Friday, September 17, 2010

Mayor Daley’s retirement gives American Arabs a chance

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Mayor Daley’s retirement gives American Arabs a chance
By Ray Hanania

American Arabs in Chicagoland can be a potent electoral force if they can rise up above their petty politics and bickering, and come together for a local cause that in the long run could help them address the cause that is closest to our hearts, the tragedy of Palestine.

The decision by Mayor Richard M. Daley to retire and not seek re-election next February gives the American Arab community one chance to overcome the handicaps that have weakened our community and rally behind one candidate and elect that candidate mayor.

The candidate has to be someone that appeals to Americans but has a heart fair to the Middle East peace process, someone who is not one of the small group of extremists who control the “community microphone” bully pulpit but who represent in reality a very small segment of our community.

There are more than 450,000 American Arabs in Chicagoland, with many still living in Chicago. But this candidate would not run as an “Arab” candidate but rather as a candidate for the people.

I understand the egos that separate our people, though, and I know that even if we found the best candidate, getting the American Arab community to set aside their bickering to back one candidate would be difficult. But, I don’t believe we even need all of the American Arabs backing. What the candidate would need, though, would be the backing of the American Arabs who count.

Those who have focused on building their presence as Americans first and identifying with the American public, not the activists who claim to support Palestine and embrace extremism and are silent on violence, but who benefit personally from local power plays.

The American Arab community has seen what has happened to that selfish cadre of American Arab activists, many of them have been brought down by the scandal surrounding Tony Rezko. Rezko was a great person who supported many great causes. But he was brought down by the greed of the activists who suffocated him with their selfish interests and weak political ties.

How can our candidate win?

I have covered Chicago politics more than 34 years beginning with my first assignment interviewing the late Mayor Richard J. Daley in 1976 during a meeting he had with the Ambassador from Morocco. I have worked with several American Arabs who sought to run for public office in the suburbs, where anti-Arab hysteria is at its worse.

Among the strongest candidates was Miriam Zayed, who had the best qualifications to serve on the District 230 School board. But the community never united behind her campaign, with many turning away because she was a woman. Tragically, Miriam Zayed would have become a force in protecting the interests of our young people who continue to suffer in the suburban education systems. Till this day, decades after those election fights, we still have far few teachers who speak Arabic and most of the regional high schools refuse to offer Arabic as a language despite the large number of Arab students in their classes and the significance of the Arab World on American politics and its future.

We need someone who can help change the education system in Chicago and give American Arabs a chance. We need someone who has the looks and feel of an American who can connect with Americans and identify with the moderate voice that represents that silent majority of American Arabs in Chicagoland. We need someone who will win because they will offer themselves as an alternative to the divisions and racial politics that will soon rise as a focus on the battle to succeed Mayor Daley, someone who instills confidence and leadership and creative thought.

The filing deadline to become a candidate for mayor in Nov. 22. Petitions must be filed beginning Nov. 15.

There are three large voting constituencies in Chicago, African Americans, Hispanics and Whites mainly Irish. Each will have a long list of contenders diluting their voter strength. It is impossible, despite all the talk, for each constituency to find one candidate to represent the majority of African Americans, for example, or Hispanics or White Machine Democrats mainly of Irish background. There will be many and those many will divide the votes in the election. With as many as 30 candidates on the ballot, an outsider who doesn’t identify with the pack or dominant ethnic groups but who appeals to all of them can win the election.

In Chicago, the election is an open primary meaning you do not have to declare your party any more. To win the February election, you must get 1 vote more than 50 percent of all votes cast. In the event that one candidate does not obtain that majority, the top two candidates will face each other in a run-off election in April.

That means with 30 candidates dividing the vote, the successful candidate will only need about 18-22 percent of all votes cast.

That is something that one candidate can achieve if they have the right strategy. If they appeal to a broad constituency. If they are moderate in their views but wedded to justice and fairness. If they avoid the extremist rhetoric of the fanatics who drown out our community in their moronic rantings.

But that candidate needs to step up to the plate today and our community needs to come out of the woodwork where the good people have been hiding afraid to move to the front of the line and fight for our rights.

It is time we fought for our rights as Americans first. Because if we are successful as Americans in this country, we can then do even more to help our people back home in Palestine and other Arab countries. We can fight and standup to bigotry more successfully and confront the racists like the Pastor in Florida who says he wants to burn a Quran (Koran). That would be a hate crime if it involved any other religion but because it involves burning an Islamic Holy Book, no one will dare to charge the so-called “Christian” leader with a hate crime as he should be charged.

We need to stop being the victim and the only way we can do that is to recognize that we are Arabs, be proud of that heritage. Work from within the system. Distance ourselves from those who drag us to ineffective street protests that do absolutely nothing but make some feel good, changing nothing for our people. We need to develop ideas that speak to the needs of all the people outside of the American Arab community, issues that Americans of all walks of life will embrace as good.

We can do it.

The question though, is there anyone with the courage to standup and change our community from the ragtag collection of apathetic silence led through fear mongering by a small handful of extremists into one of pride, courage and empowerment?

I believe that candidate is out there.

I hope they come forward to make a difference.

(Ray Hanania is an award winning columnist distributed by Creators Syndicate and weekday morning radio talk show host. He can be reached at