By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 4, 2007
RICHMOND It hasn't been an easy week for Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D).
With the Nov. 6 election a month away, Democrats had been feeling increasingly confident they could make big gains in the General Assembly. But their momentum might be stopped by the Kaine administration's blunder involving the appointment of Esam S. Omeish to the Virginia Commission on Immigration.
Republicans are seizing on the Omeish fiasco, using it to energize the party's conservative base. But in trying to score political points, have Republicans once again proved they're out of touch with increasingly diverse Northern Virginia?
Kaine appointed Omeish in August to fulfill a promise that the panel include at least one Muslim. As a respected community leader and surgeon in Northern Virginia, Omeish appeared to be a good match for the commission, which develops recommendations on state policy to deal with illegal immigration.
A week ago today, Kaine was forced to ask for Omeish's resignation after videos surfaced on which Omeish was seen making controversial comments about Israel and its interaction with its Middle East neighbors, including expressing his support seven years ago for the "jihad way."
Backed by religious leaders from various faiths and by antiwar activists, Omeish says he is the victim of a smear campaign. Many Democrats agree with Kaine that Omeish's history of making inflammatory statements should have disqualified him from serving on a state panel.
Although Kaine moved swiftly to remove Omeish from the 20-member commission, Virginia Republicans are optimistic that the controversy will help them in the November election.
This gives the Republican Party a trifecta of issues -- illegal immigration, quotas and what they perceive as Muslim extremism -- to rally its base, which has been depressed after losing three statewide elections in five years.
By acknowledging that Omeish was selected in part because he is Muslim, Kaine appears to have adopted a quota system for the immigration panel. Kaine said he will replace Omeish with another Muslim because he wants the panel to be diverse.
With Virginia's checkered history of race relations, "quota" doesn't go over well in parts of the state. Although former Republican governors George Allen and James S. Gilmore III named hundreds of minorities to state positions, they went out of their way to stress that they didn't support quotas.
Republicans have also sought to link Omeish to Muslim extremism, which he and his supporters have denied. As President Bush demonstrated during his 2004 reelection campaign, the specter of another terrorist attack remains an election issue.
A day after Omeish resigned, the office of House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) released a statement from Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) titled "Kaine Appointee on Board of Directors of Radical 9-11 Mosque." Gilbert was referring to the fact that Omeish is a leader at Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, the largest mosque in Virginia and one of the biggest in the country.
Gilbert alleged that the center was "radical" because two of the Sept. 11 hijackers had attended the mosque in the months preceding their attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.
Gilbert also referred to several unsubstantiated allegations about the mosque that appeared in conservative publications and on Web sites, including WorldNetDaily.com. (Yes, Gilbert must consider WorldNetDaily to be a credible source.)
"Even a cursory Internet search about the appointee in question would have also easily identified him as a leader of a potentially radical Northern Virginia mosque," Gilbert said.
Gilbert didn't mention the fact that the FBI and the Sept. 11 commission, which spent two years investigating the attacks, found no evidence that the mosque's leadership had any role in the terrorist attacks.
It should be noted that the Sept. 11 hijackers also had gym memberships, ate at restaurants and rented apartments. Are the owners of those establishments "radical" just because they might have had contact with the hijackers?
Howell's office and Gilbert should have just sat back and let Kaine stew in his own political mess. Instead, less than 24 hours after Omeish resigned, they insulted thousands of Northern Virginia Muslims who worship at Dar.
But it's an election year. And unfortunately for Democrats, they are fighting largely on Republicans' turf. Many of the competitive House and Senate races are being waged in districts where the Omeish controversy will be tempting fodder for Republicans.
Kaine will be hard-pressed to explain his initial decision to appoint Omeish to the immigration panel. Republicans can also raise legitimate concerns about the administration's process for vetting appointees.
But Republicans need to be careful about what they are criticizing. Is the issue Omeish's past statements or his faith? In Gilbert's news release, that distinction is muddied, at best.