab-Americans flex their political muscle.
"We have the political wherewithal and knowledge to make sure politicians are more sensitive to our issues," said Bajalia, 42, who runs a retail liquidation business in Jacksonville.
Arab-Americans are organizing politically in an unprecedented way. Activists such as Bajalia have formed or are in the process of creating umbrella groups in at least nine states. State Arab American Leadership Councils hope to channel Arab-American civic, religious and cultural groups into unified, influential political voices at the local and state levels.
The groups are modeled after the national Arab American Leadership Council, a bipartisan political action committee in Washington that contributes money to candidates for federal office. The idea to form several state councils, which won't be PACS, took shape at a conference sponsored by the Arab American Institute in October in Dearborn, Mich.
"Politics happens at the state level," said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, a public affairs group in Washington. "This is franchising out the concept so more people can participate in the areas where they live."
State Arab American Leadership Councils recently have sprouted up in Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Virginia. Arab-Americans in California, Florida, Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania plan to develop councils during the next few months.
The U.S. Census Bureau counted 1.2-million Arab-Americans in 2000. Almost half of the Arabs in the United States live in five states: California, 190,890; New York, 120,370; Michigan, 115,284; Florida, 77,461; and New Jersey, 71,770.
The Arab American Institute estimates that the U.S. Arab population is closer to 3.5-million people.
Arab-Americans politically reflect the larger U.S. population, although they tend to be slightly more Democratic, Zogby said. They also are more affluent and educated than the overall U.S. population.
Most have strong party affiliations. But recent immigrants, accounting for about a quarter of the community's voters, tend to have an independent streak and are swing voters.
For many Arab-Americans, the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, was a seismic change.
"We've been active for many years but we've never been structured under a particular group or organization. The events of Sept. 11 changed everything," said Nadeem Salem, chairman of the Northwest Ohio American Arab Chamber of Commerce in Toledo. "Specifically, we've had to be on the defensive and continued to struggle to defend ourselves, organize and grow."
Arab-Americans have been concerned about the roundup of hundreds of mostly Arab or Muslim immigrants by the U.S. Justice Department as part of the Sept. 11 investigation and the recently scrapped rule requiring tens of thousands of men from mostly Middle Eastern countries to register with immigration officials.
In Florida, Arab-Americans have been disconcerted by the indictment on terrorism charges of former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian and allegations made by a federal prosecutor that Orlando businessman Jesse Maali had ties to terrorism. A federal magistrate dismissed the allegations against Maali, a tourist shop magnate arrested on charges of recruiting illegal workers.
"In the forefront is the issue of civil rights for our community, which has become the No. 1 issue because of what happened since 9/11," said Taleb Salhab, board member of the Arab American Community Center in Orlando. "The second most important issue is the peace process, the Arab-Israeli conflict. Third, are other issues of concern to all Americans: the economy, health care, employment."
Arab-Americans are no strangers to U.S. politics. Many currently are in Congress, such as U.S. Sen. John E. Sununu, R-N.H., and others have served at the U.S. Cabinet level, such as Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham and former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala. Others have had high-profile jobs in the White House, such as Mitchell Daniels, former director of the Office of Management and Budget under the current president, and John H. Sununu, chief of staff under the first President Bush.
"Arab-Americans have been in this country for over 100 years ... and have always voted. The difference is voting with Arab-American consciousness, this idea of working as a bloc," said Gary David, a sociologist at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass. "There is an increasing more unified message because of the Patriot Act, detention and registration. Those things are solidifying identifying with being an Arab-American."
The success of the Arab-American political groups will depend on how much money they can raise for efforts such as voter registration, said Jennifer Duffy, a political analyst with the Cook Political Report in Washington.
"I don't know if this group is going to wake up someday and have the power of a labor union," Duffy said.
The Arab American Leadership Councils will be made up of Arab-American groups from all over their respective states. Individual councils will decide whether to endorse candidates.
In New Jersey, most of the work of the state Arab American Leadership Council consists of nonpartisan activities such as hosting candidate forums and arranging meetings with the governor and state lawmakers. All partisan work goes through the group's Democratic and Republican caucuses.
"We've done phone banks statewide. We've done mass mailing statewide," said Abed Awad, chairman of the Democratic caucus. "The community is really growing and becoming more sophisticated."
President Clinton won the Arab-American vote in 1996, and President Bush won it in 2000. But recent polling has shown Bush's support declining in the Arab-American community.
Bajalia hasn't decided whether Bush will get his vote again.
"It's kind of tough in this environment," he said, "being an Arab-American and being a Republican."