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The Rock, the Hard Place and the Man in the Middle

As 'an Arab American Who Grew Up Delivering Poultry for a Rabbi,' San Diego-Area Congressman Darrell Issa Is Facing a Telling Post-Sept. 11 Political Dilemma: 'So Who Am I?'

September 01, 2002|FAYE FIORE | Faye Fiore is a Times staff writer based in Washington, D.C.

Darrell Isa is stuck in his silver Lxus on the rain-slicked streets of Washington, D.C., an hour late. A crowd has gathered around vegetarian grape leaves and pumpkin-filled kebabs at the Egyptian embassy, waiting to hear a few words from the distinguished gentleman from California. He is one of the lone Arab American voices in a decidedly pro-Israel Congress, a 48-year-old car alarm millionaire who never held public office before he was sworn in 20 months ago as the Republican from Vista. He has no seniority and therefore no clout--49th most junior congressman in California's delegation of 52. But his Lebanese lineage makes him one of a half-dozen Arab Americans in Congress, one of the most politically powerful members of a politically powerless minority.

It is an odd mantle for a kid who grew up in the Jewish section of Cleveland Heights, down the street from the Taylor Road Synagogue. He knows more words of Yiddish than Arabic. His Boy Scout troop observed Saturday services on camping trips. So Arab-in-Residence is not the job Issa envisioned two years ago when he made a run at the House of Representatives, campaigning as a loyal law-and-order conservative, not a Lebanese Christian.

But the evils of Sept. 11 had a way of remapping everyone's destiny. In Issa's case, it gave him an identity he never asked for. The handsome lawmaker, dark-haired and swarthy-complexioned, found himself barred from an Air France flight to the Middle East after 19 hijackers with similar dark hair and swarthy complexions made racial profiling a national pastime. Weeks later, his district office on the fringes of peaceful San Diego turned up as a target in an alleged bomb plot by the radical Jewish Defense League. The Arab American community, desperate for sympathetic ears in high places, is courting him mightily to champion its cause. They crave a lawmaker who knows what it feels like to be viewed suspiciously by passengers on an airline flight.

So Issa assumes he is headed for welcoming arms as he drives in a warm rain this June night to a reception hosted by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. He thinks he is going to get some sort of award. Instead, he gets a grilling.

"Arabs are being attacked, isn't now the time for legislation more than ever?" demands Ban Al-Wardi, a young Los Angeles attorney disappointed in the congressman's refusal to press for laws against Arab hate crimes.

"The fact is, if not for the leadership of the president, the American people might be willing to lock up Arabs the way they did the Japanese," Issa responds with tepid restraint, sounding more like a dispassionate pundit than a man who has felt the sting of ethnic prejudice.

The young woman is exasperated. Where is his outrage? Her friends and family endorsed Issa's candidacy, brought him into their homes for fund-raisers and meet-and-greets, figuring they had found a comrade in the fight for Arab justice. In Arabic, after all, "Issa" means "Jesus"--but from his perch in Washington, he has hardly acted the role of savior. "A lot of people in California supported him because he made himself out to be a leader for the Arab American community. But he is not willing to be a leader," she later fumes. "It's sad. The only difference he has made is a negative difference."

Issa pops open a Diet Pepsi and moves on to the next gaggle of guests. Every fourth person in the room seems somehow disappointed that his thinking is not "more Arab." If you didn't know it from his roots, they complain, you wouldn't know it from his record.

But to call Issa Arab American seems a stretch of the ethnic imagination. It's a label that even he questions. He likes to think of himself as an honest broker, not a standard-bearer. Whatever Jesse Jackson is to black Americans, whatever Cesar Chavez was to Latinos, Darrell Issa will never be to his Arab American brethren. He is working inside Washington, and that is not how inside Washington works. The watchwords there are capitulation and compromise. The freshman creed: lay low, don't do anything stupid, get yourself reelected.

But after the terror attacks, Issa found himself with a surname that opened doors in the Middle East. Perhaps it was freshman naivete or an ego swollen by corporate success that led him to believe he could make a difference, but he decided his calling was to help broker peace in the Middle East. His only credentials were the accident of his ethnicity and the neighborhood in which he happened to grow up. Sympathetic to two intractable sides, he took the middle ground. The result: The Arab camp is consistently disappointed that he's not more bullish; the Israeli camp is consistently surprised.

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