Reminiscences of Conventions Past

I am writing while en route to the Democratic National Convention in Boston. As we have prepared for this year’s events, I could not help but reflect on past Conventions and our community’s involvement in them. Let me share some personal reminiscences.

1984, San Francisco

This was the first time that Arab Americans, as an organized community, participated in a political campaign. Jesse Jackson had welcomed us into what he called the "Rainbow." Prior to 1984 there had been "Syrian" and "Lebanese" committees, but never before had there been an "Arab American" committee. Jackson recognized our potential and reached out to the community across the country. In addition, he asked me to serve as a deputy campaign manager. Arab Americans responded. We raised money, worked as volunteers, and voted. But the process was still new to us, and so by Convention time, there were only four Arab Americans present as delegates. One of the Arab Americans was Essa Sakklah of Houston, Texas. In every interview, he proudly told reporters, "I am the first Palestinian American ever elected as a delegate to any national convention."

At the Convention, Jackson asked me to deliver one of the speeches placing his name in nomination for President. Having grown up in a political home, and having watched on every convention on television since 1956, I was overwhelmed by the experience of mounting the podium and addressing the delegates. Since I was to be the first Arab American to speak at a convention, I began my remarks, noting proudly, "I am an Arab American. . . ."

1988, Atlanta

After four years of intense mobilization, Arab Americans across the US went to Atlanta with over 50 delegates and Convention committee members. During the primaries, we had made our mark as a voting bloc in helping Jackson win a surprise victory in the Michigan primary-a win that catapulted his campaign forward.

At the same time, working together with progressive Jewish Americans and other Jackson delegates, Arab Americans succeeded in passing resolutions in 10 states calling for Palestinian rights, and had, through the efforts of the Jackson campaign, won the right to introduce a minority plank into the Party Platform calling for "mutual recognition, territorial compromise and self determination for both Israelis and Palestinians."

While Party leaders told me that if I persisted on calling for a debate on the plank, I would "destroy the Party," I refused to accept this, and believed that the debate was needed. Jackson agreed, and so we had the first ever debate on the Middle East in the history of either party.

Once again, I had the opportunity to address the Convention, while our 1,200 Jackson delegates demonstrated on the floor, carrying signs that read "Palestinian Statehood Now" and "Israeli Security, Palestinian Justice." We lost that platform fight, but we won respect for our efforts. We were mindful of the fact that we had also won planks on the Party platform on Lebanon and against negative stereotyping.

One of our delegates that year was a young woman I will never forget. Mary Lahaj of Massachusetts had fought an uphill battle from her first caucus all the way to the National Convention, and was proud of being the first-ever Arab American Muslim woman delegate to any convention.

1992, New York

We were represented at the New York Convention by over 40 delegates and committee members. We had had some frustration in the early part of that year’s election getting into the Clinton campaign. At the Convention, I ran into an AIPAC official, who said to me, "I know you’re trying to get in. We won’t let you in, and why should we?" I was furious, but remembered Jesse Jackson’s words of wisdom: "The biggest threat you pose is not to get angry and leave, but to stick around and fight." And so we did. With the help of then-chairman of the Party, Ron Brown and Senator Joseph Lieberman, the doors of the campaign were opened, and we developed a fruitful relationship with the Clinton Campaign.

That year, we also succeeded in getting a resolution passed by one of the Convention’s standing committees, calling for full inclusion and representation of Arab Americans at all levels in the Party.

1996, Chicago

Arab Americas were represented, once again by over 40 delegates. Our Arab American Democratic Leadership Council had been formally recognized by the Democratic Party, and we had become founding members of the Party’s Ethnic Council. As a co-chair of the Ethnic effort, I was master of ceremonies at a luncheon that brought together delegates and leaders from over 19 different ethnic communities. After years of exclusion, we had earned our place at the table.

A humorous incident occurred on one of the nights of the Convention when a junior White House official introduced himself to me saying, "You don’t know me, but I know you." He told me that at the 1992 Convention, he had been hired by AIPAC to follow me and report on whom I met and what my conversations had been about.

A special treat was that on the night of President Clinton’s nomination acceptance speech, I was invited by the President to be one of his guests on the podium platform at the Convention’s end. It was extraordinary to witness that event from that perspective at that time.

That year’s platform included a passage about Jerusalem being Israel’s undivided capitol. I was outraged, since President Clinton had made such a determined effort not to implement the Congressional resolution that passed that year, requiring the US to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capitol and move the US embassy there. After a personal appeal to the White House, where I found my concerned shared, I was able to secure a formal statement issued by then national security advisor Sandy Berger, which, in effect, stated the White House’s rejection of the platform.

2000, Los Angeles

By now, Arab Americans had become a fixture in the Party. Once again 40-plus delegates had been elected from across the country. Our Arab American Tribute Reception, held across the street from the Convention site, was attended by over 1000 delegates and guests. It was to be the start of an interested campaign season. The partisan debate within the community was intense, but it was fascinating, because this was the first time that both Republican and Democratic candidates actively courted the community’s support. Both Vice-President Gore and Governor Bush each met with Arab Americans on three occasions. Their vice-presidential running mates also met with Arab American leaders. All of this was unprecedented, since in no previous campaign had any Presidential candidate ever come directly to the Arab American community seeking their support.

2004, Boston

And now on to Boston. With almost 50 Arab American delegates and committee members, this delegation is our largest since 1988, and it is our most diverse group in history. Already, the response from Party officials and elected officials for our Convention Gala is the most significant ever, with over 50 senators and representatives confirming their attendance, and officials in the Kerry Campaign, and Party leaders across the country, coming as well. Our issues forum, "Civil Liberties and Global Responsibility," will now feature such Party luminaries as Senator Richard Durbin and Representative John Conyers.

So much remains to be done, but as each new convention has demonstrated, the progress we’ve made over the past two decades is real and measurable. A new generation of Arab Americans is now ready to take its rightful place in the political process and to make a difference in our country. Of this, we can be proud.