Arab Americans Win Locally, Inspire Community Nationally
Photo: Lebanese American Nadia Massad wins as Mayor of Mankato, Minnesota–Mankato Free Press
By: Heba Mohammad/Arab America Contributing Writer
After all the votes were tallied, the November 6th midterm election ushered in a new group of leaders to serve at all levels of government. Many of these leaders—some reelected, some in different positions, and others who are newly elected—are Arab Americans, and their successful elections mean greater representation in local governments across the country.
Nearly 100 Arab Americans ran for office in 2018, a majority of whom were vying for local seats, such as school board, city council, and various judgeships. Generally, there was increased interest in running for office nationally. Specifically, there was a lot at stake for the Arab American community this election, and this year’s surge of Arab American candidates was an attempt to fill a need for representation in local governments because of their direct impact on all residents’ lives.
Every election year, we’re reminded to vote “down ballot” so we can help elect our local representatives. The frequent reminders are followed by an explanation that local elections can be even more important than federal elections because who we elect locally determines how our community functions.
Take, for example, snow removal. Your city has a limited number of snowplows and operators, and proper snow removal requires an efficient plan to determine details like which streets should be cleared first and if additional plows should be purchased. In many places, oversight of these plans is up to the mayor, city council, county commission, or a combination of those bodies. If your neighborhood is consistently overlooked for snow removal, you’d want an ally in that body who can ensure your street is plowed.
In another example, you may be worried about the high incarceration rate in your community for minor offenses, and sentencing discrepancies based on race. Perhaps you’d prefer your county or city court judges to approach misdemeanors with a community-oriented mindset that emphasizes restorative justice rather than longer incarceration periods. Local elections give you the opportunity to vote for judges who share your values.
Electing those who share your values and represent or empathize with the experiences of the overall community is another important outcome of local elections. For every stigmatized community, having a public representative who proudly identifies with them and has a platform to correct and undermine malicious stereotypes is empowering. This consistent representation has the effect of making communities visible and goes a long way in raising the voices of the underrepresented to ensure they’re heard by both their elected officials and their neighbors.
The elected Arab American local officials this year represent a vast array of experience and communities.
In Minnesota, Najwa Massad, a restaurant owner, and longtime community advocate was elected as Mayor of Mankato. Among her priorities is retaining and attracting young talent to Makato, and reducing housing costs.
In Paterson, New Jersey, Al Abdelaziz was able to maintain his seat on the city council, a position he was appointed to fill after his predecessor, Andre Sayegh, was elected as mayor earlier this year. This was Abdelaziz’s second campaign for city council.
Several candidates were elected to their state Houses, including Michigan House incumbents Abdullah Hammoud and Yousef Rabhi—who was recently elected to serve in a House leadership role—and newcomer to New York’s House, Nader Sayegh.
Abdullah Hammoud and Yousef Rabhi
Every candidate ran on kitchen table issues that speak to every resident in their district and did so without compromising their important roles as ambassadors for their Arab American community. This successful approach lays the groundwork for future Arab American candidates to run for office without the added obstacles that can appear with the burgeoning political empowerment of formerly excluded populations.
Local officials have the immense responsibility of keeping their communities healthy, and the privilege of representing the best values and assets of their people. Whether or not they won this year, each Arab American candidate demonstrated a desire to take on these roles to improve their community for the benefit of every neighbor. This determination and pride make each individual a great advocate in their district, and we have so much to look forward to as they continue their community engagement.
Heba Mohammad is a field organizer with the Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.