2016-07-27
Not so long ago, Awni Abu-Hadba felt invisible. The Palestine-born jeweler, who moved to Paterson, N.J., as a young man in 1971, remembers asking the city's mayor for a favor. He will never forget the mayor's response: "Your community doesn't vote, so why should I help?"

Today Abu-Hadba is deputy mayor of Paterson, a post he gained two years ago after the local Arab-American community organized to support a city councilman named Jose Torres for mayor. "When Torres won, he wanted to pay tribute to the people who helped get him elected," Abu-Hadba says. "So here I am."

The political evolution of Arab-Americans in Paterson reflects the growing maturity, and potency, of the community nationwide as voter-registration drives and campaign contributions from affluent Arab-Americans transform a demographic that was once overlooked -- if not shunned.

Nationwide, Arab-Americans number just 1.2 million, according to the 2000 Census. But because of a concentration in battleground states from the South to the industrial Midwest, Arab-Americans are likely to wield more clout in this year's presidential contest than their raw numbers suggest, political analysts say.

Interest in this year's contest between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry is especially acute among Arab-Americans because of fallout from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- including the war in Iraq and the passage of the USA Patriot Act, which many say has infringed on their civil liberties. The continuing spiral of violence between Israelis and Palestinians also rankles many Arab-Americans.

"What Sept. 11 meant for Arab-Americans is not unlike what it meant for all Americans: It was a blow to our security and a threat to our people," said James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute, a nonprofit research and advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

At the same time, Zogby said, "it had the additional consequence of unleashing law enforcement policies that some people found to be discriminatory, and it launched the Bush administration in a foreign-policy direction that many people in the community are very concerned about."

According to polling commissioned by Zogby's organization, the Bush White House has squandered much of the goodwill it enjoyed among Arab-Americans before Sept. 11. The result, Zogby said, is a sharp drop in Bush's support, which he estimates could translate into a net loss of 210,000 votes in key states.

The picture is not entirely rosy for Kerry, however. Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate whose Lebanese ancestry helped him to earn an estimated 13.5 percent of the Arab-American vote in 2000, is poised to run again in November, "and he could do even better this time, which could come at Kerry's expense," Zogby said.

Both parties have stepped up efforts to attract Arab-Americans. Nicole Guillemard, director of outreach for the Republican National Committee, said the GOP has been actively recruiting team leaders for its get-out-the-vote campaign and already has signed up some 1,600 Muslims, many of them Arab-Americans.

"We are proud of those leaders, and they help us to communicate our message all across the country," Guillemard said. "We will be aggressively communicating with Arab-Americans, and it is important to us to reach out all across the country, to maintain the support we received in 2000."

Fabiola Rodriguez-Ciampoli, director of specialty media for the Democratic National Committee, said DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe has been meeting regularly with Arab-American leaders, and that party officials in each state are reaching out regularly to Arab-American voters.

More tangibly, Kerry and seven of his eight rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination accepted invitations to appear last October at the annual leadership conference of the Arab-American Institute.

"We stand a very good chance of getting a huge percentage of the Arab-American vote," Rodriguez-Ciampoli said. "We are encouraged by polls that show a substantial drop-off from the support that Bush had in the 2000 election and the support he has today. We want to make the most of that."

The Democratic and Republican efforts this year stand in stark contrast to previous election cycles, when many White House seekers feared they would alienate American Jews if they courted Arab-Americans.

In 1984, for instance, Democrat Walter Mondale returned checks from Arab-American donors. Four years later, Democrat Michael Dukakis refused the endorsement of an Arab-American group. In 1996, Republican Bob Dole declined to meet with Arab-American leaders after he received his party's nod.

Arab-Americans have a presence across the country, but their numbers in several swing states are responsible for much of the attention they are receiving. In Florida, for instance, the Arab-American population increased 57 percent to 77,000 in the 1990s, according to census figures.

In Michigan, the community grew 51 percent during the decade, to 115,000. In Ohio, one of the nation's best bellwethers (no Republican has ever won the presidency without it), the community tops 54,000. And in Pennsylvania, there are more than 48,000 Arab-Americans.

The largest communities are located in California (190,890) and New York (120,370), but those two states lean so decidedly Democratic that the Arab-American vote is unlikely to play much of a role.

Beyond the population figures, Arab-Americans stand out as an attractive demographic group because of their relative wealth. According to the census, the median household income for Arab-Americans in 2000 was $47,459, compared with the national median of $41,994.

Bush campaigned hard for the support of Arab-Americans in the 2000 campaign, and he earned praise for his pledge to repeal the use of secret evidence as a tool in prosecuting suspected terrorists. After his election, Bush made two top Arab-American appointments, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., director of the Office of Management and Budget.

But the Patriot Act, the war in Iraq and the failure of the administration's road map for peace between Israel and the Palestinians have eroded Bush's support.

According to Zogby, a January poll conducted by his brother John, a prominent pollster, showed Bush's popularity had fallen from a high of 83 percent in October 2001 to just 38 percent.

"The positions this administration has taken in connection with this community have, for the first time, united the community against President Bush," said Abed Awad, an attorney who is a member of the Arab-American Leadership Council of New Jersey. "There is definitely a momentum. People are energized."

One way or the other, many Arab-Americans are pleased just that their voice in the political arena is being heard. For community leaders like Abu-Hadba, Paterson's deputy mayor, the 2004 presidential contest represents the culmination of 20 years of hard work. "We were the sleeping giant," he said with a smile. "Now we are the waking giant."

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