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Arab Americans Have Substantial Presence in Tuesday's Elections

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Despite the challenges of an American system that discourages their involvement, Arab Americans are involved in the political elections this week on all levels, as candidates, as voters and as controversies.

Various sources estimate that there are between 3.5 and 4.5 million Arabs in America, with Christians a slight majority over Muslims. There are 7.5 million Muslims in America, but only about 22 percent are Arab and the largest segment are African American and Asian.

Arab Americans are represented in both parties, but the majorities tend to swing back and forth depending on the candidate and the issues in the Middle East. In 2000, for example, Arab Americans overwhelmingly voted Republican to support George W. Bush.

In the election contest between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, there seems to be a split with a majority of Christian Arabs supporting McCain and a majority of Muslims supporting Obama.

Arab American voters share the same concerns as other Americans, from education to jobs to improving the economy. But they also have a special interest in American foreign policy towards the Middle East, and on that criteria, they share an overwhelming disappointment. They often base their choices in national elections, such as for president, on which candidate is "the lesser of two evils."

Yet, when Americans across the country flock to the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 4, Arab Americans will be standing with them side-by-side in line to vote.

Here is a look at Arab American political successes, their challenges and even a few of the controversies that continue to play significant roles in this year's presidential election:

In office

After a more than 150-year presence in this country, Arab Americans continue to seek and hold public elective office.

There is little diversity in terms of their national Arab origins. The vast majority of Arab American officeholders are of Lebanese heritage. There are many reasons for this. The Lebanese were among the first to settle in the U.S. in large numbers. They are almost all Christian, allowing them to assimilate more easily into American society. Although there is a theoretical separation of church and state in America, oftentimes the fastest way to elective office is through church-supported political organizations.

But other Arab nationalities are slowly winning office as more and more seek office. The common denominator seems to be that those succeeding in elections are trading-off ties to their home countries of origin with more local activism and community involvement.

Some of the better known officeholders include U.S. Senator John Sununu (Palestinian origins and Lebanese heritage), and Congressmen Darrell Issa (California) and Ray LaHood (Illinois), all Republican.

There are more than 13 other Arab Americans who held office including four former U.S. Senators (all Lebanese), and nine congressmen including two women, Mary Rose Oakar, now national president of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), in Ohio's 20th district, and Pat Danner of the 6th District in Missouri.

The Arab American Leadership Council maintains an updated and detailed roster that also includes members of state legislatures, governors, and local office holders from state to suburban office.

Seeking office

One of the highest profile Arab American candidates in the Nov. 4th election is Ralph Nader who is running for president on a third party. His candidacy is on the ballots in 45 of the country's 50 states.

Sam Rasoul, candidate for congress in Virginia's 6th district, raised more than $100,000 towards his campaign through online contributions alone. Although Rasoul is running in a longtime Republican district, he and other Democrats hope that Obama's coattails will give them enough momentum to reverse voting trends.

In Peoria, Illinois where his father is congressman, Darin LaHood, who built his own reputation as a U.S. Federal prosecutor who targeted the mob, is running for county state's attorney as a Republican.

Bob Abboud, the son of the former Chairman of the First National Bank of Chicago and now mayor of an affluent Northwest Chicago suburb, is the Democratic candidate in the 16th Congressional district.

More than 100 Arab Americans are expected to file their nominating petitions later this year in the February 24 and April 7, 2009 for local elective offices across the country.

In controversy

Not all of the Arab Americans involved in political elections are candidates for office. Several of the most "famous" in this presidential contest between Obama and McCain come from Illinois.

Anton "Tony" Rezko, once one of the most powerful and influential political fundraisers in the country, was convicted of corruption and faces sentencing after the presidential election.

A close friend of Obama's, Rezko was involved in several of Obama's controversial real estate deals. He was convicted of bribery in an unrelated scheme raising funds for beleaguered Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. Rezko is Syrian American.

Not all did anything wrong and were targeted for their race and their religion.

Another Arab American in the political headlines is professor Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian author and close friend of Obama. Khalidi, who holds the Edward Said Chair at Columbia University in New York, has been the target of a hatemongering campaign by pro-Israel extremists adopted by McCain supporters who are using the false charges to embarrass Obama.

Just over one week after being named Muslim Outreach liaison for Obama, noted Chicago attorney Mazen Asbahi was forced to resigned when he was targeted in a hate profile published by the right-wing Wall Street Journal, once a respected national newspaper gutted by its extremist conservative owner, Rupert Murdoch.

(Ray Hanania is an award winning syndicated columnist and Chicago radio talk show host. He can be reached at www.RadioChicagoland.com or by email at rayhanania@comcast.net.)