The Great Arab Voter Revolt


Last week’s meeting of the Arab American Political Action Committee (AAPAC) ran long, over three hours, and exposed the kinds of divisions that roil voters nationwide, according to those whoattended. Over a hundred of the PAC’s members had gathered in Dearborn, Michigan, intending to endorse a Democrat for president. But after a contentious first vote that failed to yield a winner, the group remained stuck between two minds.

“The discussion was very intense,” said Osama Siblani, the outgoing president of AAPAC who chaired the meeting. “One side was concerned with the ‘electability’ question. People asked, should we compromise on the issues for the sake of electability? And the other group wanted to focus on matters of principle.”

The issues that affect Arab Americans, according to Siblani and a number of other community members, are “first, the Patriot Act and the domestic civil rights agenda. And second, America’s foreign policy.”

It is still unclear what the political order will look like by February 7, when Michigan holds its Democratic caucus, the first in a major industrial state. And while many of the state’s unions have yet to endorse candidates, including the 450,000-member United Auto Workers union, many predict that the Arab American vote may be instrumental.

Michigan is home to the country’s largest concentration of Arab Americans, a community that could represent upwards of 4 percent of voters in the state’s delegate-rich caucus, and the same percentage in a general election. Nationwide, 3.5 million Arab Americans, by some estimates, are concentrated in other key states, including Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

Not surprisingly, the Democrats are listening. For the first time ever, ballots are being printed in Arabic. Eight of the nine presidential candidates at the time accepted invitations to an October conference hosted by the Arab American Institute (AAI) in Dearborn, and several of them have met privately with community leaders. In those meetings, they’ve demanded that the Democrats speak to their hot-button issues, including America’s Middle East policy and civil rights.

Senator John Kerry’s stock may be rising, say community members who admit to reconsidering his candidacy. This new support, if it’s real, deserves notice: A pre-Iowa poll found former Vermont governor Howard Dean with an almost 40 percent approval rating among Arab Americans nationwide, compared to Kerry’s 6 percent.

And while James Zogby, president of the influential AAI, said that Arab Americans might be “coming together” around Kerry’s campaign, the Massachusetts senator still has work to do. At press time, Zogby, who has advised other campaigns including Dean’s, had yet to endorse a candidate despite what appear to be numerous courtships. He did say he was impressed by the speech Kerry delivered to the October AAI conference.

As for the Dean campaign, Zogby said, “I haven’t heard from them in a long time.”

Jumana Judah, vice president of Michigan’s American Arab Chamber of Commerce, switched her support from Dick Gephardt to John Kerry the day after the New Hampshire primary.

“I think he’s the only one who has a chance of beating Bush,” she said. “As a Palestinian, is what I want in a president ever realistically going to happen? Do I just watch them play this political game without playing along?” Judah, who describes herself as an active Democrat for over 20 years, is playing it too.

“We’ve managed to become part of the political formula,” she said. “In the past, we were considered a liability.”

Like Zogby, many of Kerry’s Arab American supporters say they were moved by his October speech, and by the prominence in his campaign of other Arab Americans like Bill Shaheen, a lawyer and the husband of former New Hampshire governor Jeanne Shaheen, who chairs Kerry’s campaign.

Bill Shaheen, who campaigned for Kerry in Michigan last weekend, recalled his exchange with an African client of his law firm as a way of illustrating Kerry’s support among Arab Americans.

“This Rwandan woman I had just helped asked me if she could do anything for me in return,” he recalled. Shaheen said he asked her to support John Kerry with her vote, if she could. “She said, ‘I can get you 23 votes. When we vote, we vote like a village.’ ” Shaheen laughed at this, and said, “So do we.”

But the January 16 poll, conducted by pollster John Zogby (James’s brother), suggested that it was Howard Dean who had fired up Arab American voters at the same time he energized other disenfranchised groups nationwide.

“I like his charisma and his integrity,” said Zouher Abdel-Hak, an Iraqi-born jeweler of Lebanese descent who lives in Dearborn. Abdel-Hak’s business has been slammed by the economy—luxury items are often the first casualty of a recession—and he said if things continue to decline, he might have to close the business he has run with his wife since 1983.

“I have seen more people selling off their jewelry than any time in my 21 years in the business,” he said.

And he is still trying to choose between Kerry and Dean, and perhaps Clark.

“When Dean spoke from the heart, people thought he was a nutcase,” he added. “He’s real. He did what his heart told him at the moment of joy. I think we need more of that.”

While enjoying their new prominence, Arab Americans are quick to point out that election-day choices ultimately remain personal. “We’re not monolithic,” Judah reminds, stressing that support from the community does not begin or end with the Middle East. “We’re much more sophisticated than that. We have children in schools. I have a small business. I’d like to save my backyard before I go liberating other countries.”

And the community continues to show its complexity, defying Zogby’s observation that there is a “coming together.” Osama Siblani points out that AAPAC endorsed George W. Bush in 2000, and in that experience, there was an education.

“In our meeting, we went over the fact that the Shaheens are helping Kerry,” he said. “We don’t buy into that. We remember that we had people in the Bush administration too,” he said, mentioning energy secretary and former Michigan senator Spencer Abraham, also an Arab American. “We don’t care who the Arab on the team is. People care about issues.”

And in that spirit, Siblani’s PAC endorsed Congressman Dennis Kucinich last week, choosing the issues, apparently, over electability. General Wesley Clark also had a lot of support, as did Howard Dean. Kerry, according to Siblani, didn’t receive any votes.

“Kucinich sits very well on our issues,” Siblani said. At the heart of the endorsement, he believes, is a philosophical choice. “How can we ask people to stand with us if we desert them when they [do] stand with us?”

Sometime before November, the Bush administration should probably note that support for the president in the community, once as high as 83 percent, has dropped to 38 percent. While Michigan’s Arab Americans may be divided on the Democrats, hostility to the administration over the excesses of the Patriot Act, the failure to intervene in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the muddled post-war crisis in Iraq mean they may just band together at general-election time.

While pollster John Zogby concedes that the Michigan race is still fluid, he says it is clear that a majority of Arab Americans are now “vocal and militantly against Bush,” and will probably make that opinion heard in November. “I don’t think that’s going to change,” he said.

Tim Attalla has spent years becoming an important Republican in Michigan, and sounded pained as he described his election choices in a phone interview.

“I have a long history of political activism in the party,” he said. “The question I have is: Do the Republicans want Arab American votes?” Attalla said the Bush administration, which made a point of reaching out to the community in 2000, has virtually no contact with it now.

Attalla and several friends are starting a political action committee to support a candidate in the general election, and so far, they have received almost $100,000 in pledges. “I never thought I would say this,” he said, “but it’s an open question who my money will go to.”