Arab Americans at the 2004 Conventions

As Arab Americans prepare to participate in 2004’s Democratic and Republican party conventions, a new poll of Arab American voters shows Democratic Presidential nominee John Kerry’s lead over President George W. Bush is growing to a more than 2 to 1 margin.

While the Republican National Convention will not occur for another six weeks, Arab American Democratic leaders and activists are on their way to Boston, Massachusetts for the start of their party’s national meeting. The Arab American contingent to Boston will include 45 delegates and convention committee members. The delegation members come from 25 states and reflect the broad diversity that exists within the Arab American community.

For example, New Hampshire’s delegation will include Arab American Attorney William Shaheen who served as that state’s Chair of the Kerry for President Campaign. James Shaer, an Arab American, who served for sixteen years as Deputy Director of Kerry’s home state office, is a Massachusetts convention delegate. Louisiana’s Congressman Chris John, a third generation Arab American who is running this year for the US Senate, will be in Boston as will two Arab Americans from the state of Maine-former Senator George Mitchell and current Governor John Baldacci.

At the same time, the Arab American contingent will also include a number of first time delegates like Ferial Masry, an American of Saudi descent, who is the Democratic party nominee for a State Assembly post in California. Another newcomer to political activism is Newman Abuissa who won a delegate slot from the state of Iowa. Abuissa first met Kerry when the Senator visited Iowa’s Cedar Rapids mosque in November of 2003. Since then he’s been working hard to earn his convention delegate spot, including hosting meetups in his home.

Taleb Salhab, Janan Al Awar, Nael Abid, and Carol Mansour, all from Orlando, Florida will be in Boston as part of their state’s delegation. This year was the first time Arab Americans in Florida actively organized as an effective political force. They overwhelmed their local party gathering with so many new voters that they gained the respect of party leaders and were able to elect a significant number of Arab Americans as delegates to the national convention.

These stories are only a few of the many success stories Arab Americans are bringing to Boston. All of them point to the continued growth and maturity of the community in the political process.

In Boston, the Arab American Institute (AAI) will host, as it has since the 1988 Democratic and Republican conventions, a number of events deigned to expose the rest of the party’s leadership to the rich heritage of the Arab American community and the community’s issues concerns as well.

On the first night of the convention, AAI, together with the local Arab American community, will host a Gala Tribute to the Democratic Party. Featuring Arabic music, food, and cultural exhibits, the event will also feature Democratic leaders who have agreed to attend and address the gathering. Among them are National Chair of the Kerry Campaign former New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen and National Chair of the Democratic Party Senator Richard Durbin. Over three dozen members of Congress have also accepted invitations to attend as have hundreds of convention delegates and Arab American community leaders from the Boston area.

On the Tuesday of the convention, AAI, together with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) will host an issues forum "Reclaiming America: Liberty and Global Responsibility." While the speakers list for this forum is still being developed, Congressman John Conyers, and political analyst Dr. Ron Walters are already confirmed to participate.

The Arab American community’s involvement in the conventions will occur against the backdrop of recently released poll results demonstrating the continued shift in Arab American voters from Bush to Kerry. Conducted by Zogby International, a New York firm, the poll of Arab American voters in four states that will be central to this year’s elections (Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida) shows John Kerry’s lead over President Bush has grown to 54% to 24%. 21% of Arab American voters are still undecided or supporting other candidates.

The shift in voters since the 2000 election is substantial. Of the 510,000 actual turnout voters covered in this four state survey, the results indicate a movement of 225,000 Arab American votes moving from the Republican to the Democratic column.

What the poll’s results show is that while Arab Americans appear not yet to know John Kerry and still have some concern about his Middle East policies, nevertheless, they are so alienated from President Bush’s policies on Palestine, Iraq, and civil liberties that they have rejected the Republican candidate.

Overall the poll shows that only 24% of Arab American say that Bush deserves to be reelected, while 69% say "it’s time for someone new." Only 27% of Arab Americans approve of the President’s job performance. Even more dramatic is the fact that only 9% of Arab Americans approve of the job he is doing to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict.

A number of other findings in the poll show that while John Kerry is currently receiving 54% of the Arab American vote, his overall percentage can grow to almost 2/3’s of the Arab American vote if he articulates positions on Middle East issues that convince undecided Arab Americans to support his candidacy.

So when Arab American Democrats emerge from their convention they will no doubt go forward to November with some satisfaction that the community is moving in their direction. They will also recognize the responsibility they have to work to ensure that the Democratic leadership becomes more sensitive to Arab American concerns.

The mood will be more challenging for the Arab American Republicans when they converge in New York City at the end of August for their party’s convention. The size of the Arab American contingent will be smaller, which is logical, given the fact that the overall number of Republican delegates is about half of the number to the Democratic convention. But it will be no less diverse. Bush Administration Cabinet member Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham will be there as will New Hampshire Senator John Sununu. Former Reagan Administration official George Salem, a Palestinian American, and leader of the Arab Americans for Bush committee will be present, as will former White House Director of the Office of Management and Budget and current candidate for Governor of Indiana Mitch Daniels, a first generation Syrian American. Louisiana Congressional candidate Charles Boustany will be in New York. He is currently serving as a campaign official in the Bush 2004 effort.

The delegation will also feature new activists like George Selim, a recent college graduate and elected Republican delegate from the State of Virginia and Hesham Mahmoud, a County Committeeman from New Jersey. Another leading Arab American Republican activist, Sherine El Abd, an Egyptian American from New Jersey, will play a role in the community’s organizing effort at the New York event and beyond.

As in Boston, AAI will host an Arab American Gala Tribute to the Republican Convention on Monday night, August the 30, followed on the next day with a panel in conjunction with the American Conservative Union (ACU), on civil liberties for convention delegates and community leaders. When Arab American Republicans return from the New York convention, they will be energized, but they know they are facing an uphill battle to win Arab American support in November.

Even with the challenges that lie ahead, what is important is that with the election 2004 in full swing, Arab Americans are now full partners in the process. This is a long cry from elections of the not too distant past when Arab Americans were unorganized, underrepresented, and often times, excluded.