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Brown: In the year of Trump, Arab and Muslim voters raise voices

Former Cook County Circuit Judge William Haddad formed his AMVOTE PAC — American Middle East Voters Alliance — to help give Arabs and Muslims a stronger voice in Illinois politics. | Mark Brown / Sun-Times

When he retired from the Cook County bench two years ago, former Circuit Judge William Haddad made it his first priority to establish a group that would give Arab-Americans and Muslims a stronger voice in Illinois politics.

His AMVOTE PAC, short for American Middle East Voters Alliance Political Action Committee, has proven to be both ahead of its time and a step behind.

In a year in which Republican presidential candidates tried to one-up each other on how to get tough with Muslims in the wake of terrorist attacks, AMVOTE has been able to sound the alarm about discrimination.

“We’re taking on folks that disparage our people,” Haddad said.

But with the organization still in its infancy, its voice doesn’t carry very far just yet.

I think that’s why Haddad reached out to me to call attention to AMVOTE’s latest effort.

It’s a petition asking politicians to renounce “profiling, surveillance and the banning of immigrants solely based upon their race, religion, ethnicity or any other condition or circumstance without due process of law.” So far, there haven’t been any takers.

As I told Haddad, I’m not a fan of symbolic petitions or renunciation demands. Not my style.

But I do appreciate minority groups engaging in the political process to stick up for themselves.

OPINION

And judging by the fear mongering that continues to occupy my email inbox, I’d say this is definitely a good time for Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans to get better organized politically.

With an estimated 70,000 voters in Cook County of Middle Eastern heritage, there is certainly a potential to have some impact in state and local races if they speak in a unified voice.

Haddad, 70, is a Democrat. But AMVOTE pursues a bipartisan approach. The organization’s board of directors, which determines its endorsements, includes Democrats and Republicans.

In its first election cycle, the group demonstrated its evenhandedness by supporting Pat Quinn for governor and Judy Baar Topinka for state treasurer. Last year, it endorsed Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia over Mayor Rahm Emanuel, while backing several aldermen allied with the mayor.

Haddad said AMVOTE leaders primarily look for candidates who will treat their community fairly.

Something that’s gotten lost is that, before this election cycle, the Muslim community in the United States was pretty well split between Republicans and Democrats, perhaps even leaning Republican because of its high concentration of successful professionals.

“I couldn’t tell you what they are today,” Haddad said, but he added, “99 percent will not back a candidate who disparages, defames and demeans us.”

Haddad, a Christian of Lebanese descent, recognizes that those who would discriminate on the basis of someone’s name, appearance or country of origin don’t always make such distinctions.

He said Muslim-Americans in particular were inspired and empowered by the Democratic National Convention speech given by Khizr Khan, father of a U.S. Army captain killed in a car bombing in Iraq. Khan said Trump “consistently smears the character of Muslims” and questioned what sacrifices the Republican nominee had made for his country.

“Mr. Khan is right about what he said,” Haddad told me.

As a state political action committee, AMVOTE can’t be directly involved in the presidential race but expects to gets its point across just the same.

With little fund-aising behind it so far, AMVOTE has relied mostly on targeted mailers, robocalls, email blasts and social media to spread the word.

Haddad said he hopes to improve fund-aising in the future as the group gets better established.

“Our needs are meager,” he said. “It’s not expensive to have a big impact on an election.”

The problem for Republicans is that Trump might end up losing them not only this election but future elections as well.