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Muslim Voters Meet Candidates, Officials at Picnic

Banking executive and 8th District congressional candidate Mark Ellmore (R) addresses the crowd in Fairfax County.
Banking executive and 8th District congressional candidate Mark Ellmore (R) addresses the crowd in Fairfax County. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
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By Ben Hubbard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 17, 2008

Some came for the spicy chicken, others for the twisty balloons. But Maura Yasin came to send a message to the public officials and political candidates who turned out to mingle with members of Northern Virginia's Muslim community yesterday.

"I came to be part of the crowd, to show local Virginia politicians that we are here and want to be taken seriously for the issues that affect us," said Yasin, 46, of Falls Church, who was wearing an American flag head scarf held in place with a "We the People" pin.

"We don't want to be swept under the rug," she said.

Yasin was among about 500 Muslims who gathered at a Fairfax County park for the eighth annual "civic picnic" organized by a group of Northern Virginia mosques and Muslim associations.

The event enables Muslims to meet candidates interested in courting votes in the fast-growing community. Organizers said the picnic was the first of several events planned to encourage Muslim participation in the upcoming elections.

About a dozen state and local officials and candidates attended the picnic. Representatives from the presidential campaigns of Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) provided information about the candidates.

Democrat Judy M. Feder, who is challenging Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R) in Virginia's 10th Congressional District, said her message is the same for all voters, including Muslims.

"My experience with these folks is that their concerns are just about the same as those of other people," she said, mentioning the economy, affordable health care and "bringing the troops home" from Iraq.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D), who is running against Republican Keith S. Fimian in the 11th Congressional District, sent a representative, as did former governor Mark R. Warner (D), who is looking to replace the retiring Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.).

Virginia has about 71,000 Muslim voters, about 85 percent of them in Northern Virginia, said Mukit Hossain, president of the Virginia Muslim Political Action Committee, which tracks trends and candidates in local elections. Hossain said Muslims could play an important role in the state's congressional races, as well as in the presidential election.

"This year, there is a high likelihood a small number of voters in Northern Virginia will elect the next president," Hossain said. "Given that scenario, I think 71,000 voters is a substantial bloc that could swing things in one direction or the other."

Robert Marro, government relations chairman for the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, said that as Muslims settle into the region, they are interested in being more politically active.

"These people, they may look a little different, they may talk a little different, but they want a better America, and they have the same concerns as other Americans," he said, citing the economy, the housing crisis and gas prices.

But many are concerned, he said, about a "general anti-Muslim outlook" at the national level. "We really want to stand up for people who are going to support the community," he said.

Many at the picnic were interested in what the candidates had to say, but others said they expected little change in U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East, or even in how Muslims are viewed inside the country.

Hassan Edjlali, 70, was born in Tehran and came to the United States in 1960.

"I want to hear what they're going to say," he said, shrugging. "The same things they always say. There's nothing new."

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