NEW YORK – The issue of supporting Greek-American candidates was recently the cause of controversy in Chicago and the subject of an editorial in The National Herald. Endy Zemenides, Executive Director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council, sent in a response to the editorial.
The complete text follows:
This week, The National Herald’s Publisher-Editor Antonis H. Diamataris, published a piece entitled “Should We or Should We Not Have Supported Vallas?” that raised important questions about how we should approach supporting political candidates.
Mr. Diamataris lays out three factors to consider.
- Has the candidate taken part in Greek-American community activities and priorities? Has he/she shown at least some level of interest in the community and his/her Greek heritage?
Diamataris argued that if the answer is “yes” to the above, Greek-Americans should stand with the candidate and support him/her with whatever means we can.
On the surface, it would be hard to argue with such a standard, but should there be a threshold for level of involvement? If not, how do you choose when there are multiple Greek-American candidates in the same race? Last year there were two Greek-Americans in the Democratic primary in Texas’ 7th Congressional District. In Illinois we have twice had primary elections in which Greek-Americans faced off against each other.
How would this standard operate if a New Jersey Greek-American community decided to challenge Senator Robert Menendez, the greatest philhellene in the history of the United States Senate? What if Rhode Island State Senator Lou Raptakis decided to go up against Congressman David Cicilline – a member of House Leadership and of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who authored the “End the Cyprus Arms Embargo Act” and has a Greek-American chief of staff? What if Chrys Kefalas won the 2016 Republican primary and advanced to a matchup with then Congressman Chris Van Hollen, who had a long history of working with our community and leading on our issues and is also married to a Greek-American?
In these three cases, I would argue that we should stand steadfastly with Menendez, Cicilline and Van Hollen. Even if the candidates agreed in theory with the positions that these incumbents have, we would be choosing between a record of action (and of being in a position to make a difference) versus a set of promises.
To what end do we seek to be politically organized and active? Do we have a common agenda? If not, is it logical to ask a Greek-American to set aside their partisan leanings and policy preferences?
We do indeed have a common political agenda. It starts with promoting a strong Greece-US bilateral relationship. Our agenda includes the promotion of values – democracy, human rights, religious freedom, alliances – that not only protect the interests of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Greece and Cyprus, but advance American interests as well. Finally, the Greek community has a stake in issues that are not exclusively Greek and as a Congressional staffer once told a gathering of Greek-American activists: “In politics, if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
Therefore, our overriding concern should not be a candidate’s ethnicity, but their track record/commitment to our issues-based agenda, and whether they have worked to secure a “place at the table” for our community.
- If the candidate hasn’t been part of community life and indifferent to his/her Greek background, but now is interested to rediscover their Greekness and learn our issues and how they can advance them, even if this “change” is brought about because they need our support at the moment, it is in our interest to give them a chance.
This is a fair point. Not every Greek-American candidate can have the background of a Gus Bilirakis, an Eleni Kounalakis, a John Sarbanes. Former Congressman Zack Space, for example, although active in his local Greek-American community, was not as tied into the national community nor active on the issues-based agenda. But he expressed sincere interest in the issues, communicated consistently with those who knew them best (and not just donors), and became one of the great champions of Hellenic issues during his four years in Congress. Space’s sincerity is even more impressive in that he has stayed active on Hellenic issues for the 8 years since leaving Congress.
Given the multiple generations of Greek-Americans and the disparate level of development and organization among our communities nationwide, it would be unfair to deny a Greek-American a chance to “rediscover” their roots or connect with the community in a way they hadn’t had the chance to.
Still, we have to establish a measure as to whether a political candidate’s gesture is sincere or expedient. Someone from community strongholds like New York or Chicago will have had multiple opportunities to participate in the community or contribute to Greek-American causes and should have a good answer for not doing so. Once they establish such a reason, can they make us confident in their commitment to the community via political alliances or by appointing someone well-know and well-regarded in the community as an advisor?
- If the candidate is hostile to the Greek-American community and to his/her Greek heritage, we owe them nothing.
No further comment.
I believe a fourth consideration should be factored in: does a candidate have a legitimate path to victory? The community’s resources are not limitless. Hopefully we can “bake a bigger pie” and convince a greater number of people to contribute. But as we stand, we have to make choices.
I recall a candidate who called for my support and when asked if there is any polling in the race, he answered “I don’t believe in polling.” Polling isn’t the be-all/end-all, but it is a clear indicator that a candidate is doing their homework. A proper poll shows whether a candidate’s message resonates, whether after being fully informed about a candidate’s qualifications, profile and priorities a likely voter is drawn to that candidate. There are “down ticket” races where there really isn’t any polling, but if a statewide, congressional or citywide candidate never produces a poll, it probably means that they don’t have a discernable path to victory.
Absent polling candidate may have the endorsements of influential politicians, or the backing of organized labor or of a super PAC. They may have caught fire on social media and be attracting their strength from small dollar donors and grass roots volunteers. But such support is measurable. Just like an investment, one can make an educated bet on a candidate.
These factors should weigh heavily on our minds as candidates for office in 2020 start approaching us. If we want to analyze whether greater community mobilization could have made a difference, we should analyze important races where we came up just short.
When Zack Space ran for Ohio State Auditor in 2018, he shared his path to victory early and consistently. He released polls showing that he was either slightly ahead or slightly behind. He produced major endorsements and had publicly recognized supporters – like former Attorney General Eric Holder or Senator Sherrod Brown – speak to the community on his behalf.
Nine years ago, we barely missed putting Greek-American Alexi Giannoulias in the US Senate (a narrow 1.6% defeat). The son of Greek-American immigrants who had been very active in the community, Giannoulias had been active on our issues as Illinois State Treasurer, had a clear understanding of Hellenic national issues, had supported other Greek-American candidates, and had Greek-American advisors. Given our common agenda, imagine the difference if we had an active and committed Greek-American as a US Senator teaming with Senators Menendez and Van Hollen, and adding to the Greek-American presence of Representatives Bilirakis, Sarbanes, Titus, Christ, and Pappas. The community was not going to deliver either Giannoulias or Space on their own, but the evaluation of our efforts and priorities should begin focus on these narrow defeats and significant opportunities lost rather than blowouts losses.
The development of standards on how we back candidates is a long overdue. There must be a higher standard of proof of commitment than “my parents or grandparents were Greek.” In trying to establish a power base to protect the interests of Greece, Cyprus and our North American Hellenic communities, we must all acknowledge there are forces and interests working daily to harm the safety and security of both Greece and Cyprus. Past practices that allowed ill-conceived endorsements and alliances and the wasting of vast sums of money must end, too much is now at stake. Our community’s ability to have any type of organized political presence may well depend on the outcome of this discussion.