Muslim and Arab Americans aim to grow their ranks in US House

Two Muslim women, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, are currently members of Congress and seven others claim Arab descent.

US Representative Ilhan Omar leaving after a campaign event with Democratic 2020 US presidential candidate and US Senator Bernie Sanders in Manchester, New Hampshire, US [File: Brian Snyder/Reuters]

Though early voting is well underway in much of the country, on November 3 millions of Americans will trek to their local polling stations to cast their vote for the next president of the United States.

But also at stake on election day is the makeup of the US House of Representatives, where Democrats are currently defending their majority.

Democrats hold 232 seats in the 435-member House, Republicans have 197.

In 2018, the first two female Muslim members of Congress were elected: Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, and seven other members of Congress claim Arab descent. Some have served for several terms and are running for re-election, others are newcomers hoping to shake up their districts.

Here are some of the candidates and races to watch:

Republican Darrell Issa vs Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar

Two candidates with Arab-American roots are vying for California’s currently vacant 50th congressional district seat in the US House of Representatives: Republican Darrell Issa, a Lebanese American and once the richest member of Congress, and Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, who has a Palestinian father and a Mexican-American mother.

The San Diego-area district lost its representative in January when Republican Duncan Hunter resigned after pleading guilty to misuse of campaign funds.

Democratic congressional candidate Ammar Campa-Najjar speaking in front of federal cour in San Diego. California [File: AP Photo/Gregory Bull]

Issa, 66, is an ally of President Donald Trump. He retired two years ago after spending 18 years as a member of the House of Representatives – he is now trying to win one of Southern California’s last conservative districts.

Campa-Najjar, 31, a public affairs officer under the administration of former President Barack Obama, was the first Latino-Arab American to run for Congress in 2018, when he lost to Hunter by 3 percentage points.

He stirred controversy among Democrats when he said during an October interview that he had not yet decided whether or not he would vote for Joe Biden. He then cast an early vote and shared a photo on his social media showing his ballot for Biden.

Issa’s campaign currently leads Campa-Najjar’s in overall contributions with $6.5 million but that includes $4.2 million out of his own pocket.

Campa-Najjar, who has a small consulting firm, has not personally funded his campaign, which has raised $4.8 million, according to his campaign’s third-quarter report filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Darrell Issa during a news conference in El Cajon, California when he announced his intention to run for Congress [AP Photo/Gregory Bull]

Democrat Rashida Tlaib

Rashida Tlaib, 44, born to Palestinian immigrants, first won election to the US House in 2018. She is the first Palestinian American in Congress representing Michigan’s 13th district.

The eldest of 14 children, the former lawyer and community activist was born in Detroit, a diverse city with a sizeable Black, Latino, Muslim and Arab population.

Democratic Representative Rashida Tlaib rallies in support of the United States Postal Service (USPS) outside a post office in Old Redford, Michigan, US [Rebecca Cook/Reuters]

She has advocated for progressive causes such as raising the minimum wage, universal healthcare, affordable university tuition and environmental protections.

Tlaib is running against Republican challenger David Dudenhoefer in the November House election.

Three other candidates are also in the race for Michigan’s 13th congressional district election: D Etta Wilcoxon of the Green Party, Articia Bomer of the US Taxpayers Party of Michigan and Sam Johnson for the Working Class Party.

Her district is a Democratic stronghold.

Earlier this year, Tlaib faced a challenge for her House seat in a Democratic primary rematch with Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones, who lost by 1 percentage point in 2018 when the primary field was larger. Tlaib won this year’s primary handily, with 66.3 percent of the vote.

A vocal critic of Trump – whom she famously heckled in 2016 while he was delivering a speech in Detroit – Tlaib created a stir when, shortly after taking office, she called the president an expletive while vowing to impeach him.

“We’re gonna impeach the motherf***er,” she said.

One of the most visible progressive Democrats in Congress, Tlaib is a member of the “Squad” of four congresswomen first elected in 2018, which also includes Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.


