Arabs in Florida Angered by Bush
Ever since President Bush narrowly won Florida four years ago, Democrats have meticulously courted key voting blocs that strategists believe could help reverse the party’s fortunes in 2004 -- showering attention on seniors, African Americans, Jews, and Cuban and Haitian Americans.
On Sunday night, a surprising new ethnic thread wove itself into Florida’s ever-complicated political fabric: the frustrated Arab American.
Business owners, physicians, lawyers and others -- furious over the Bush administration’s post-Sept. 11 policies that many believe unfairly target Muslims and Arab Americans in the government’s quest to root out terrorists -- huddled in a hotel ballroom across the street from Disney World to demonstrate how much they wanted a change in the White House.
The meeting, intended to be a bipartisan affair sponsored by the Washington-based Arab American Institute, turned into a cheering session for Democratic nominee Sen. John F. Kerry -- illustrating a dramatic shift in a traditionally Republican group.
“I thought Bush was another Ronald Reagan on a small scale for what he believed in,” said Ashley Ansara, president of a clinical research company in Orlando. “I found out he’s no Reagan. Not even close.”
He said this would be the first presidential election since he moved to the U.S. in 1973 that he wouldn’t be voting Republican.
Sunday night’s fervor first surfaced in the spring, when more than 150 Arab American voters packed onto chartered buses bound for the University of Central Florida in Orlando, where local Democratic leaders were gathering to elect delegates to the party’s national convention.
Some had voted for Bush in 2000. Others had never voted at all. But when they arrived at UCF that morning, they made an important statement by claiming three of the eight delegate slots from two congressional districts.
Kerry’s gains, though, could prove thorny in Florida, where Democratic Party politics has long been characterized by close ties to the state’s massive Jewish community and staunch support for Israel.
Some Democrats say privately they fear alienating Jewish voters with an overt effort to reach Arab Americans.
The Massachusetts senator has already encountered trouble on that front, when he told the Arab American Institute a year ago that the security fence being constructed by Israel in and around the West Bank was a “barrier to peace.” Later, he assured miffed Jewish leaders that he believed the fence was a legitimate tool for self-defense against terrorism.
But Kerry also has promoted a Senate voting record that has received a 100% rating from pro-Israel lobbyists.
As a result, Kerry’s Florida campaign includes a carefully crafted message that seeks common ground between moderate Arab and Jewish voters on civil liberties and other domestic concerns -- but shies away from the details of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, according to key Democrats and Arab leaders.
That point was emphasized last week during a conference call with about 40 Arab American leaders in Florida and around the country held by Cam Kerry, the candidate’s brother and a convert to Judaism.
Cam Kerry assured the group that courting Jews and Arabs was not a “zero-sum game,” according to a participant in the call, which took place last week on the eve of the candidates’ first debate, in South Florida.
If Kerry can succeed in wooing the Arab American vote, the payoff could be enormous, especially in key swing states.
The Arab American Institute estimates, for instance, that there are more than 100,000 Arab or Muslim voters in Florida -- and that at least 45% of them backed Bush in 2000 and many others supported Green Party nominee Ralph Nader, who has Lebanese roots.
In that campaign, Bush went out of his way to send a message to Arab Americans that he understood their concerns -- noting in his second debate with Democrat Al Gore that “secret evidence” should not be used against them, presumably in criminal cases.
Four years later, the Bush administration defends the Patriot Act, the controversial anti-terrorism law signed by Bush within two months of the Sept. 11 attacks. Critics say the law allows too much government intrusiveness, especially of immigrants, Muslims and people of Arab descent.
A Bush campaign spokesman said that many traditionally conservative Arab Americans would back the president again this year.
“Many Arab Americans support President Bush’s pro-growth policies, his mainstream values, which protect the family, and his efforts to promote peace and democracy in the Middle East,” spokesman Scott Stanzel said.
But polls this year show that Bush’s previously strong support among Arab Americans has subsided.
A July survey, conducted in Florida by Zogby International, showed that just 30% of the state’s Arab Americans planned to back Bush and 48% favored Kerry. Thirteen percent supported Nader, who recently won a court battle to appear on the Florida ballot.
That kind of turnaround could prove especially meaningful in this state, where the election was decided by 537 votes in 2000.
Sami Qubty, a financial planner and former president of the Arab American Community Center in Orlando, said he had received telephone calls at home from Kerry organizers asking for help. Other Arab Americans in central Florida have received Democratic mailers. And Democratic organizers have begun to attend Arab American political events.
Qubty, an Arab Christian who grew up in the Palestinian territories and moved here 36 years ago, was once an avid Bush supporter who helped raise tens of thousands of dollars for his presidential run in 2000. Now he has turned away from the president, he said, because of his policies.
“I think this administration is trampling on this nation’s civil rights,” Qubty said. “They’re walking all over the Constitution.”
Wearing her traditional head scarf, Areej Zufari says that most Arab Americans she knows no longer trust Bush.
“Most of them feel betrayed,” said Zufari, the director of communications and media for the Islamic Society of Central Florida.
The Kerry campaign has sought to turn that outrage into an advantage.
A campaign e-mail distributed to Arab American voters said the Justice Department of Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft had “unfairly targeted Muslim and Arab Americans,” and promised that Kerry would change the Patriot Act and end “racial profiling.”
The e-mail also promised reformed healthcare and immigration systems, stiffer hate-crime laws and expanded economic opportunity.
But illustrating the sensitive nature of an appeal to Arab voters, the e-mail studiously straddled the Israel question, promising that Kerry would “restore American leadership in the Middle East.”
“In a Kerry-Edwards administration, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not be an afterthought, but a priority that will always get the consistent, high-level attention it deserves,” the message says.
James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, said distaste for the Bush administration’s policies could easily bring moderate Jews and Arabs together. Several Arab American activists said they believed that most Jews and Arabs in the U.S., despite differences over Israel, were united in their concern for protecting civil liberties.
“Both communities can be courted,” he said.
Harry Jacobs, an Orlando lawyer who is raising money for Kerry, is a past president of the local Jewish Federation and is assisting in the Democratic outreach to Arab American voters.
He said that despite his prominent role as an advocate for Israel and other Jewish causes, Arab American activists outraged over the Patriot Act volunteered to help in his unsuccessful 2002 congressional campaign.
“The more moderate Arabs and the more moderate Jews,” he said, “we all want the same thing.”
Times staff writer Susannah Rosenblatt contributed to this report.