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CAMPAIGN 2000

Lieberman to Meet Arab Americans

Campaign: Democratic vice presidential nominee plans to make a key gesture in Michigan, a state expected to be hotly contested in November.

August 27, 2000|MATEA GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Joseph I. Lieberman plans to reach out to Arab American leaders during a campaign swing through Michigan today, hoping to reassure Muslims who worry that if he becomes vice president it could hurt their agenda and tilt U.S. policy in the Middle East.

"I'm going to talk about the basic themes of the campaign and how much I feel the Arab American community . . . is an important and growing community in our country," Lieberman said in an interview. "I want them to have a seat at the table and to feel that I'm accessible to them."

Lieberman, who is Jewish, said he has a strong record of supporting the rights of Arab Americans and was a co-sponsor of a Senate resolution protesting discrimination against Muslims.

Lieberman, a senator from Connecticut, is scheduled to meet in Southfield, Mich., with about two dozen prominent national and state Arab American leaders, many of them Democrats, who have been waiting anxiously for Al Gore's running mate to make overtures toward them.

"I've heard lots of concerns from people in the community," said James Zogby, president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute. "The degree to which those concerns are addressed, people will be able to mobilize support for the ticket."

The meeting north of Detroit represents an important gesture to the Arab community in Michigan, which is a hotly contested state in the presidential election. Vice President Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the GOP nominee, currently are running neck-and-neck in the state, where Arab Americans make up about 4% of the electorate, one of the largest populations of Arabs outside the Middle East.

"The fact that one of his earliest outreach meetings is with Arab Americans in Michigan is a sign of enormous respect and recognition," Zogby said. "I believe this could be a breakthrough."

But for many Arab Americans, even Democrats, concerns linger. Many Muslims are concerned about Lieberman's past support of sanctions against Iraq and for moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, community leaders said. They also want to discuss the "airport profiling" of Arab Americans and the use of secret evidence in criminal cases against noncitizens.

"You have an Arab American community that, frankly, has a lot of questions about Lieberman," said Ismael Ahmed, director of the Arab Community Center in Dearborn, Mich. "He's perceived as extremely pro-Israel."

Amed Habboud, a Democratic delegate from Dearborn and president of the Arab American Political Action Committee, has heard similar rumblings.

"I knew that to go out in the community and sell a Gore-Lieberman ticket would be a tough sell," Habboud said. But Lieberman's courting of the Arab vote "makes us feel like we are part of the mainstream . . . and that's an important thing."

Since his selection, Lieberman has answered questions about his allegiance to Israel by saying that he always would put the United States' interests first.

Today's meeting came about after Zogby and other Arab American leaders attending the Democratic National Convention told Gore campaign chairman Bill Daley and campaign manager Donna Brazile that Lieberman needed to quell concerns.

Zogby said he was optimistic about the meeting, noting that Lieberman helped get Arab Americans involved in President Clinton's 1992 campaign, even though some Clinton staffers feared such participation in the campaign could alienate Jewish supporters.

"He has been supportive of our political rights," Zogby said of Lieberman. "He has fought efforts to exclude or discriminate against Arab Americans. And he has always been open to discussions with us over matters of policy."

Lieberman also will reach out to African Americans during his visit to the Detroit area today, attending services at the Fellowship Chapel Church, a prominent black congregation.

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