US Reps Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib holding a news conference in Washington, US [File: Erin Scott/Reuters]

Tlaib and the other members of the “Squad” are frequent targets of Trump during his rallies and in tweets.

“Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” he said last year in a tweet which has been blasted as racist.

Democrat Ilhan Omar

Ilhan Omar, 37, fled civil war in Somalia and spent four years of her childhood in a refugee camp in Kenya. She sought asylum in the US in 1995, when she was eight years old and became an American citizen in 2000 at the age of 17.

She made history two years ago when she became the first Somali-American in the country to win a seat in a state legislature, unseating an incumbent Democrat along the way. She also became one of the first two Muslim women to be elected to Congress.

US Representative Ilhan Omar introducing US Senator Bernie Sanders at a campaign event in Nashua, New Hampshire, US [File: Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters]

She is expected to win again in November in the solidly Democratic 5th district of Minnesota.

Like Tlaib, Omar has campaigned on policies associated with the Democratic Party’s most progressive wing, and is well-known as a member of the “Squad” of four freshman liberal congresswomen.

She won this year’s Democratic primary, defeating a well-funded rival Antone Melton-Meaux, and several other challengers.

A fierce critic of Trump, especially on his immigration policies, she hit back at the president after he disparaged her during a campaign rally last month, after he implied that she was not American.

“Not only is he a racist, but he’s a racist xenophobic. Because he’s not against immigration, he’s just against immigrants who look like me,” Omar told CNN.

Ilhan Omar sharing a fist bump with Rashida Tlaib as they arrive to attend a news conference by members of the US Congress in Washington, US [File: Jim Bourg/Reuters]

Democrat Sima Ladjevardian

Democrat Sima Ladjevardian was born in Iran and immigrated to the US as a child. She is running to represent Texas’s 2nd congressional district.

She identifies as a “lawyer, a mother of two, a breast cancer survivor and a political activist”.

Ladjevardian is challenging US Representative Dan Crenshaw, a rising star in the Republican Party who won his seat in 2018. Crenshaw is a former Navy SEAL who served in Iraq and lost an eye in Afghanistan. He has vastly outraised Ladjevardian in campaign funds.

Ladjevardian, meanwhile, has focused her campaign on criticising Crenshaw’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, which she says he has downplayed. She calls for expanding access to affordable healthcare, addressing climate change and injustices in the US immigration system.

She was a key adviser to Beto O’Rourke during his attempt to defeat Republican Senator Ted Cruz for his seat in 2018, and was endorsed by former President Barack Obama.

Donna Shalala, who is of Lebanese descent, speaking to media on Capitol Hill in Washington [File: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster]

Democrat Lulu Seikaly

Helane “Lulu” Seikaly, is running for election to the US House to represent Texas’s 3rd congressional district. The daughter of Lebanese immigrants, she is a lawyer specialising in labour and employment law.

Seikaly is challenging first-term Republican congressman Van Taylor, a businessman and veteran of the US Marine Corps Reserves, where he was deployed in Iraq.

She has campaigned for liberal, progressive causes, such as universal healthcare, reproductive rights and affordable higher education in a district that is largely populated by wealthy, suburban voters. The district has, over the past several years, also seen a steady growth of immigrant communities, mostly Latinos.

It remains to be seen what effect the demographic changes will have on the vote, as the district has been firmly represented by Republicans for more than 50 years. In the 2016 presidential election, Trump carried the district over nominee Hillary Clinton by nearly 14 points.

Charlie Crist, who claims Lebanese descent, talking with supporters after conceding in the midterm elections in St. Petersburg, Florida [File: Scott Audette/Reuters]

US House members of Lebanese descent

Several current members of the US House are of Lebanese descent, though most have not made their heritage a large part of their political identities. Democratic US Representatives Donna Shalala, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Charlie Crist, all of Florida, along with Republicans Darin LaHood of Illinois and Garret Graves and Ralph Abraham of Louisiana all have grandparents or great-grandparents who emigrated from Lebanon.

Source: Al Jazeera