Chicagoland’s Arabs learn first lesson in real politics
Though divided over political races, Chicago’s Arab American community has come together as a powerful force that can no longer be taken for granted by elected officials and local governments. The heated battle between conservative Democratic Congressman Dan Lipinski and liberal Democratic challenger Marie Newman created the interest that has sparked a surge in Arab political empowerment and a possible “Arab American Spring.”
By Ray Hanania
Chicagoland’s Arab American community finally took the substantive plunge into the deep end of the American political swimming pool, going all out in one of the most contested races of 2018, the bare knuckle battle between 7-term incumbent Congressman and conservative Democrat Dan Lipinski and liberal Democratic rival and first-time political candidate Marie Newman.
The two went head-to-head in one of the most talked-about election contests in Illinois’ March 20, 2018 Democratic Primary election. A primary election is an election in which members of each party vote to decide who will represent their party in the General Election, which this year is scheduled for later this year on November 8.
Although it appears as if Lipinski squeaked out an election victory in unofficial vote tallies provided by the State of Illinois Tuesday night, Arab Americans were clearly the winners, despite some issues and challenges in adapting to American election campaign political culture.
The first election for public office in Northern Illinois was won by Clem Balanoff whose mother, Miriam Balanoff, was Syrian American and a judge. Balanoff served in the Illinois House, the first Arab American to hold that position in the state.
For full disclosure, I should point out that Balanoff and I have been friends since we were both teenagers on Chicago’s Southeast Side. In the late 1960s, we both attended Bowen high school together where we were close friends. We also both shared birthdays one day apart, born in the same year, too. There were only a few Arab American families in Chicago at the time, and his and mine were among the pioneers who created the base for the hundreds of thousands who followed to settle in Chicago in large waves beginning in the 1970s.
Balanoff was the first Arab American to run for Chicagoland office winning a seat as a Democrat in the Illinois General Assembly in 1989 in the 32nd District which later became the 35th District.
Inspired by my friend, I ran for the 38th Illinois House District in November 1991. A Republican stronghold. I ran as a Democrat winning about 49 percent of the vote in the district which included the Republican heavy Will County and Democratic heavy Cook County.
In 1992, a 3rd Arab American ran for office, Miriam Zayed, seeking a seat on the High School District 230 Board of Trustees. Zayed, an accomplished career educator and teacher, lost the election despite a very strong campaign that focused on important education issues.
But as the wars raged in the Middle East in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria in the 1990s, many Arab refugees who identified more as “Muslims” than as “Arabs” settled in Chicago and the election focus shifted away from Arab candidates to Muslim candidates. Since Chicagoland’s Arab community consisted of both Christians and Muslims, the religiously-driven campaigns divided the community with Christians moving in one direction and Muslims moving in another. Chicagoland’s Arab community is largely Palestinian, followed by Jordanian and Lebanese immigrants. Most of the Lebanese, however, had established themselves in downstate Illinois, a more than three hour drive from Chicago achieving great heights in Illinois politics based in Peoria.
Chicago’s divided Arab community watched with envy as Peoria Arabs, mostly Christian Lebanese, won office after office, while Arab and Muslim candidates ran separately and lost offices in Chicago.
This year, though, things changed. In a way, you have to credit President Donald Trump with motivating Arabs to rise up from their “political slumber.” Trumps policies, seen as very anti-Muslim, galvanized a segment of the Arab and Muslim community to join the anti-Trump movement.
But the anti-Trump movement was larger than merely protests against Trump policies perceived as being anti-Arab and anti-Muslim. Trump symbolized an assault on woman’s rights, abortion, campaigns to crackdown on gun violence through tougher restrictions on gun ownership, and Gay, Lesbian and Transgender rights. While those issues seemed in conflict with the fundamental “family values” of most Arab and Muslim Americans, not just in Chicagoland, they appealed to a growing base of liberal Democrats and with many women.
Those liberal activists reached out to Arab Americans who have been excluded from many of Illinois’ politics and government decision making. Although Arabs and Muslims had some involvement in the Chicago mayoral administration of Mayor Richard M. Daley, all of the programs Daley helped launch for Arab Americans were destroyed when Rahm Emanuel was elected as his successor.
