Arab Americans emerge as key voting bloc

With 89 percent expected to vote this fall, they could be crucial in swing states.

Sixteen years ago, Sherine El-Abd, an Arab American, decided to get involved in politics. She joined the 1984 Democratic presidential campaign to help organize fund-raisers.

But then her idealism turned to frustration. She read in the paper that Walter Mondale had decided to return contributions from Arab Americans out of fear of losing the Jewish vote. She was so appalled she quit.

Today Ms. El-Abd is back in politics, her optimism revived. "Our vote has started to make a difference and candidates are listening to us," says the president of the Egyptian American Business Council.

Independent-minded and highly motivated, the nation's 3 million Arab Americans are becoming a political force.

In a close race, they could prove to be a pivotal voting bloc in several key swing states. Indeed, a recent poll by Zogby International showed that 86 percent of Arab Americans are registered and 89 percent say they plan to vote in this fall's presidential election. That's the highest rate of any other ethnic group other than Jewish Americans.

"If Arab Americans go to the polls in this election in Michigan, Illinois or New Jersey, which are tightly contested battles, they may provide the swing vote in these states," says John Zogby, an independent pollster, himself an Arab American.

For the first time in a presidential race, the two major candidates have spoken before Arab American audiences.

Vice President Al Gore was beamed by satellite to the Arab American Institute national Convention in November. Texas Gov. George W. Bush twice attended the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee's Texas chapter last fall. Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley also addressed the community during their campaigns.

Four years ago, neither Democrat Bill Clinton nor GOP candidate Bob Dole attended an event organized by the community. In 1988, Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis rejected the endorsement of Arab-American leaders, explaining it would alienate the Jewish vote.

"We have come a long way," says George Salem, a former Labor Department lawyer who was the first Palestinian ever appointed by a president, Ronald Reagan in 1985. "Arab Americans have become much more mainstream and influential. They are now courted by the candidates."

The Arab community, whose members started to immigrate to the United States early this century, easily assimilated into American society.

Many Arab Americans are small business entrepreneurs. They often have education and income levels above the national average. But the complications of Mideast politics, and the Jewish lobby's influence in Washington, has frequently prevented them from speaking out forcefully or with one voice.

Today, Arab Americans are doing a better job of organizing themselves, largely by duplicating the model established by American Jews some decades ago.

They have set up lobbies in Washington, organized conventions, and registered three Political Action Committees. In 1998, they contributed $106,000 to the campaigns of six congressmen of Arabic descent - a large sum for them but still small compared to the largess Jewish groups give.

Despite the success of many Arab Americans at assimilating into society, problems persist. Many in the community, for instance, are often stereotyped as terrorists or associated with rogue states.

Last month, Darrell Issa, a Republican candidate for Congress in California, was attacked for having received a $1,000 contribution from Gulf Interstate Engineering. His opponents accused Mr. Issa of having ties with Mideast oil interests and of being anti-Israeli. It turned out that "Gulf" in the company title referred to the Gulf of Mexico.

Ideologically, Arab Americans are difficult to pigeonhole. They are not single-issue voters, and they don't back one party exclusively, often switching from one candidate to another depending on the election.

In 1996, 41.8 percent of the Arab American vote went to Bill Clinton and 31 percent to Bob Dole. Ross Perot garnered 7.7 percent. Hany Kamal is an Egyptian-born financial consultant who became an American citizen in 1972. He will probably vote for Mr. Gore, even though he supported Mr. McCain.

To him, Medicare and gun-control are the issues that matter. He will vote as an American, he says, even though the Middle East question is very important to him. But like many Arab Americans, he has little confidence that his vote will ever affect US policy toward Israel.

"When it comes to election time, both the Republicans and the Democrats are really singing the same song," he says. "But we know that both parties are out to protect Israel, and voting for one or the other won't make any difference."

Yet the Mideast remains a uniting issue for a community that is becoming increasingly American. The next step, lobbyists say, is to go beyond working to elect individual candidates and to try to influence US foreign policy.

"The challenge is now to translate accessibility into direct and constant impact on American policy," says Khalil Jahshan, the president of the National Arab American Association. "Compared to the pro-Israel [lobby], our influence is still too limited."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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