By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 24, 2007
More than 50 candidates in this fall's elections are expected to appear in Reston tomorrow at a political picnic organized by a group of Northern Virginia mosques, and organizers say the heavy turnout underscores the growing influence of Muslim voters in local politics.
The event, the group's seventh annual "family and civic picnic," has a dual purpose, organizers say. Through a voter registration drive, they hope to persuade more Muslims to become involved in local elections. In addition, they hope to show the candidates that "we're here, we care, and we do vote," said Shirin Elkoshairi, a spokesman for the Sterling-based All Dulles Area Muslim Society, which has more than 5,000 members.
"[The turnout] definitely shows that candidates feel that Muslims are voting and are a force at the polls," Elkoshairi said.
There are about 64,000 Muslims registered to vote in Virginia, with the vast majority of them in the outskirts of Washington, said Mukit Hossain, president of the Virginia Muslim Political Action Committee, which tracks trends and endorses candidates in many local elections.
Although Muslims represent a tiny part of the electorate, candidates are beginning to see the value of courting Islamic voters, because small but motivated groups can have a big impact at the polls, he said. That's especially true for off-year elections, which tend to have lower voter turnout. Last fall, more than 86 percent of registered Muslim voters turned out to vote, he said, compared with about 53 percent of the general population.
That has not gone unnoticed among political activists, said Brian Roherty, campaign manager for Michael Firetti, who is running for chairman of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors.
"Every single vote counts, and smart politicians know that," Roherty said.
Picnic organizers are expecting a broad spectrum of candidates running for the state legislature and boards of supervisors in Loudoun, Prince William and Fairfax counties. The candidates will have a chance to speak to and field questions from the more than 1,000 attendees expected.
Fairfax County Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason), whose diverse district in central Fairfax includes two mosques, said her research has turned up more likely voters among Arab Americans than any other minority group.
"Over the past few years we have seen a lot more interest among Arab Americans in the civic culture of our community," said Gross, adding that she tries to go to the picnic each year and plans to attend tomorrow.
Organizers also expect candidates from Loudoun and Prince William counties, which last month approved resolutions aimed at cracking down on illegal immigrants. Although the actions were seen as primarily affecting Hispanics, they have sparked concern among Muslims because of fears that the actions could increase racial profiling and curb civil liberties, Hossain said.
"I think since 9/11, the Muslim community has learned that any community can be attacked," he said. "When someone is attacked unfairly, we have to stand in solidarity with them."
Hossain, who has been organizing opposition to the Loudoun and Prince William votes, said his group conducted a survey of Virginia Muslims and found that immigration was their top local concern. Education was second, he said, and respect for diversity was third.
Loudoun Supervisor Eugene A. Delgaudio (R-Sterling), the main sponsor of Loudoun's resolution, said he plans to attend tomorrow's event, partly because the Muslim community reflects his values of being "extremely moral and religious." His district's demographics are among the most rapidly changing in Northern Virginia. For example, Sterling's Park View High School was two-thirds white in 2000; last year, whites made up less than half the school.
"We have a lot of ethnic groups represented here," he said. "Sterling is like the United Nations. It's a very diverse neighborhood."