Emanuel, who favored non-Arab Muslims over Arabs in his administration, pulled the rug out from under the four year old Arabesque Arab Festival, which extremist Jewish organizations like the Chicago Jewish Federation had lobbied to censor and even shut down. Emanuel shut down the festival by withdrawing his administration’s support. And, he quickly moved to destroy the Arab Advisory Commission, which in all honesty had been a worthless bureaucratic base for selfish political benefit by some privileged and monied Arab community activists.
If the Jewish Federation would not have killed Arab involvement in Chicago government, divisions and rivalries in the Arab community would have eventually achieved the same self-destructive goal.
This year, Marie Newman’s challenge of Congressman Lipinski sparked a unique “Arab American Spring” that motivated Arabs to more actively and strategically engage in the political election process. Newman reached out to Arab Americans who were angry with Congressman Lipinski’s co-sponsorship of a punitive bill that punished any American who dared to criticize the foreign country of Israel. The bill was co-sponsored by notorious anti-Arab racist and Republican Congressman Peter Roskam. The bill came as a shock to many Arabs, including to me, especially since Lipinski’s district contained one of the largest concentrations of Arab Americans in the Midwest. There were more Arab voters in the 3rd District than in any of the state’s other congressional districts, as many as 40,000 registered voters, or half of all the Arab voters in the State of Illinois.
Newman’;s outreach and broad base of support from leftwing activists sent a shiver through Lipinski’s re-election campaign and he, too, reached out to Arab and Muslim voters in the district. While Newman is a liberal, Lipinski’s conservative family values-driven political views more closely paralleled the views and attitudes of Arab Christians and Arab Muslims.
Although this resulted int he community dividing between the two candidates, it insured that whichever candidate won, Lipinski or Newman, Arabs would be taken more seriously by the election victor.
Clearly, the larger conservative faction of the Arab community helped Lipinski maintain his slim lead over Newman, who also did far better with the support and campaign contributions of liberal Arab community activists.
With nearly all of the 500 precincts in the 3rd Congressional District reporting in, unofficial voter counts showed Lipinski leading Newman by a mere 1,600 votes. With only 17 precincts remaining to be tallied by the following morning by 6 am, Lipinski had 45,615 votes or 50.9 percent of the votes cast and Newman had 44,016 votes or 49.1 percent of the vote, according to a tally published by the Chicago Tribune newspaper.
Clearly, Arab American voters who number 40,000, made that difference. They not only strengthened Newman’s challenge, they also provided Lipinski with the cushion he needed to maintain his slim lead. Plus Arab American voters found empowerment and support from the influential Arab American Democratic Club (AADC) headed by Samir Khalil, Miriam Zayed and other pragmatic Arab American activists. AADC is the largest political grassroots organization in Illinois/
Both candidates also spent heavily by purchasing advertisements in the local Chicago Arab American newspaper, The Future News, published by Christian Jordanian Mansour Tadros.
Newman, reflecting the often angry tone typical of leftwing activists, vowed not to concede claiming that she wanted Lipinski to suffer through the night with uncertainty. In contrast, candidates who lost races for other offices in Chicagoland, Cook County and Illinois, took on a more professional tone, including several incumbents who were unseated in hotly contested races like Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios and Arab American Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey (who is Moroccan).
Sadly, Arabs in their anger failed to recognize Fritchey’s vulnerability and did not do enough to help him hold his county board seat. Maybe that Arab American apathy was because Fritchey was not Palestinian and he was more focused on addressing issues of more concern to all of the constituents in his district instead of just on international issues involving Palestine. Fritchey lost to Democratic newcomer Bridget Degnen. Fritchey received only 17,922 votes (44.9 percent) while Degnen received 22,023 votes (55.1 percent).
The Palestinian community, often act like victims because of the intensity of political hate they face from pro-Israel politicians and organizations, and from the biased mainstream American news media which lionizes the rights of mainly non-Arab Muslims, while demonizing Arabs because of their inclination to criticize the media’s sacred cow, Israel.
Regardless, of how the election winds up, the Lipinski-Newman race will have a longstanding impact on Chicagoland’s Arab American community, and, more importantly, will serve as a wakeup call to many American politicians and government officials that they can no longer take Arab American voters for granted.