Biden reelection campaign team travels to Michigan but is shunned by some Arab American leaders

Omar Suleiman
Posted at 6:48 PM, Jan 26, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-26 18:48:05-05

DEARBORN, Mich. (AP) — President Joe Biden's campaign manager traveled to suburban Detroit on Friday, where many Arab Americans are enraged over the administration's Israel policy, and found a number of community leaders unwilling to meet — exposing a growing rift between the White House and key groups often otherwise loyal to Democrats in a critical swing state.

Julie Chavez Rodriguez, head of Biden's reelection campaign, led a group of advisers to the Dearborn area, where some Arab American leaders declined to sit down with them, citing continued anger over the president being too supportive of Israel in its war with Hamas. Other activists went farther, with “Abandon Biden” leaders speaking to hundreds of people at a local mosque Friday in anticipation of the visit.

A meeting between Rodriguez and Arab American and Muslim leaders was canceled after pushback within the community, said Assad I. Turfe, a deputy Wayne County executive, who said he was tasked with coordinating the gathering.

Turfe said he reached out to more than 10 Arab American and Muslim leaders after being contacted by the Biden campaign on Wednesday. The leaders then spoke with community members, Turfe said, who made it clear they did not want them meeting Rodriguez.

“I don’t believe that the Biden administration, at the senior top level, understand how big of a problem this is and how upset and angry the community is,” Turfe said.

Fighting between Israel and Hamas has inflamed tensions between Jews and Muslims around the world but had an especially deep resonance in the Detroit area, which is home to several heavily Jewish suburbs and Dearborn, the city with the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the U.S.

Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud took to X, formerly Twitter, to sarcastically note Rodriguez’s travel while criticizing Biden for urging congressional leaders to quickly approve a $20 billion sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey.

“Little bit of advice — if you’re planning on sending campaign officials to convince the Arab American community on why they should vote for your candidate, don’t do it on the same day you announce selling fighter jets to the tyrants murdering our family members,” Hammoud wrote.

The mayor’s office confirmed that he was invited as part of the group of Arab American leaders but said that he did not accept. Two Democratic state representatives, Alabas Farhat and Abraham Aiyash, were also invited but could not attend.

“It’s unrealistic to expect that political conversations will re-secure our support for the president when only a ceasefire can truly re-open that door,” Farhat said in a statement He added that he was in favor of the meeting being canceled.

Aiyash, the second-ranking Democrat in the Michigan House, said he’s reached out to Biden officials multiple times to discuss the escalating tensions in Michigan’s Arab American community. He has yet to hear from them, even as Chavez Rodriguez comes to the state, he said.

“The conclusion that I’ve drawn from this is they don’t really see this as a legitimate problem. And it’s disturbing at best and at worst, it’s extremely dismissive and disrespectful,” said Aiyash, who is also the highest-ranking Arab or Muslim leader in the state.

The Biden campaign announced this week that deputy White House chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon, his 2020 campaign manager, was moving to his reelection campaign headquarters in Delaware, along with Mike Donilon, a senior adviser who is one of Biden’s longtime and most trusted, longtime political aides. The campaign insists the move isn't part of a broader shakeup and that Rodriguez is still in charge.

A person familiar with Rodriguez’s schedule, who spoke on condition of anonymity to share details that haven’t been made public, said Rodriguez planned to meet with other Arab American leaders on Friday evening — meaning that the gathering others suggested was canceled was actually going forward.

The person also said that Rodriguez held multiple meetings across Detroit and Dearborn that have been in the works for weeks. They included talking with local elected officials and leaders from the state’s Arab and Palestinian American, Hispanic and Black communities, the person said.

The trip was part of the campaign’s and the Biden administration’s ongoing dialogue with core constituency groups. Senior Biden campaign staffers have had similar meetings and roundtable discussions with such groups across the country and in key swing states beginning last fall, the person said.

Still, political tensions are running higher in Michigan than many other places — and the chilly reception some leaders offered Rodriguez and her team in Dearborn suggests a growing political headache for Biden in a key state.

“People in the community, like community leaders, don’t want to meet with Mr. Biden,” said Dawud Walid, the executive director of Michigan’s chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “I don’t know who he’s planning on meeting with, but the major organizations are not interested in meeting with him.”

Meanwhile, hundreds gathered at the Islamic Center of Detroit for a prayer service led by prominent civil rights activist Imam Omar Suleiman. After the service, leaders within the “Abandon Biden” movement spoke to the crowd.

“(Biden) has lost the Muslim and Arab vote. Every poll indicates that. And if you were to speak to any person in this mosque, you would hear the exact same thing,” Suleiman told The Associated Press.

Imad Hamad, the director of the American Human Rights Council in Dearborn, said that many community leaders didn’t want to meet with the Biden campaign unless they were going to discuss “practical steps that give the community a reason to reconsider.”

Hamad added that many in the community felt that Friday’s visit was more about political optics than achieving real understanding of activists concerns because “none of the people who have been the most vocal were approached or invited” to meet with Rodriguez and her team.


Weissert reported from Washington.