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Thirty Years and Still Fighting

Sep 12,2023 - Last updated at Sep 12,2023

Next month’s meeting of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) will mark my 30th year as a member of that body. As an Arab American and one of the longest serving DNC members, I have a story to tell.

Because I have been there so long, some take my presence for granted. Because I have been a vocal critic of the party’s spending priorities and lack of budget transparency, others wonder why I remain. Having come on board the hard way and faced repeated challenges, I have learned to never take anything for granted and the importance of staying the course.

In the early 1980s, as Arab Americans began organising, some viewed our political engagement as threatening and tried to impede our involvement. Some candidates returned our contributions, rejected our endorsements, or removed members of our community from their staffs. It was a painful period of exclusion.

When Jesse Jackson ran for president in 1984 and welcomed Arab Americans into his campaign, the community enthusiastically responded. We built on this experience: registering and mobilising Arab-American voters, supporting Arab-American candidates, and creating Arab-American Democratic and Republican clubs in 20 US cities.

After failing to secure a meeting with Democratic Party leadership, we finally got a meeting with a mid-level staffer. His simple but direct message: The reason we will not publicly acknowledge your clubs or meet with you is because doing so would alienate another group that is far more important to us.”

In 1988, we again rode the Jackson train, electing over 80 Arab-American delegates to the national convention. Representing Jackson, I mounted the convention podium to introduce the first-ever debate on Palestinian rights. Jackson was able to name eight at-large members to the DNC, I was one. Before it became public, a party leader asked me to refuse this appointment, warning that I would be in Republicans crosshairs from day one. If the Democrats lost in 1988, my community and I might be blamed. It was a painful decision, but when I agreed to stand down, incoming party chair Ron Brown promised to make it up to me and the community.

After taking over as chair, he invited me to be his first meeting, sending the message that the party’s door was open to Arab Americans. A few months later, he attended an Arab American Institute event, despite threats from some donors that they would withhold contributions. Towards the end of his term, when a DNC vacancy opened up, he appointed me to fill it.

I have now been a DNC member for 30 years. For 16 of those years, I served on the Executive Committee, for 11, as chair of the Resolutions Committee. I also served on the party’s Unity/Reform Commission and, for many years, as one of the chairs of the Ethnic Council, representing 19 European and Mediterranean ethnic communities.

Over the years I have learned that the Democratic Party, like its Republican counterpart, needs reform. It lacks accountability, transparency, and fails to involve DNC members in democratic decision-making. I have discovered that the problem of politics in our democracy is that it is not about politics. It is about money.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are raised each election by various party entities, and then funneled to consultants, who raise more money and prepare costly television and social media ads. Candidates may win or lose, but the consultants never lose, because they are never held accountable for their work. When I raised this issue in the Unity/Reform Commission, calling for accountability and transparency, I was removed from the Executive Committee.

This has not been my only defeat. I lost my efforts to have the party oppose the Iraq War, to honour our bylaws calling for DNC members to review and evaluate the effectiveness of expenditures, and to ban the “dark money” polluting Democratic primaries. Faced with these defeats, some have asked why I remain a DNC member. I remember how I got on after my community was shut out for so many years, and something Jesse Jackson told me decades ago when I faced a similar challenge: “Do not quit, because that is what your opponents want you to do. What they most fear is that you will stay and continue to fight.” And so, I will.

 

The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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