NEW YORK – Congressman Gus Bilirakis repeatedly expressed his appreciation to the more than a dozen people who recently turned out on a dark and stormy night for a recent fundraiser to benefit his re-election campaign, but he also emphasized the importance of community support for his two fellow Greek-Americans in Congress, Dina Titus and John Sarbanes, Philhellenes like Nikki Tsongas, and the need to elect more.
“You have to have somebody fighting the fight up there in Washington,” Bilirakis said – he reminded that when his father Michael Bilirakis was in Congress he was one of six Hellenes on the Hill.
“Hopefully there will soon be more,” and turning to former New York State Assemblyman Matthew Mirones, one of the event’s organizers along with, Phillip Christopher, Nicholas Karacostas, George Horiates, and Jimmy Kokotas, he said “hopefully Matthew will be joining us.”
Kokotas is the owner of Tom’s restaurant in Brooklyn’s historic Coney Island – there is another Tom’s in Fort Greene. He welcomed and thanked the guests and told them Bilirakis was there to discuss matters of importance to the community – Greece, Cyprus, the Ecumenical Patriarchate – and any other issues of interest, including American politics.
Naturally with the Congressional pot boiling over it, the race for Speaker of the House was discussed – a number of guests urged Bilirakis to go for it.
Fundraisers like the one at Tom’s which are attended by people representing many parts of the community – all donations, large and small are appreciated as expressions of support and civic responsibility – also perform a Town Hall function, allowing citizens to be informed and pose questions to elected officials.
The Coney Island gathering involved preaching to the choir, but it is important for community leaders to rally the troops – and thank them – periodically.
Referring to the Greek crisis and the Cyprus talks which have taken on a greater urgency of late, he said “We need people who feel it in their heart and makes it a priority because these things are so very important to us, especially Ellada’s situation right now.”
Bilirakis and his Greek and Philhellene colleagues are on top of it. “We just held the Stand With Greece Policy Summit,” whose purpose was to generate ideas about how the U.S. can help Greece. He hosted with Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who is his co-chair in Congress’ Hellenic Caucus. Bilirakis also founded the Hellenic Israel Alliance.
The latter reflects the growing importance of Greece-Cyprus-Israel relations and Bilirakis encourages the community’s organizations to reach out to Jewish-American groups, from whom they can also learn how to be more effective.
“The members of Congress need to know how important Ellada and Kypro is to America’s geopolitical interests now more than ever so that they can help us, he said.
“We have a lot of influence” and noted that Hellas’ achievements through the ages makes Greeks admired by his Congressional colleagues, adding “They love us…but they must know that this is serious business…They have to help Greece, and like groups like AIPAC,” the Jewish-American lobbying group, “we have to hold their feet to the fire,” if they want the community’s support.
He also noted that there is now a great opportunity because Washington has finally realized Turkey is a terrible ally. “Even John McCain figured that out after all these years.”
Bilirakis explained his personal motivation.
“This is a duty and obligation for me to help Ellada, Kypro, and our Patriarchio…I grew up like you. I am second-generation Greek” – his father was born in Tarpon Springs, like him – “but I feel that in my heart “eimai elllinas – I am Greek” and he is also proud of his roots in Kalymnos, from where his great-grandparents came in 1905.
“I was raised with it but you have to love it to pass it on to your children,” he said, then he called upon the guests and Hellenes across the country to “Help me build the Hellenic Caucus” by urging their congressmen to join it.
Individuals and groups can help by reaching out to them, just like he does.
He told the group that he is looking forward to lunch with a potential new Caucus member to talk to him and educate him on the issues.
Among the recent victories that are the fruits of such efforts is legislative progress in ending the obsolete and unjust embargo on selling arms to Cyprus. He noted the valuable support of groups like the Hellenic American Leadership Council, AHEPA, AHI, and Coordinated Effort of Hellenes.
Bilirakis doesn’t only express his passion at special events. His home is a vital venue for keeping the fore of Hellenism burning.
He asked his son Michael what he wanted as a gift when he graduates from Georgetown University next May. “I want to go to Greece and spend a month in Kalymnos” he said.
Bilirakis, with deep pride, then shared a conversation he had with his youngest son about the oppression Greeks suffered under Turkish rule. “Dad,” he responded, “I’m not for wars, and I’m an American, but religious freedom is worth fighting for,” and then he stood up and told him “Greece needs us now more than ever, and I’m ready to go if I’m needed.”