Arab American presence in U.S. Congress at risk
There are only a few Arab American members serving in the U.S. Congress but keeping that balance stable could be a challenge. Three Arab American congressmen have left or retired from office leaving four incumbents. Six more are running in five districts, including one race where two Arab Americans could face off representing both the Republican and Democratic parties. But the whisper of the Arab voice in Congress could disappear if not enough effort is made to help them
By Ray Hanania
Only 100 Arab Americans currently hold elected office in 43 States. But as Arab Americans grow in population, and as more register to vote, that can increase.
Congress is one of the most important elective offices. Of the 435 members of congress, 30 are Jewish and only four are Arab, not including three Arab Americans who retired this past year.
That explains why Arabs have so little influence over American foreign policy towards the Middle East.
But, that could change as six more Arab Americans are running for Congress in five districts this year. If successful, they can double Arab representation and strengthen our voice.
Here’s a rundown of those contests. Keep in mind, American candidates run in a “primary” election first to represent their party (Democrats, Republicans, Independents). Winners in party primaries will run in the November 6 General Election.
In Michigan, four Arab Americans, including one incumbent and two retired former state legislators are running for Congress in the 3rd, 11th and 13th districts in Michigan’s August 7 primary.
Republican Palestinian American Congressman Justin Amash is seeking re-election in Michigan’s 3rd District, where he has held office since 2011. Amash is expected to easily win.
West of Detroit in the heavily Republican 11th Congressional, incumbent Republican Congressman Dave Trott announced he will not seek re-election creating a vacancy. Two Arab Americans, one Republican and one Democrat, have entered the race.
Elected in 2013, Republican Klint Kesto is the first Christian Chaldean with Assyrian roots to serve in Michigan’s state legislature. He faces five other challengers.
Lebanese American Fayrouz Saad is also running in the 11th District Democratic Primary. She faces four other challengers.
Conceivably, Kesto and Fayrouz could face-off in the General Election in November, if they each win their party primaries, and one could win.
Palestinian American Democrat Rashida Tlaib, who retired after 12 years the Michigan legislature because of term limits, is one of 10 candidates vying to succeed the “Dean” of the U.S. House, Democrat John Conyers in the predominantly Democratic 13th District.
Conyers, an African American, has served in his seat 52 years since 1965 but was forced to step down last year in the wake of sexual harassment allegations.
Tlaib faces a tough field that includes Conyers’ son John Conyers III, and Conyers’ nephew, State Senator Ian Conyers. The district is 56.3 percent Black. Also running is another African American with an iconic name, Coleman Young II whose father was a former Detroit mayor.
Two Arab Americans are seeking congressional seats in California, in the 39th and 50th Districts. Congressman Darrell Issa, whose father is Maronite Lebanese, announced he will retire after representing the 49th district since winning in November 2002.
Sam Jammal, a longtime Democrat faces a tough contest in the predominantly Republican 39th District just southeast of Los Angeles. But he has a shot as the Republican incumbent, Ed Royce, who represented the district since 1993, is retiring.
Jammal has close ties to President Barack Obama, having worked on his campaign. During the Obama administration he served as a Legislative Counsel in the U.S. Senate where he focused on civil rights, labor and national security issues. Jammal was later appointed by Obama to serve at the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Much attention has been focused recently on the Democratic candidacy of Palestinian American Ammar Campa-Najjar, who is running for Congress in the 50th District which includes San Diego.
Campa-Najjar is the grandson of Muhammad Yusuf al-Najjar (aka Abu Yusuf) who as a senior member of Black September directed the 1972 Munich Olympic assault which took the lives of 11 Israeli athletes.
Although there never was a trial, Israel’s Mossad murdered Yusuf al-Najjar and his wife during a terrorist assault in Beirut. Campa-Najjar’s father, Yasser Najjar, was orphaned and eventually fled to the United States where Ammar Campa-Najjar was raised.
Campa-Najjar has not shied away from the issue, which was raised by the Israeli media last week, declaring he supports peace based on compromise. In response to question about his grandfather’s role in the Olympic attacks, Ammar Campa-Najja said, “There is never a justification for killing innocent civilians.”
Campa-Najjar faces two other Democrats, including a former Navy Seal, in the heavily Republican District that has been represented for many years by incumbent Congressman Duncan D. Hunter. Hunter, the son of the former congressman representing the district, is vulnerable, though. He has been accused of campaign fund irregularities.
Two Republicans are challenging Hunter, including Iranian Shamroze “Shamus” Sayed.
In Florida’s 27th Congressional District which includes Miami, Lebanese American Donna Shalala is seeking to succeed Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), 65, the first Cuban American elected to Congress, who is retiring after 28 years in Congress. Ros-Lehtinen has been a champion of anti-Palestinian legislation. But the district is predominantly Republican despite Shalala’s sterling government service credentials.
Shalala served under President Bill Clinton as the secretary of Health and Human Services from 1993 until 2001. Later, she became president of the University of Miami (2001 to 2015) and served as CEO of the Clinton Foundation during the 2016 presidential election cycle.
Shalala joins a crowded Democratic field that includes six other candidates including a former judge, two Miami commissioners, two Florida legislators, a Miami Herald newspaper reporter. Two Republicans are also running. He primary election is August 28.
In Illinois’ 18th District, Republican Lebanese Congressman Darin LaHood is seeking re-election in the November election. LaHood has represented the 18th District since 2015 after serving four years in the State Senate.
In Louisiana, two Republican Congressmen are expected to easily win re-election in November. Lebanese Congressman Ralph Abraham Jr., is running with no opposition in the 5th District. Congressman Garret Graves, whose mother is Arab, is running in the 6th District. Both were elected in 2014.
Also retiring along with Issa are Congressmen Ruben Kihuen of Nevada’s 4th District and Republican Congressman Richard Hanna of New York’s 22nd District. Born in Mexico, Kihuen retired following sexual harassment allegations while Hanna retired angry with the policies of his Republican party.
(Ray Hanania is an award winning Palestinian American columnist and author. Reach him on Twitter @RayHanania.)