“Let me blunt: You are not going to be able to win this race because you’re Muslim.”
Sounds like something Donald Trump or Ted Cruz might say. (Although even Cruz might be subtler.) But it wasn’t. These words were uttered by Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, one of leaders of the Democratic Party, to Jesse Sbaih, a Muslim-American Democrat seeking to run for Congress in Reid’s home state of Nevada.
Sbaih (pronounced suh-BAY), a trial attorney who was born in Jordan and came to America with his family when he was 11 years old in search of a better life, explained on my SiriusXM radio show that he was stunned by Reid’s comments. “It sounds like something a Republican would say, not a Democrat,” Sbaih, who lives in Henderson, told Reid at the time. But Reid would have none of it. And from that meeting on Reid, through his offices, began to pressure Sbaih to drop out of the race in Nevada’s third congressional district so that Reid could hand-pick a candidate he approved of.
The fateful meeting between Reid and Sbaih took place on Aug. 25, 2015, at the Paris Casino and Hotel in Las Vegas. Apparently political meetings typically take place in Nevada in casinos, although to me it conjures up images of The Godfather Part II. But this meeting was not the first time Sbaih was told by Reid’s people that his ethnicity or religion would make it impossible for him to win. Reid’s right-hand person, Rebecca Lambe, had met with Sbaih weeks before and delivered the same message. “In response, I asked Rebecca to let me make my case to Senator Reid, which she did by setting up the meeting at the casino,” Sbaih explained.
While the 40-year-old Sbaih never sought elected office before, he has been involved in the community and is one of Bernie Sanders’s biggest supporters in Nevada. In fact he paid for radio commercials out of his own pocket to support Sanders and registered thousands of Sanders supporters to vote before Nevada’s caucus in February. Plus Sbaih’s platform makes him sound like a Muslim Bernie Sanders.
Sbaih, if elected, would be the first Muslim ever in Congress of Arab heritage. The two current members of Congress who are Muslim, Reps. Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Andre Carson (D-IN), are African-American.
But just so it’s clear, no one is inferring that Reid or Lambe are anti-Muslim bigots or motivated by a hatred of Muslims or Arabs. But the famous words of George W. Bush do seem to fit perfectly here: “The soft bigotry of low expectations.” This is when people, who might even be well-intentioned, tell you that because of your race, ethnicity, or religion you will not or cannot succeed. It’s not hateful, but it’s still harmful.
“As I told Senator Reid at that meeting, the people of America have embraced myself and my family,” Sbaih stated. “I believe in the goodness of the American people and I especially don’t believe my fellow Democrats would be biased against a person based on religion, ethnicity, or skin color.”
Weeks after the meeting with Reid, Sbaih was again contacted by Lambe and informed that if he dropped out of the race for Congress, Reid would ensure that Sbaih could have the Democratic nomination for a state assembly race and a likely appointment to another unnamed position. However, the assembly district is in a Republican stronghold and is essentially unwinnable for a Democrat. They were simply trying to buy Sbaih off with empty promises.
Sbaih, not wanting to piss off the most powerful Democrat in Nevada, said he would think about it. And then the pressure began. The campaign consultant Sbaih had hired (who had been suggested months before by a former Reid staffer) told Sbaih that if he didn’t drop out and run for assembly, he had to quit.
Sbaih mulled over Reid’s offer but decided to stand up for what he thought was right. The result was that his campaign consultant did in fact quit as threatened. “I understood, the man had a family to feed,” commented Sbaih. So Sbaih had to start from scratch. Sbaih found it very challenging to build a campaign staff because many feared to work with him after Reid had put out the word he was opposing Sbaih.
Yet Sbaih has seen some success. Per the last Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings in mid-January, he has raised nearly $500,000. On top of that, he tells me, he has raised over $200,000 more since then.
But still Reid pressed on with his plan to stop Sbaih. In January, Reid chose Jacky Rosen, a political newcomer with no experience as an elected official, to challenge Sbaih. “This is ironic because in addition to the Muslim issue, Reid told me that he wouldn’t support me because I had no experience as an elected official, but now he’s supporting a person who also lacks that experience.” And while Sbaih has been able to raise substantial campaign funds, Rosen’s last FEC filing in late January revealed that she had not even raised one dollar for her campaign.
It then got even worse for Sbaih. “I had recently hired a fundraiser in Washington, D.C., to help me secure meetings with groups there that might want to support my campaign, such as unions,” Sbaih noted. These meetings were scheduled for the week of March 21. But then something happened: The meetings were all suddenly canceled.
“We were told that these groups had cancelled their meetings because they had received a call from Harry Reid’s office instructing them to do so,” Sbaih explained. It appears that despite Reid retiring from the Senate at the end of this year, he still wants to control Democratic politics in Nevada.
After this latest tactic by Reid, Sbaih finally went public with the story this week. I reached out to Reid’s office for comment but they didn’t return my call. But earlier this week they did issue a statement denying the allegations and also calling Sbaih a liar: “Jesse Sbaih is using Senator Reid’s name to seek his 15 minutes of fame but that doesn’t mean he is telling the truth.”
Despite Reid’s best efforts, Sbaih is staying focused on making a difference on key issues such as addressing income inequality, the high cost of college, and helping the thousands living below the poverty line in his state. “My passion is giving back to America, a nation that has given so much to my family and I,” Sbaih commented.
The question is, can Sbaih’s good intentions defeat Reid’s political machine?