By Ray Hanania
Next week, Arab American voters may come of age in the American election system in Illinois’ 3rd Congressional District contest, which pits a strong liberal, Marie Newman, against a strong conservative, seven-term incumbent Dan Lipinski, both Democrats.
This is the first time that Lipinski, whose father held the district for 22 years, is facing a strong primary election challenge. Primaries are American polls in which voters from each party decide who will represent them in the subsequent general election.
Why is it important? Because this district has the largest concentration of Arab Americans in Illinois — a state which ranks sixth in the US in terms of Arab population with 111,484, behind California (324,609), Michigan (223,075), New York (152,675), Texas (124,117) and Florida (112,300), according to data provided by the Arab American Institute. However, these numbers are only estimates based on voter data in which Arab Americans voluntarily identified themselves, because the US Census has refused to place “Arab” on its decennial census forms as they do for 22 other ethnic groups.
Lipinski is a conservative Democrat, often self-described as a “Reagan Democrat.” Newman is a liberal Democrat, often self-described as a “progressive.”
Despite the district’s large Arab population, Lipinski has been courteous but distant from them. In February 2014, he provoked their anger by co-sponsoring legislation with anti-Arab Republican Congressman Peter Roskam, which proposed punitive measures for any educational institution that supported a boycott of Israel. The Roskam-Lipinski bill is a violation of Americans’ Constitutional right to free speech. But, as we know, Israel maintains strong influence in US politics, while Arabs do not.
The Arab American population is estimated at 3.5 million, both Christian and Muslim (although I believe those numbers are higher, at 4.5 million), while there are an estimated 3.5 million Muslims in America. So how influential can Arabs be? They need only look at the influence of Jewish Americans, whose population is estimated at seven million.
It’s not unreasonable to assume Arabs in America can flex their political muscles to influence elections and foreign policy in the same way that Jewish supporters of Israel flex theirs. That’s why watching the 3rd Congressional District elections in Illinois will be important.
Challenges for Arab empowerment abound. Arabs come from 22 different countries and two religions; they are not homogenous. Most Arabs tend to be “conservative,” although they tend to assimilate into the communities where they live as a defense against racism. Liberal politics do not naturally align with Arab voters, but Newman has actively courted Arab American and Muslim voters in her campaign, while Lipinski has only just started.
Newman is endorsed by many Democratic liberals who actively support the two-state solution, such as Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky of the 9th Congressional District, who is Jewish, and Congressman Luis Gutierrez, who is retiring this year and has endorsed Jesus “Chuy” Garcia to take his place. Garcia, who is expected to easily win the 4th Congressional District next week, has been a long-time activist for Palestinian rights.
The 3rd District has a long history and conservative base, which Lipinski exploits. Lipinski has the backing of the Chicago Democratic machine, which controls most of that district. Over the years, Lipinski has quietly helped support Muslim institutions, including one of Chicagoland’s first ever mosques in Bridgeview. He has also championed Muslim rights in numerous appearances at Eid celebrations in his district. Lipinski’s support of anti-BDS legislation came as a surprise to many activists, and it has affected Newman’s Arab support.
For Arabs, Lipinski is appealing because he supports the sort of conservative family values they share, opposing excessive abortion policies. But Lipinski has been lax in championing Syrian refugee rights. Newman has criticized Lipinski saying he “shares Donald Trump’s aggression toward immigrants.” She has been outspoken in denouncing Trump’s “Muslim ban,” which has halted all immigration regardless of religion from only six of the world’s 50 Muslim-majority countries.
The Arab community leadership is divided on the race and has divisions over other candidates accused of anti-Muslim rhetoric in the past. In the Democratic race for Illinois Governor, one Arab group is supporting Jewish philanthropist and billionaire J.B. Pritzker while another is supporting Christopher Kennedy, the son of slain Senator and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy and nephew of assassinated President John F. Kennedy. Pritzker is accused of slandering Muslims when he ran against Schakowsky for congress in 1998, never apologizing. Meanwhile, Kennedy, in his capacity as chair of the board of trustees of the University of Illinois, has been accused of blocking the hiring of a Palestinian author who frequently criticized Israel in his tweets.
The race has fueled a first-time-ever campaign to win Arab votes in Illinois. Many candidates are buying campaign ads in Illinois’ largest Arab American newspaper, The Future News, published by Christian Jordanian-American Mansour Tadros. The ads are in Arabic and English, while campaign mailers are being sent to Arab voters in Arabic too.
There are similar elections taking place in California, Texas and Michigan, where Arab Americans are challenging the establishment and demanding that elected officials stop taking them for granted. Will Arab American activists succeed in augmenting their voice? Will they initiate an “Arab American Spring” in one of Illinois’ 18 Congressional Districts on Tuesday, March 20, 2018?
I think it is worth the Arab world watching what happens. If there is change, or even if it is only “close,” it will mean the Arab world can invest its money and resources in influencing American elections away from its fundamentally anti-Arab and anti-Muslim core.