Candidates for governor woo Arab, Muslim voters
By Associated Press, The Home News Tribune (NJ), March 27, 2005
NEWARK -- From a living room festooned with dozens of elephants in all shapes and sizes, Sherine El-Abd is busily raising money for gubernatorial candidate Bret Schundler, whose call for lower property taxes she loves.
It's only March, but the Edison woman, an Egyptian immigrant and Republican organizer, is already planning candidate forums for October.
In Denville, Aref Assaf is supporting U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine, warming to his willingness to include more Arabs and Muslims in his administration and to fight what the Democrat considers the excesses of the USA Patriot Act.
Three and a half years after the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Arab-American and Muslim communities are important to candidates for the New Jersey governor's office.
The growing political organization — and prodigious fund-raising potential — of Arabs and Muslims in New Jersey make them an appealing source of votes and campaign cash.
Candidates are already speaking at Arab-American dinners, taking out congratulatory ads in souvenir journals, and asking for money from a group almost giddy with its newfound political influence.
"We are becoming players," said Assaf, a Palestinian activist and president of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee's New Jersey chapter.
"It's a recognition of the fact that the Arab-American community is coming center stage on the American political stage.
We are no longer a liability; we are an asset."
With an estimated 250,000 Arab-Americans and an additional non-Arab Muslim population of about 450,000 in New Jersey, these communities could prove decisive in a close election, said Magdy Mahmoud, president of the New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The council and other organizations and mosques held numerous voter-registration drives last year before the presidential election, adding thousands of new Muslim voters in New Jersey.
This will be the second major election in which they can participate, and many will be eager to do so, Mahmoud said.
Schundler and Morris County Freeholder John Murphy attended the Anti-Discrimination Committee's dinner earlier this month; Corzine spoke at the American Muslim Union dinner in Hasbrouck Heights in February.
Schundler, who served three terms as mayor of Jersey City, home to the state's second-largest Arab-American population after Paterson, is well-known and liked among New Jersey's Muslim community.
"I believe that Arab-Americans are as concerned about property taxes and getting spending under control as everybody else," said Schundler, who has made those issues the centerpiece of his second campaign for governor. "I think people want what I want."
He also said Arab-Americans and Muslims need to feel included and welcome in society.
"It is incumbent for a political leader to encourage people not just to tolerate each other, but to value each other," he said.
"I think it's really wrong to say you're going to take a big chunk of the state and say, "We're not going to give you access to the governor's office.' "
Murphy said he had included Muslim voters in his campaigns since first running for freeholder nine years ago.
"We have a mosque in Boonton, and we visited there just like we visited American Legion halls or senior citizen centers," he said.
"What happened in 2001 was tragic, but there are a lot of good people out there that were misunderstood.
You can't paint them with the same brush."
Corzine co-sponsored measures in the Senate to add religion to the list of factors in a measure banning profiling by law enforcement, as well as two measures seeking to undo provisions of the Patriot Act that he deems hostile to civil liberties.
"Arab-Americans and Muslims are woven into the fabric of communities throughout New Jersey, and their involvement in the political process — including in this year's New Jersey gubernatorial election — is essential to ensure that all voices from all communities are heard," said his campaign spokeswoman, Ivette Mendez.
As it matures, the Arab-American and Muslim community has grown less monolithic.
In last year's presidential election, it split its vote among President Bush, whose stances on lower taxes and conservative moral values pleased many Muslims, and John Kerry, whose concern about the war in Iraq and the erosion of civil liberties at home also struck a powerful chord with Muslims.
According to a poll by the Washington-based Arab-American Institute, Arab-Americans in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida favored Kerry by a 2-to-1 margin.