Arab community in Michigan ignored by candidates

With McCain and Romney atop the Michigan polls and Huckabee a respectable third, the candidates are battling it out for votes.

us special 2 224 (photo credit: )
us special 2 224
(photo credit: )
John McCain and Mitt Romney are fighting it out in Michigan ahead of the Republican primary there Tuesday, the first ballot after New Hampshire's influential vote last week. The Midwestern state boasts the most organized Arab community in the United States and is a key proving ground for the Republican candidates. The Democratic National Committee penalized the state for moving its primary up so far in the process by stripping the state of delegates to the national nominating convention that ultimately selects the party's candidate. As a result, candidates Barack Obama and John Edwards took their names off the ballot. But the Republican National Committee only took away half of Michigan's delegates, and as the first large, diverse and industrial state to vote, its vote could have serious implications for the outcome of the race. Romney, who has spent the most money of all the candidates on his campaign, has only managed to come in second in New Hampshire and Iowa before that. Though his main political credential is his service as governor of Massachusetts, he considers Michigan a natural constituency, having grown up in the state while his father was governor there in the 1960s. A loss for Romney would raise questions about his viability - that is, which states he could carry - going into "Super Tuesday's" vote in 20-plus states on February 5. Arizona Senator John McCain could also be significantly hurt by a loss, since he is banking on a strategy of momentum coming out of his win in New Hampshire last Tuesday. With little money or presence in other early primary states, McCain could see his hopes erode with a less than stellar finish as the race moves to South Carolina and Florida, where he faces stiff competition from former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, respectively. With McCain and Romney atop the Michigan polls and Huckabee a respectable third, the candidates are battling it out for votes, focusing particularly on blue collar factory and automobile plant workers who have seen their jobs disappear in the wake of globalization. But one key community - the nearly 500,000 Arab Americans (or 5 percent of the total population) estimated by the Arab American Institute to live in Michigan - has been virtually ignored, exacerbating feelings of alienation and frustration. Bassam Mourad, editor-in-chief of the Michigan Arab Times, said he couldn't recall a single leading candidate visiting a forum for the Arab American community, though some whom he assessed as having little chance of winning have done so. He said the reaction is a feeling "like we don't count, like we're not there, like they don't care about us. There aren't really people who are concerned about our community. This happened after 9/11. [Before] there was more interest in talking to us." Since then, Arab and Muslim American activists say that the presidential campaigns have used demonization of their communities to appeal for votes and that candidates are worried about turning off other voters by appearing to be close to their Arab American constituencies. The California-based Muslim Public Affairs Council has also been disappointed with the lack of response from campaigns to its outreach efforts. "I think candidates are afraid to get an endorsement or become more involved with the Muslim community," said MPAC's director of government relations, Safiya Ghori. "It's unfortunate." At the same time, the campaigns have also turned off many Arab and Muslim voters. "The Bush administration has alienated Arab Americans," said Osama Siblani, president of the Dearborn-based Arab American Political Action Committee, pointing to policies on the Middle East and the War on Terror. The emphasis Republican candidates have placed on Christianity and the disparaging comments some have made about the unfitness of Muslims for the presidential cabinet haven't helped. Whereas before 9/11 Arabs vacillated between the Democratic and Republican parties - with up to 70% voting for George W. Bush in 2000 by Siblani's count - now he expects the vast majority to vote Democrat. A Pew Research Center study in 2007 found that 63% of Muslims favor Democrats while just 11% favor the Republicans. Ghori said that some who used to favor Republicans have shifted because of the Bush administration's policies. But she said that the numbers also make sense considering that minorities and immigrants tend to vote Democrat. That makes for a particularly frustrating situation for Michigan's Arab population, since the Democratic ballot Tuesday doesn't count. On the Republican side, Siblani said that Libertarian candidate and Texas Representative Ron Paul, who has issued scorching denouncements of Bush and his Mideast policy, will probably be the GOP candidate to attract the largest number of Arab votes. As for the Democrats, Siblani said he expected Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich to do well because of his outreach to the community and statements in favor of their positions. Even though they are not expected to win the nomination, Siblani explained, "We'll vote for [them because] the message we're trying to send is that if you want our vote, we want you to talk about the issues that are interesting to us." Mourad said that he intends to vote Tuesday despite the limited ballot and lack of campaigning among his community. "I'm American and I want to do my duty," he said.