When I attend next month’s meeting of the Democratic National Committee, part of the US Democratic party, it 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’ve been there so long, some may take my presence for granted. And because I’ve been a vocal critic of the party’s spending priorities and lack of budget transparency, others wonder why I remain. But because I came on board the hard way and have continued over the years to face repeated challenges, I have learnt to never take anything for granted and the importance of staying the course.
In the early 1980s, as Arab Americans began to organise themselves, some viewed our engagement in politics as a threat and placed impediments in the way of our involvement. As a result of the pressures they experienced, some candidates returned our contributions, rejected our endorsements, or removed members of our community from their staff. It was a painful period of exclusion.
When Jesse Jackson ran for US president in 1984 and welcomed Arab Americans into his campaign, the community enthusiastically responded. Shortly after the campaign, we launched our project to build on this experience by registering and mobilising Arab American voters and supporting Arab American candidates. We created Arab American Democratic and Republican clubs in 20 cities across the US.
After failing in many attempts to secure a meeting with the Democratic Party leadership, a meeting was finally set up with a mid-level staff person. He had a simple but direct message for us: “The reason we won’t be publicly acknowledging your clubs or meeting 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 and, representing Mr Jackson, I was able to mount the convention podium to introduce the first-ever debate on Palestinian rights. At convention’s end, Mr Jackson was given the right to name eight at-large members to the DNC – I was one of them.
Before it became public, a party leader asked me to refuse this appointment warning that Republicans would have me in their crosshairs from day one. And if the Democrats lost in 1988, my community and I might receive some of the blame for the defeat. It was a painful decision to make, but when I agreed to stand down, incoming party chair Ron Brown told me that he would make it up to me and the community.
When he took over as chair, he called me from his office to tell me that he wanted me to be his first meeting – to send the message that the party’s door was open to Arab Americans. A few months later, he came to an Arab American Institute event – the first Democratic Party chair to do so – despite threats from some donors that if he “even enters the room with the Arabs” they would withhold their contributions. And towards the end of his term, when a DNC vacancy opened up, he appointed me to fill it.
I have now been a member of that body for 30 years. For 16 of those years, I served on the executive committee. For 11 of them I served 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, which represents 19 European and Mediterranean ethnic communities.
Over the years, I have learnt that the Democratic Party, like its Republican counterpart, is in need of reform. It lacks accountability, transparency, and any real sense of involving DNC members in democratic decision-making. I’ve discovered that the problem of politics in US democracy is that it’s not about politics. It’s about money.
Hundreds of millions of dollars are raised each election by various party entities. These funds are then cycled through to a small coterie of consultant groups, who in turn 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 and called for accountability and transparency, my efforts got me removed from the executive committee.
This hasn’t been the only defeat I’ve encountered. Most notably, I lost my effort 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 have the party ban “dark money” that is polluting Democratic primaries.
Faced with these defeats, some have asked me why I remain a member of the DNC. My response is that I remember how I got on – the hard way – and how my community was shut out for so many years. And I remember something Jesse Jackson told me 40 years ago when I faced a similar challenge: “Don’t quit, because that’s what your opponents want you to do. What they most fear is that you’ll stay and continue to fight.” And so, I will.