Tlaib primary builds Palestinian presence in Congress
Although there is much focus on the fact that Rashida Tlaib is Muslim, and is touted as the “first Muslim woman” to be elected to Congress this November, her Arab heritage is of much more significance. As a Palestinian Arab, Tlaib could find herself in an unusual caucus consisting of three Palestinian members of Congress that, if played right, would give the Palestinian cause a unique boost in American politics.
By Ray Hanania
American elections don’t always bring good news to Arab Americans but Tuesday’s election in Michigan is an exception, especially for Palestinian Americans.
Former Michigan legislator Rashida Tlaib won Michigan’s Democratic primary election on Tuesday August 7, 2018 as her party’s nominee to succeed retired Congressman John Conyers. Because the 13th Congressional district is overwhelming Democratic, Tlaib is certain to win the November 6, 2018 General election and take her seat in Congress as the first Palestinian American woman.
Tlaib joins fellow Michigander Justin Amash, a Republican who is expected to win re-election in November and who is of Palestinian and Syrian descent.
Tlaib and Amash could be joined by another Palestinian-Mexican American, Ammar Camp-Najjar, who won a run-off spot in California’s 50th District contest on June 5, 2018.
Tlaib, who retired after 12 years the Michigan legislature because of term limits, was one of 10 candidates vying to succeed Conyers, the “Dean” of the U.S. House. African American, Conyers served in his seat 52 years beginning in 1965 but was forced to step down last year in the wake of sexual harassment allegations.
Tlaib overcame a tough field of challengers that included Conyers’ son John Conyers III, who later was thrown off the ballot, and Conyers’ nephew, State Senator Ian Conyers. The district is 56.3 percent Black. Also running was another African American with an iconic name, Coleman Young II whose father was the former Detroit mayor. Conyers III has said he will run as an independent in November.
While Tlaib is a liberal celebrated by the left, Amash is a conservative who supported Ron Paul and John McCain. He has held office representing Michigan’s 11th Congressional District since 2011. Amash is Chairman of the House Liberty Caucus and is “associated” with the Tea Party movement. The district is heavily Republican and he is also expected to easily win on Nov. 6.
Campa-Najjar has a tougher challenge, though he received the endorsement of the Democratic party leadership in his district. He 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. He has declared support for peace based on compromise. In response to questions about his grandfather’s role in the Olympic attacks, Ammar Campa-Najja said, “There is never a justification for killing innocent civilians.”
The district is heavily Hispanic and much of Campa-Najjar’s support has come from the strong Hispanic base there, overcoming challenges from a former Navy Seal, in the heavily Republican District that has been represented for many years by Republican 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.
In his bio, Campa-Najjar showcases the role of his Mexican-American mother in raising him, and his background as a Labor Department official with the administration of President Barack Obama, playing down his “Middle Eastern” father.
In the June 5 election, Hunter won 48.5 percent of votes in the open primary while Campa-Najjar placed second with only 16.5 percent. An “open primary” means Democrats and Republicans, and other established party candidates, run together in one election requiring a run-off if no one receives more than 50 percent of the vote.
Just over 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 the current 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, with the certain wins of Tlaib and Amash, and the long-shot challenge of Campa-Najjar, that could change as three more Arab Americans are running for Congress this year. If successful, they can double Arab representation and strengthen our voice.
In addition to the 3rd and 13th Congressional DIstrict races of Amash and Tlaib, two Arab Americans also ran in the 11th District.
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, entered the race but failed to win seats in the November 6 contests.
Elected in 2013, Republican Klint Kesto is the first Christian Chaldean with Assyrian roots to serve in Michigan’s state legislature. He faced five other challengers and lost to Republican Lena Epstein.
Lebanese American Fayrouz Saad also ran in the 11th District Democratic Primary facing four other challengers, losing to Democrat Haley Stevens.
Stevens and Epstein were both running in their first campaigns.
Two Arab Americans also ran in California’s June 5 elecions 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 lost a tough contest in the predominantly Republican 39th District just southeast of Los Angeles, despite his close ties to President Obama. Jammal worked on Obama’s campaign and 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.
Republican incumbent, Ed Royce, who represented the 39th district since 1993, is retiring. Two candidates beat Jammal in the open primary election, Republican Young Kim and Democrat Gil Cisneros, and will face-off in the November 6, 2018 General Election.
In Florida’s 27th Congressional District which includes Miami, Lebanese American Donna Shalala is running in a crowded field in the August 28th Democratic primary election, 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 must overcome challenges from 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.
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(Ray Hanania is an award-winning Palestinian American columnist and the author of several books including “Yalla! Fight Back.” His personal website is www.Hanania.com. Twitter: @RayHanania. His syndicated columns appear in the www.ArabNews.com.)
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