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Bernie Sanders courted Michigan's Arab American vote, and it paid off

Arab American Institute

Arab American voters seem to have played a vital role in handing Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders an upset victory in Tuesday’s Democratic presidential primary.

The results show Sanders won in handily in many precincts with large Arab-American populations, particularly in the city of Dearborn.

While that appeared to come as a surprise to some political observers and pundits, it came as no surprise at all to people familiar with that community, which numbers an estimated half-million people statewide.

Those not surprised include Maya Berry, a Dearborn native who’s now executive director of the Arab American Institute in Washington, DC. “There’s been a lot of excitement and energy about his race for some time in our community,” she said.

Berry said the Sanders campaign did some “very basic things” to draw Arab-American votes: reaching out to include the community in events, running a strong social media campaign in multiple languages, denouncing anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric, and running Arabic-language ads.

“To be honest, it’s not very difficult,” Berry said. “If you appeal to voters, and show them the respect of courting their vote, and talking to them about issues they care about, voters tend to respond well.”

Berry said those caught off guard by Arab voters embracing a Jewish candidate are “ill-informed” about that community’s political culture. “People don’t choose their candidate based on religion or ethnicity,” she said.

Amer Zahr, a metro Detroit writer, comedian, and adjunct professor at the University of Detroit-Mercy, agreed. He said the idea that Arabs would reject a Jewish candidate reflects “shameful” but “deeply-held stereotypes about Arab Americans.”

“We looked at the way he [Sanders] was talking about Islamophobia and bigotry,” Zahr said. “We looked at the way that he’s talking about jobs and growing the American economy. Those issues resonate with us very clearly, regardless of the ethnicity or the religion of the candidate.

“So you have all of these things coming together I think, which leads to Arab-Americans being very involved in this election, and being involved with Bernie Sanders.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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