Biden reelection campaign team gets shunned by some Arab American leaders while visiting Michigan

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Imam Omar Suleiman speaks at the Islamic Center of Detroit in Detroit, Friday, Jan. 26, 2024. President Joe Biden's campaign manager has traveled to Michigan, where many Arab American leaders are enraged over the administration's policy toward Israel, and found some top activists unwilling to meet. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

DEARBORN, Mich. – 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 with her — exposing a growing rift between the White House and key groups often otherwise loyal to Democrats in a critical swing state.

Julie Chavez Rodriguez led a group of campaign advisers to the Dearborn area, as part of her ongoing effort to meet with core supporter groups around the country.

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She spoke throughout the day with some Arab American community leaders. But Rodriguez's trip ended when a late afternoon meeting with Arab American leaders was canceled after everyone invited — between 10 and 15 people — declined to show up.

Other activists went beyond simply not showing up for Rodriguez, as leaders from “Abandon Biden,” a movement discouraging voters from supporting the president in November, spoke to hundreds of people at a local mosque in anticipation of the campaign manager’s visit.

Both developments highlight the acute challenges the president's campaign faces as it tries to sure up support among Arab Americans, whose votes will be key in Michigan during November's election but who have turned on Biden given his full-throated support for Israel in its war with Hamas.

Community leaders said that Rodriguez originally came to Michigan planning a larger meeting with Arab Americans but settled for the series of smaller gatherings, including the one where no invitees ultimately showed up, because of pushback to the original plan. Assad I. Turfe, a deputy Wayne County executive, said he was tasked with coordinating the original meeting, but that it was abandoned due to lack of interest.

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, understands 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 it has had especially deep resonance in the Detroit area, which is home to several heavily Jewish suburbs and to Dearborn, the city with the country's largest concentration of Arab Americans.

Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud took to X, formerly Twitter, to sarcastically note Rodriguez’s trip while criticizing Biden for urging congressional approval of 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 to meet with Rodriguez but didn't accept. Two Democratic state representatives, Alabas Farhat and Abraham Aiyash, were also invited but unable to attend.

“It’s unrealistic to expect that political conversations will resecure our support for the president when only a ceasefire can truly reopen that door,” Farhat said in a statement, referring to calls for halting the fighting in Gaza.

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 his state's Arab American community. He said he'd yet to hear from them, even as Chavez Rodriguez visited.

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

A person familiar with Rodriguez’s schedule, who spoke on condition of anonymity to share details that weren't made public, said the campaign manager held multiple meetings across suburban Detroit that have been in the works for weeks. They included talking with elected officials and leaders from the state’s Arab and Palestinian American, Hispanic and Black communities.

Osama Siblani, publisher of the Arab American News, met with Rodriguez at the paper’s Dearborn headquarters for an hour and a half and said it went “very well.”

While Siblani said he received pressure to cancel the meeting, he felt it was important because Rodriguez made the effort to come to the community and listen.

“She was very attentive, and she was listening. We looked each other in the eye and I told her exactly what’s going on,” Siblani said. “And she said she would take it to the president.”

Still, the separate, larger meeting scheduled for late afternoon on Friday with Arab Americans saw everyone invited cancel, the person familiar with Rodriguez's schedule said.

Her trip was part of the Biden reelection campaign’s — and the administration’s — continuing 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 since last fall, the person said.

But political tensions are running higher in Michigan than many other places — and the chilly reception Rodriguez received from many 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.

Imad Hamad, director of the American Human Rights Council in Dearborn, said that many community leaders were reluctant to meet with the Biden campaign unless it was 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.

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

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


Weissert reported from Washington.

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