Should a Muslim Palestinian-American be blocked from running for Congress because of his religion and ethnicity? The question would be absurd if you substituted the terms “Roman Catholic” and “Irish-American.” But Jesse Sbaih, a Nevada attorney running for Congress in the state’s open Third District race, contends Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, whose support is crucial for Democrats in Nevada, told him: “You’re not going to be able to win because you are a Muslim.”
If elected, Sbaih would be the first Arab Muslim in Congress. There are currently two Muslims, both African American, and a half-dozen or so Arab Americans in the House of Representatives, but no Arab Muslims.
Sbaih, who emigrated from Jordan with his Palestinian-refugee parents when he was 11, says the comment came when he sought Reid’s endorsement last August. Reid’s office has emphatically denied this. But John Ralston, a well-known Nevada political commentator, wrote last week, “Sbaih’s religion did come up in conversations (with Reid) as a potential avenue of attack from opponents.”
According to Reid’s organization, the problem was Sbaih’s inexperience, not his faith. He was encouraged to run for a lower office to “create a path” to future success. And the prospect of a federal job was dangled for Sbaih instead. But the 40-year-old lawyer stubbornly insisted on running for the House.
“This campaign is not about me. It’s about every person who was denied an opportunity because of race or religion or not being a member of the club,” Sbaih said in an interview with Mondoweiss.
At the same time that he was discouraging Sbaih, Reid was seeking a high-profile Democrat to run in the district, according to Nevada political commentators. Ralston wrote that Reid “was desperately searching for a big-name candidate to run for the seat, having already been rebuffed by the likes of ex-Secretary of State Ross Miller, former water czar Pat Mulroy and others. This coincided with the period when Team Reid was intently wooing Heather Murren, the former Wall Street analyst and philanthropist, to get into the contest. (She eventually declined on Oct. 2.)”
In late January Reid personally recruited Jacky Rosen, president of Congregation Ner Tamid, a synagogue in Henderson. Rosen, like Sbaih, has not run for office before. But she now has the advantage of Reid’s organization and fund-raising clout. And though Rosen has no experience either, as Ralston observed, she also has “no obvious baggage”:
Team Reid apparently believes Rosen, who is well connected in Southern Nevada, fits the profile needed to be viable in the district: A political newcomer with no obvious baggage.
The district, in the Las Vegas suburbs, is seen as a tossup. The Republican incumbent, Joe Heck, is running for Reid’s Senate seat. Reid is retiring. The district voted for President Obama in 2012. Seven Republicans and a total of six Democrats are running for their party’s nominations.
Sbaih’s Palestinian Muslim identity and his brash refusal to knuckle under to the political powers-that-be have cast him as the idealistic outsider pitted against the power of the Reid organization. His story reflects that of Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, whom Sbaih enthusiastically supports.
Sbaih didn’t publicize Reid’s alleged Muslim remark until March. By then, the candidate said, the Reid camp was calling potential staffers, donors and supporters and telling them not to work for Sbaih. He insists his campaign has been “sabotaged.” On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with labor unions and other potential donors, Sbaih said, “We learned Reid called the various unions we scheduled meetings with…and told them not to meet with us and not to support us.” Sbaih would not specify whom, exactly, Reid leaned on.
Despite such setbacks, Sbaih is defiantly remaining in the race. “They don’t believe a Muslim can win in America and that is absolutely false,” he said.
Sbaih released a string of emails and text messages that, he contends, buttress his case. In a string of text messages starting in early August, Sbaih wrote to strategist and former Reid campaign manager Rebecca Lambe:
“I will continue to work extremely hard to win the seat for our party, which would allow me to serve our country. I will make you and Senator Reid proud. In the meantime, I very much look forward to the day our party embraces someone like me the same way numerous people of this amazing country embraced me over the years.”
Lambe replied, “Our party does embrace you. But I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t point out the challenges and ask you to objectively look at this district.” She encouraged Sbaih to run for Nevada Assembly instead.
“I appreciate what you are saying. I am fully aware there are challenges and I fully recognize them. However, rather than run away, I will work very hard to overcome these challenges. You see my challenges are insurmountable. I see it differently in that I believe in the goodness of the American people, in the American spirit, and that people will elect the person they believe will do the best job to help them solve their problems regardless of their ethnic background and religion. You said to me today, ‘you will do well in Congress. The problem is getting you there.’ Just like you saw that in me that I will do a good job, I am hopeful my constituents will see it that way as well….”
A few days later Lambe set up a meeting between Sbaih and Reid.
After the meeting, in a September 1 email to Lambe, Sbaih wrote that he was being passed over because of his “religion and ethnicity.”
“I hope all is well. As an American citizen who deeply loves his country, I am profoundly disheartened and saddened that the Democratic Party is refusing to accept a candidate like me because of my religion and ethnicity. It’s distressing to hear that my religion and ethnicity somehow disqualify me from running for a congressional seat despite everything that I have accomplished and contributed to our country and its people…
“I will continue to work hard and I am hopeful that I will prove to you and Senator Reid that an Arab/Muslim American (who deeply loves our country and cares very much about its people) can and will be embraced by his community if they feel he can get the job done. As Senator Reid promised me last week during our meeting, which you attended, I respectfully request that your office/the party refrain from engaging in any conduct that would harm my campaign.”
