A group of Arab American professionals from Northern Virginia who want a bigger voice for their community in state and local politics have begun raising campaign money and plan to back candidates in this year's elections.
Leaders of the New Dominion Political Action Committee say the new organization will be secular, including Christians and Muslims, and will work for candidates of both parties. The idea, they said, is not to focus on foreign policy but on local issues affecting Arab Americans, including education, access to health care and the protection of civil liberties.
The PAC has raised about $8,000 and hopes to raise $40,000 by year's end. The first candidates to get the group's support will be Democrats running in next week's special election for Arlington County Board and this spring's mayoral race in Alexandria. With more state and local elections slated for the fall, the group plans to be involved in several races, officials said.
"We felt it was time for our community to have a greater voice in Virginia politics on issues that affect us directly," said Saba Shami, treasurer of New Dominion, which held its first fundraiser in December. "This is a major milestone for our community in the state."
New Dominion's emergence reflects the increasing numbers and concentration of Arab Americans in Virginia, which is home to more than 120,000 according to the 2000 Census, including 80,000 in Northern Virginia. For that reason, New Dominion is headquartered in Fairfax County, officials said.
The committee has drawn the attention of local and state leaders. Last week, Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) spoke at a fundraiser where a group of about 30 people lunched on barbecue chicken and salad for $200 a plate in Falls Church.
New Dominion's December fundraiser was held at a Shirlington restaurant and drew about 20 people to hear a speech by Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria), who happened to have had an Arab American as his Republican challenger in 2001.
The New Dominion PAC is bipartisan, organizers said, and not based solely on religion. The board of directors includes Christians and Muslims, and those who have attended fundraisers have come from across the religious, political and professional spectrums. Accountants, carpenters, lawyers and college professors have all shown up at the two fundraisers.
"What they're successful at so far is really pulling together a disparate community across nationalities, class and profession," said Kaine, who said he was surprised to hear the level of concern not just about his stance on civil liberties but also about local issues -- including traffic and problems with crowds at state Department of Motor Vehicles offices.
New Dominion is not the first Arab American political action committee. Four similar organizations exist in New Jersey, California, Texas and Michigan, according to the Arab American Institute, an advocacy group affilitated with a national Arab American PAC based in Washington. Community leaders said the increasing number of such organizations reflects the community's political clout in both Democratic and Republican parties.
"It's a continuation of the maturity of the Arab American community in this country," said Jean AbiNader, managing director of the Arab American Institute, who added there are about 200 elected Arab American officials -- at all levels of government -- in the United States. "It shows local leaders that there's a substantial community of Arab Americans who are interested in local issues, not just foreign policy issues."
Organization leaders said that they were intent on keeping the PAC secular. In fact, most Arab Americans are Christian -- 77 percent, according to the Arab American Institute -- while about 23 percent are Muslim.
"We are strictly secular and wish to further the political process for all Arab Americans," said Marwan Burgan, co-chairman of the PAC.