Lessons from the Hilliard and McKinney defeats

There are a number of lessons to be learned and observations to be made following the defeat of Congress Member Cynthia McKinney in a Democratic primary election last week.

Her loss and that of Congressman Earl Hilliard earlier this summer provide a great deal for Arab-Americans to think about.

Most importantly, Arab-Americans should not feel ashamed of their efforts in these two elections. The community did what they had to do, and they performed well. We had been called upon to defend two members of Congress who had defended us in the past and we did.

Despite the fact that very few Arab-Americans live in either congressional district, hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised and volunteers worked hard and gained rich political experience in both efforts.

What Arab-Americans could not do, was overcome the real objective disadvantages faced by both candidates. The map of both Hilliard's Alabama congressional district and McKinney's Georgia district had been redrawn this year. As a result both districts were slightly less African-American and more affluent.

Since Hilliard and McKinney had their base in the traditional civil rights African-American community, both were vulnerable targets for defeat by more moderate candidates who could win moderate blacks and suburban white voters. It should also be noted that both opponents were aided by the fact that since both Alabama and Georgia allow what are called cross-over votes, thousands of Republicans did in fact cross over to vote against Hilliard and McKinney.

Sensing the vulnerability of Hilliard and McKinney and knowing how both of these members of Congress had been strong supporters of Palestinian rights, Jewish American supporters of Israel raised well over one million dollars to support the campaigns of their opponents.

Armed with substantially more money than either of the two members of Congress, the opponents were able to effectively use their financial advantage to define the campaigns their way. As a result the Hilliard and McKinney projected in the campaign ads designed by their opponents were gross caricatures of the real candidates. Both were put on the defensive, a recipe for defeat.

Possibly the most troubling aspect of these campaigns, however, was not the targeting of the candidates, but the targeting and caricaturing of their Arab-American supporters. Opposition researchers went through all of Hilliard and McKinney's contributors and picked out the Arabic sounding names. They then went through the lists to identify those donors who had said or done controversial things. Finding a handful that had made outlandish statements, efforts were made to paint the entire Arab-American donor base of the campaigns as a controversial issue. The effort bore fruit.

Not only the local press, but national media as well commented on, in particular, McKinney's support from individuals suspected of ties to terrorism. As the campaign wore on, these charges were further exaggerated. One national television program advertised a discussion it was to have on the McKinney campaign as a debate over whether Islamic blood money had entered congressional politics. McKinney's opponent latched onto this issue and at a debate asked the Congressperson to explain why she would accept funds from persons known to be Arab terrorists.

While I noted at the outset that Arab-Americans need not feel ashamed at how they fared in these two contests, the community, nevertheless, should be concerned. We did what we had to do. We supported friends and we made our mark. But mistakes were made as well.

Politics is not a game for amateurs. The stakes are serious as are the consequences. Those in the community who glibly spoke of this as an Arab-Israeli proxy war or a test of Arab vs. Jew, set the community up for defeat. These races were tests of our friendship; nothing more, nothing less and no one should have been foolish enough to define us as anything different.

Next it is important to recall a lesson Jesse Jackson taught some 25 years ago. As an organization I had organized, the Palestine Human Rights Campaign, was growing in national prominence, he cautioned me: "You are now on center stage. Every word you say will be heard. When you were off stage you could say anything you wanted to say, now you cannot. Your words will be heard and they will be used against you and your entire community."

Just as politicians must be careful and responsible, community leaders must be as well. The Muslim American leader who stood in front of the White House and said, on national television, We are all Hamas, all Hezbollah and all Jihad should have known that he put at risk himself, his community and all those elected officials to whom he sent campaign contributions. Even though over a year later he distanced himself from these rumors it was too late. The damage had already been done.

The danger is that because of the mistakes that were made by a few, the good work of Arab-Americans in these elections may be ignored. Now some campaigns may find it risky to accept Arab-American support, returning the community to the dark days of the 1980s, when our contributions were rejected and our endorsements returned.

But Arab-Americans have substantial political resources and allies and we can work to overcome the impact of these setbacks. It will take hard work, but it is work I know Arab-Americans can do. The lessons we must learn are: To be smarter, to be clear in our objectives, to not allow foolishness to mar our image or harm our advancement and to intensify our political involvement focusing on defining realistic objectives of voter registration and mobilization, campaign activity and mainstreaming of Arab-Americans in the US political process.

While discussing the consequences of these two races, there should be no doubt that there will be other consequences as well. In the short term, the congressional debates on Middle East issues will suffer only slightly. Some, especially those who feel vulnerable, may be intimidated into silence. But others may be emboldened. In any case the future course of congressional action on important Middle East concerns has yet to be determined and will not be significantly impacted by these two defeats alone.

A more interesting issue is the impact that these two races will have on relations between the African-American community and the Jewish community. Some efforts will be made to try to patch over the wounds inflicted by the substantial amounts of money raised to defeat two African-American members of Congress. But listening to the comments of some African-American leaders and the discussion on African-American radio programs, the wounds are deep and for some, they won't heal easily.

Dr. James Zogby is the president of the Arab-American Institute. He can be reached at  [email protected] or www.aaiusa.org.

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Older Comments:
The brother said we are all hezbollah and hamas. Alhamdulillah. That is true. We should not change our thoughts and speech to please the zionist media. They will be against us NO MATTER WHAT. We must remember, la illaha ilallah. NOT la illah ilal-zionist.

Mr.Zogby's reflection on recent congressional race is very uplifting.By analyzing our falure we will be successful.If we look at the most influencial political power Jewish Lobby, we can see how far they came. Think about 100 years ago how much suffering they endure. We have to pay our dues, so we can make our next generation be proud to carry our torch ahead.God did not place our generation for vain. We have to bear the highest responsibility for our future. we have to be the smarter than our opponant, we have to be cooler than our adversary.
As Mr. Zogby said, we may lost here, but experience that we gained can not be aquired with any amount of money.
Let's learn to organize,learn to be civil to each other.Leadership will come and go, organization will stay.Let's support them with our sweat and dollar. Remember we are over 7 million.
There is famous saying

"Don't Get Mad Get Organize"

Assalamu Alaikum


Excellent analysis

Hey Mostansar Virk get a clue. How are you going to establish a Muslim sate in the US when most of the people aren't Muslim. Are you going to force your ideals down their throts. How would you feel if this was a Christian state and you were force fed Christian ideals. I bet you would not like it. So next time keep your insipid ideas to yourselve!

As-slaamu Alikum

Poor Owen, seems like a typical confused Likudnik. So what if some Arab guy at a rally voiced support for Palestinian resistance groups ?!
I see and hear Jews making racist an demeaning remarks all the time about Arabs, but apparently thats ok.
Hillard and McKiney lost because they were candidates of principle and actually cared for this country. We need more people like these instead of Israeli-funded lackeys who are a menace to this country and its founding principles.

I wish somebody would punch the idiot muslim leader who said "we are all hamas, hezbollah and all Jihad." With leaders like these who needs enemies. Muslims are their worst enemies - especially their crass ignorance. This defeat wil set a precedent for future candidates. The next set of political office hopefuls will realize that supporting Palestenians or Arabs would be tantamount to political suicide.

You guys battling a losing war. Instead of Muslims wanting influence in un-Islamc governments, we should be working to re-establish the Islamic State. But wait, that would mean that one might have the chance to be called a terrorist. you guys are not only a disappointment but also cowards. May Allah swt give us real leaders who are worth of Muslims' respect, ameen.