The next day Megan Jones, another former Reid staffer who is now a political consultant, sought to refute Sbaih’s contention that his religion and ethnicity were hindering him:
“I want to clarify again as we have done so multiple times in person, that this was never about the Democratic Party not embracing your ethnicity or religion it was about how to create a path and a base of support so you could withstand the attacks that we knew would inevitably come from the opposing side. I am profoundly disappointed that you are choosing to ignore the expert advice of so many who wanted to help create a path for you that would ultimately help you in your long term political and professional goals….”
Sbaih’s reply was cordial but unyielding:
“We have a disagreement about my electability because of the inevitable attacks by my potential opponent based on my religion and ethnicity. I believe that I can overcome those attacks and you all think I will not able to do so. Reasonable minds can differ. “
The next emails between Sbaih and Shannon Raborn, another Reid staffer, discuss his potential appointment to the Election Assistance Commission. On Oct. 6 Raborn emailed Sbaih, “As follow up to our conversation, Senator Reid makes a recommendation to the White House for the open position for a Commissioner on the Election Assistance Commission (EAC). The Washington, DC-based position is Senate-confirmed for a term of 4 years and pays at a Level IV schedule ($157k).”
On October 8, Sbaih asked Raborn to tell Harry Reid that he was “honored and appreciative of his offer” to serve on the EAC, but he was committed to run for Congress.
“I remain hopeful that Senator Reid will support my campaign and we can work together to win this election and return NV-3 to the Democrats.”
The final string of texts released by Sbaih are a conversation with former Reid staffer Megan Jones beginning September 29 and refer to a phone call earlier that day. Sbaih wrote, “I am still surprised by your tone during our telephone call earlier today. I don’t appreciate the various threats you made if I didn’t withdraw from the race. As I told you, I am profoundly committed to serving our country and our people….”
Jones denied threatening Sbaih:
“I don’t think you understand the level I’ve stood up for you to be given a chance. If the shoe were on the other foot and you were my lawyer and told me I was going to lose if I went to court I would listen. It’s a slap in the face to be as condescending as you have been with me…You are on your own. And that is a scary place to be and one that you didn’t have to do.”
Sbaih’s reply was equally contentious:
“I have been nothing but courteous to you. We simply disagree and you refuse to take no for an answer. I will not be bullied by anyone when I have the best intentions of serving my country and its people. I am not alone, my base will continue to grow, and I will win the election. I have no fear of Ms. Murren [a potential candidate then being courted by Reid] coming into the race or anything else because I am doing the right thing for my country. Thus, there is no reason for us to continue to have this discussion. I wish you all the best.”
Jones replied in kind: “Yep I’m a bully. Way to stay classy Jesse. Call the only one looking out for you a bully.” In another message Jones wrote, “Why do you think all your consultants walked away? Today for me was the last straw in trying to help you see that you could win by building bases of support by starting with an office you could win…”
Sbaih replied, “What are you talking about? I have been nothing but courteous and thoughtful with all of you. Your camp is the one who insulted me by, among other things, telling me that I would do a great job in Congress but people would not vote for a Muslim…I thought our party was different that this and I am hopeful things will change for the better…”
In a later message in the string, dated Jan. 12, Sbaih wrote, “Wanted to meet with you to advise you that we have nearly half a million COH [cash on hand] and that it would be a pleasure for me to work with the Reid team on winning this race. We need to start working together as I am fully committed to winning the seat for our party and giving back to our country/community. We need to forget about the past and focus on the future.”
That was the last message provided by Sbaih. On Jan. 26 Reid’s handpicked candidate Jacky Rosen entered the race.
Central to Sbaih’s campaign, and the controversy surrounding it, is his family’s immigrant story. Sbaih’s father, Ismail, fled the village of Beit Iksa near Jerusalem for Jordan during the 1948 Nakba. Sbaih’s mother fled the same village in 1967. They met and married in Jordan where the elder Sbaih practiced law and his wife was a teacher. The family immigrated to the U.S. when Jesse was 11 “to give the children a better life.” Sbaih helped his struggling family by washing dishes at an Italian restaurant.
“I was grateful (for the job),” he said. “But it was so hard, working late into the evening scrubbing dishes then studying all night for a test at school the next day.” Sbaih graduated with honors from high school, college and law school and now practices in Henderson, Nevada.
Looking back, Sbaih said it was “extremely humbling to… remember that little boy washing dishes and scrubbing pans late into the evening. I’m immensely proud of what we have accomplished because of the opportunities this country has given us.”
In an election year infused with racial and religious animosity, Jesse Sbaih’s uphill quest for Congress reveals the real pressures on candidates whose backgrounds are not embraced by the establishment.