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O’Malley Courts Arab-Americans

Gubernatorial candidate visits Bethesda and breaks the fast with local Muslims.

Baltimore mayor Martin O’Malley, the Democratic nominee for governor, visited Westland Middle School in Bethesda on Saturday to meet Arab-American residents and break the fast with local Muslims observing Ramadan.

Many in the crowd of about 100 wore blue buttons reading “Arab American Democrat,” including O’Malley himself.

“The fact that you’re sitting here with us means a great deal to us,” said George Gorayeb, a Christian Arab American from Annapolis. “I would have voted for you even if you had not come, and now that you came, I will do all in my power to help you get elected.”

During an informal discussion in the school library, constituents told O’Malley their stance on issues ranging from political appointments for Arab Americans to prescription drug importation for seniors. One father questioned why public schools are closed for Christian and Jewish religious holidays, but not for Muslim ones.

“Multiculturalism is not bunk,” said O’Malley, referring to a comment by his opponent Bob Ehrlich on a radio show in 2004. Ehrlich called multiculturalism "crap" and "bunk" while defending comptroller William Donald Schaefer's statement that he would no longer eat at a particular fast food restaurant because a Hispanic cashier there had difficulty speaking English.

“We are a multicultural people … in the strongest multicultural nation in the world,” continued O’Malley. “The message that we articulate throughout the state is a message of common hopes and aspirations to grow our middle class, improve public safety and education, and expand opportunity.”

Terry Lierman, chair of the Maryland Democratic Party, said that O’Malley is interested in “reaching out to many different and diverse communities.” He noted that the Arab-American community in Maryland is rapidly growing, with almost 350,000 now living in the state.

“They play a very important role in the economy, education and business, and they’re becoming increasingly political,” he said.

Potomac’s Tufail Ahmad, who co-founded the Montgomery County Muslim Council, ran for County Council as a Democrat but was defeated in the primary. He expressed solidarity with O’Malley but aired concerns about what he considers insufficient diversity within the Democratic Party. Ahmad said that the state’s Democratic Party chair encouraged minorities to get involved but that an endorsement process tilted to political veterans makes change difficult. He would like to see diversity become more of a consideration in the endorsement process.

“[The party chair] has always told us to get involved, but we got involved, and unfortunately [many new minority candidates] did not get any major endorsements,” he said. “In order to bring about diversity, they have to look at bringing more new people into the political process.”

O’Malley acknowledged that more diversity is needed but insisted that the Democratic Party is more inclusive of minorities.

“We do have the far more diverse party, although the world never changes as quickly as we would like it to,” said O’Malley.

Khalil Karjawally of Potomac said that this was his second meeting with O’Malley.

“He seems to be very genuine in what he said,” said Karjawally. “We look forward to having our community working with him.”

Ahmad said that after talking with the candidate, he feels confident that if elected, O’Malley will make an effort to appoint more Arab Americans.

“[O’Malley] has said that he will include Muslims in his transition team,” said Ahmad. “I think he will appoint people in contact with the Muslim community.”