CHICAGO: Arab Americans are among the thousands of candidates across the US who are seeking election to local municipal and regional offices on Nov. 2.
Key races include campaign battles for the mayoralty in Boston, Massachusetts and in Dearborn and Dearborn Heights, Michigan. In Virginia, an Arab American woman is poised to become the state’s second most-powerful office holder.
Democrat Hala Ayala, who is part Lebanese, is leading in the Virginia race for lieutenant governor over Republican Winsome Sears.
The Virginia office is important because in addition to being next-in-line to become governor in the event of a vacancy, the post also serves as the president of the Virginia Senate who runs floor sessions, and casts a tie-breaking vote over controversial issues.
This will be the first time a woman will hold the state’s second-highest office.
Ayala, a member of the House of Delegates representing Prince William County, won the Democratic primary beating out fellow Virginian and House of Delegates member Sam Rasoul.
Rasoul, also a Democrat, is seeking to keep his legislative seat representing Southwest Virginia’s 11th District, which includes parts of Roanoke. First elected in 2014, Rasoul has raised an impressive $2.1 million in his campaign funds, with significant Arab American support. Rasoul’s Republican opponent Charlie Nave has raised only $40,000.
In Dearborn, a city with a large Arab American population, the election is expected to give the city its first Arab American mayor.
“We’ve long had people of Arab descent in local public office. What’s so important in 2021 is that these young Arab Americans are proudly wearing their ethnicity on their sleeves. And each of them has a record of public service,” said Jim Zogby, president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute.
“The two I’m following most closely are the mayoral races in Boston and Dearborn. I’m following Boston because it is a major American city and Anissa is an amazing candidate who is running on a platform of service and realistic solutions to that community’s most pressing problems.”
Being a minority woman is also an issue in the Boston race. There, Annissa Essaibi George, who has a Tunisian father and Polish mother, is in a run-off with Michelle Wu to become Boston’s first woman mayor.
Boston has elected all males to the powerful city executive office since 1630, but this year saw a candidate surge of women and ethnic diversity in the special election. Former mayor, Marty Walsh, resigned last March after being appointed to serve as US Secretary of Labor by President Joe Biden, creating the Boston vacancy.
George and Wu beat out five other candidates to win the run-off spots in the Nov. 2 General Election. Polls shows George running behind Wu.
If George manages to win the race, however, she will set a new record as the first Tunisian American to hold an elected public office in any district in America.
Zogby said that the mayoral contest in Dearborn is also special, although Arabs have gained seats as members of the City Council.
“Thirty-six years ago, when the Arab American Institute was just starting, the candidate for mayor ran on a platform of ‘what to do about the Arab Problem’,” Zogby recalled.
“Today, after years of work, the majority of that community’s city council are Arab Americans, as is the police chief, its state representative, several judges, and soon, God willing, its mayor, Abdullah Hammoud.”
Pollster and political consultant Dennis Denno called the Dearborn contests “a critical test of Arab American voting power.”
He added: “If our community can elect an Arab American mayor in Dearborn, it will show both political parties that our community is organized and can unite behind a smart, energetic candidate.
“And if our community is divided or doesn’t bother to vote, it will show that the Arab American community is not to be taken seriously.”
Although in nearby Detroit, the leading candidate is not Arab, Denno noted incumbent Mayor Mike Duggan has been very responsive to Arab American concerns.
“The Detroit mayoral election, which will almost inevitably lead to a landslide victory for incumbent Mayor Mike Duggan, and will be a success for the Arab American community,” Denno said.
LMayor Duggan has been open to our community, has hired Arab-Americans, and doesn’t play the tired, big-city game of dividing one ethnic group against another.”
In neighboring Dearborn Heights, the mayor there, Daniel Paletko, passed away from the COVID-19 virus creating a vacancy. On Nov. 2, voters there will cast votes for two positions, someone to fill Paletko’s remaining term in office which ends Dec. 31, and to serve a full term beginning in January.
Lebanese immigrant and former US Marine Bill Bazzi, a Dearborn Heights City Council member since 2018, was elected by his colleagues as interim Mayor following Paletko’s death. He is facing off with City Council Chairwoman Denise Malinowski-Maxwell and candidate Anthony Camilleri.
In addition to Bazzi, three of the seven Dearborn Heights City Council members are Lebanese Americans and Muslim. Dearborn Heights is 32 percent Arab American, according to the Detroit News citing 2019 census data.