Ballot Box

Lawrence of Nashua

New Hampshire’s all-Arab-American Senate race.

I’m not sure why Arabs settled in New Hampshire, but it can’t have been for the weather. It’s 40-something degrees outside and raining through gusts of wind, nevermind the snow that’ll soon be here. If you were leaving your home in the Middle East to build a new life in America, this doesn’t strike me as the place you’d stop. But many Arabs did—enough to produce the families of New Hampshire’s two major-party U.S. Senate candidates.

Rep. John E. Sununu, the Republican nominee, is part Palestinian and part Lebanese. Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, the Democratic nominee, is the wife of one Lebanese-American—attorney and political operative Bill Shaheen—and the mother of three more. The Shaheens attend a Maronite Christian church in Dover, a mainstay of the local Lebanese-American community. She isn’t of Arab descent, but her husband doesn’t want anyone to get the idea her lineage is boring. “Her 11th great-grandmother was Pocahontas,” he points out.

This is the first time two candidates with Arab-American families have squared off in a Senate race. If anybody had asked me 10 years ago to predict the state in which this would happen, I would have guessed Michigan, maybe California. New Hampshire? Preposterous. New Hampshire is routinely criticized for filtering the field of presidential candidates through an electorate devoid of ethnic minorities. There might be 5,000 Arab-Americans in the whole state, says Bill Shaheen.

So how did New Hampshire end up with a Sununu dynasty and a governor married to a Shaheen? And how did neighboring Maine produce the country’s most prominent Arab-American politician, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell? Is there a big Arab tradition here? Is that why there are towns called Canaan, Bethlehem, and Lebanon? Nope. According to the community’s leaders in New Hampshire, Arab-Americans here got where they are by not presenting themselves as Arab-Americans.

Bill Shaheen knows the community’s history. Three of his grandparents immigrated from Lebanon—the country, not the town. Some Lebanese, he says, came here because others had already settled around Dover and could help the newcomers adjust to a new country and language. Many still congregate in their own Maronite churches. But mostly, he says, the Lebanese who settled here wanted to blend in. They wanted American success and American values.

The established Arab-American community of New Hampshire isn’t Muslim. It’s Catholic. That eliminates the principal distinction by which most Christian Americans view Arabs as foreign. It’s probably no accident that all six members of Congress of Arab descent are Christian. Ask a Maronite if he’s Christian, and he’ll tell you he’s more Christian than you are. “We’re the ones who funded the apostles so they could spread the Word,” says Bill Shaheen.

Unlike blacks and to a large extent Hispanics, Arab-Americans aren’t identified with one party or the other. They’re spread between the two, as Shaheen and Sununu illustrate. Lebanese-Americans in particular tend to be successful professionals. “John Sununu and Bill Shaheen are seen as sliced-white-bread Americans,” says Paul Kfoury, an Arab-American attorney  who went to college with Shaheen and lives up the street from Sununu. The Shaheens and Sununus are in the Senate race because they’re successful families. They don’t advertise their ethnicity. New Hampshire voters didn’t even know Sununu’s father, former Gov. John H. Sununu, was Lebanese. “He told everybody he was from Cuba,” says Brenda Elias, a former mayor and Arab-American activist.

In short, Arab-Americans got to the finals of this contest by not standing out. And that’s the way they want to keep it. They aren’t eager to give any impression that Shaheen or Sununu might vote differently from other politicians on Middle Eastern issues by virtue of their background. It’s easy to see why. Arab-American campaign donations are a rounding error on the more than $40 million contributed by people and organizations supporting Israel. Sununu has already had meetings with the much-feared American Israel Public Affairs Committee to discuss their differences. Both candidates are hawkish on Iraq and on President Bush’s demands for Palestinian reform. Last week, Sen. Jim Jeffords, the Vermont Republican-turned-Independent, came here to campaign for Shaheen. He criticized Bush’s hard line on Iraq; she defended it.

In the wake of Sept. 11, the fear of standing out is that much greater. During the Republican primary, the incumbent, Sen. Bob Smith, hounded Sununu for refusing to deport suspected terrorists from the United States without due process. Smith even brought in former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to campaign for him, hint, hint. The tactic backfired. After all, this is New Hampshire.