Lessons from the Hilliard & McKinney Defeats

James Zogby’s Column

There are a number of lessons to be learned and observations to be made following the defeat of Congress Member Cynthia McKinney in a Democratic primary election last week.  Her loss and that of Congressman Earl Hilliard earlier this summer provide a great deal for Arab Americans to think about.

Most importantly, Arab Americans should not feel ashamed of their efforts in these two elections.  The community did what they had to do-they performed well.  We had been called upon to defend two members of Congress who had defended us in the past and we did.  Despite the fact that very few Arab Americans live in either congressional district, hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised and volunteers worked hard and gained rich political experience in both efforts.

What Arab Americans could not do, was overcome the real objective disadvantages faced by both candidates.  The map of both Hilliard’s Alabama congressional district and McKinney’s Georgia district had been redrawn this year.  As a result both districts were slightly less African American and more affluent.

Since Hilliard and McKinney had their base in the traditional civil rights African American community, both were vulnerable targets for defeat by more moderate candidates who could win moderate blacks and suburban white voters.  It should also be noted that both opponents were aided by the fact that since both Alabama and Georgia allow what are called “cross-over” votes, thousands of Republicans did in fact “cross over” to vote against Hilliard and McKinney.

Sensing the vulnerability of Hilliard and McKinney and knowing how both of these members of Congress had been strong supporters of Palestinian rights, Jewish American supporters of Israel raised well over one million dollars to support the campaigns of their opponents.

Armed with substantially more money than either of the two members of Congress, the opponents were able to effectively use their financial advantage to define the campaigns their way.  As a result the Hilliard and McKinney projected in the campaign ads designed by their opponents were gross caricatures of the real candidates.  Both were put on the defensive-a recipe for defeat.

Possibly the most troubling aspect of these campaigns, however, was not the targeting of the candidates, but the targeting and caricaturing of their Arab American supporters.  Opposition researchers went through all of Hilliard’s and McKinney’s contributors and picked out the Arabic sounding names.  They then went through the lists to identify those donors who had said or done controversial things.  Finding a handful that had made outlandish statements, efforts were made to paint the entire Arab American donor base of the campaigns as a controversial issue.  The effort bore fruit.

Not only the local press, but national media as well commented on, in particular, McKinney’s support “from individuals suspected of ties to terrorism.”  As the campaign wore on, these charges were further exaggerated.  One national television program advertised a discussion it was to have on the McKinney campaign as a debate over whether “Islamic blood money” had entered congressional politics.  McKinney’s opponent latched onto this issue and at a debate asked the Congressperson to explain why she would accept funds from persons “known to be Arab terrorists.”

While I noted at the outset that Arab Americans need not feel ashamed at how they fared in these two contests, the community, nevertheless, should be concerned.

We did what we had to do.  We supported friends and we made our mark.  But mistakes were made as well. 

Politics is not a game for amateurs.  The stakes are serious as are the consequences.  Those in the community who glibly spoke of this as an “Arab-Israeli” proxy war or a test of Arab vs. Jew set the community up for defeat.  These races were tests of our friendship; nothing more, nothing less and no one should have been foolish enough to define us as anything different.

Next it is important to recall a lesson Jesse Jackson taught some 25 years ago.  As an organization I had organized, the Palestine Human Rights Campaign, was growing in national prominence, he cautioned me “You are now on center stage.  Every word you say will be heard.  When you were off stage you cold say anything you wanted to say-now you cannot.  Your words will be heard and they will be used against you and your entire community.”

Just as politicians must be careful and responsible, community leaders must be as well.  The Muslim American leader who stood in front of the White House and said, on national television, ‘We are all Hamas, all Hizbullah and all Jihad’ should have known that he put at risk himself, his community and all those elected officials to whom he sent campaign contributions.  Even though over a year later he distanced himself from these rumors it was too late.  The damage had already been done.

The danger is that because of the mistakes that were made by a few, the good work of Arab Americans in these elections may be ignored.   Now some campaigns may find it risky to accept Arab American support, returning the community to the dark days of the 1980s, when our contributions were rejected and our endorsements returned.

But Arab Americans have substantial political resources and allies and we can work to overcome the impact of these setbacks.  It will take hard work, but it is work I know Arab Americans can do.  The lessons we must learn are: to be smarter, to be clear in our objectives, to not allow foolishness to mar our image or harm our advancement and to intensify our political involvement focusing on defining realistic objectives of voter registration and mobilization, campaign activity and mainstreaming of Arab Americans in the U.S. political process. 


While discussing the consequences of these two races, there should be no doubt that there will be other consequences as well.  In the short term, the congressional debates on Middle East issues will suffer only slightly.  Some, especially those who feel vulnerable, may be intimidated into silence.   But others may be emboldened.  In any case the future course of congressional action on important Middle East concerns has yet to be determined-and will not be significantly impacted by these two defeats alone.

A more interesting issue is the impact that these two races will have on relations between the African American community and the Jewish community.  Some efforts will be made to try to patch over the wounds inflicted by the substantial amounts of money raised to defeat two African American members of Congress.  But listening to the comments of some African American leaders and the discussion on African American radio programs, the wounds are deep and for some, they wont’ heal easily.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.