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Muslim Candidate Defeated in Nevada Democratic Congressional Primary

Jesse Sbaih meeting with his campaign team in his election headquarters. (K. Farabaugh/VOA)

Jesse Sbaih meeting with his campaign team in his election headquarters. (K. Farabaugh/VOA)

On Greg Leduc’s walk into his polling location at Greenspun Junior High School, he still had a decision to make: Who was he going to vote for in Nevada’s 3rd District Democratic Congressional Primary election.

“I didn’t really know a lot about either candidate,” he told VOA soon after he cast his ballot.

But a chance encounter with candidate Jesse Sbaih, who was walking out of the polling location after having cast his own ballot, helped Leduc make up his mind.

“He’s walking out with his family, and I just got a good feeling from seeing him.”

Leduc said he voted for Sbaih, despite knowing little about the candidate, or his positions. It was the personal connection he had with him right before voting that helped seal the deal.

“It’s that simple,” said Leduc. “It was one of those happy accidents.”

Happy accident or not, Sbaih needed the support.

He was the first Democratic candidate to declare for the open congressional seat in Nevada, the state where retiring U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is one of the most popular, and powerful, members of the Democratic party. Reid’s support and endorsement can go a long way in helping a candidate.

Sbaih said he asked to meet with Reid last August to discuss his candidacy. “I was eager to meet with him to discuss the issues about our country,” but instead of talking about policy, Sbaih said the conversation quickly turned to his religion.

“He said, let me be blunt with you. You cannot win this race because you are Muslim,” Sbaih told VOA.

Jesse Sbaih talking to potential voters during the campaign. (K. Farabaugh/VOA)

Jesse Sbaih talking to potential voters during the campaign. (K. Farabaugh/VOA)

Jesse Sbaih is one of the few Muslim Americans running for political office this year, and if elected, he would be the first Arab American Muslim immigrant serving in the U.S. Congress.

He came to the United States from Jordan with his parents when he was 11. “We landed in Chesapeake, Virginia, and I didn’t speak any English. I had to carry a dictionary around with me.”

Sbaih soon grasped the language, became a citizen, and worked his way through law school, then as a clerk for the Nevada Supreme Court, and eventually began his own law firm in Henderson, Nevada, a suburb of Las Vegas, where he currently works as a personal injury lawyer.

His decision to run for Congress, he said, was motivated by a desire to give back to the country that gave him and his family so much. “In fact I feel it’s a duty to give back to our country and to our people.”

Sbaih said his encounter with Reid last August was the first time in his life he felt marginalized because of his religion. He went public about the meeting earlier this year. “What happened in that meeting had to be told so voters know what’s going on in these elections.”

In several media reports after he went public, Senator Reid denied that he made those comments to Sbaih.

“It was not supposed to be an issue in this campaign, but it became an issue,” Sbaih told VOA.

But Sbaih’s faith wasn’t an issue for voter Greg Leduc.

“Now I really, really hope he wins, because as much as it would make Reid wrong, Reid is wrong to say that,” Leduc said.

Jesse Sbaih out on the campaign trail. (K. Farabaugh/VOA)

Jesse Sbaih out on the campaign trail. (K. Farabaugh/VOA)

But few voters seemed to share his optimism.

In the end, first time candidate Jacky Rosen won a decisive victory over Sbaih and the other four candidates in the race. Sbaih, who used much of his own money to fund his campaign, attributed Rosen’s success to the support of Senator Harry Reid and the Nevada Democratic Party, support Sbaih was not able to secure for himself.

“People have to make these decisions, not the establishment, not the elite,” said Sbaih. “People are sick and tired of being told who to vote for. That’s why people have so much apathy towards voting.”

As Sbaih begins the post mortum on his campaign, he said he isn’t sure how much of a factor his religion was for voters in his failed bid for the Congressional seat.

“I think you’ll have a hard time getting people to admit this, that they did not vote for me or someone else because of their religion or ethnic background,” he said. “That’s very unfortunate and it’s not the America that I hope we are.”

Jacky Rosen now moves on to the general election in November, where Democrats hope to claim a seat currently held by Congressman Joe Heck, now the Republican nominee in the U.S. Senate race to replace Democratic Senator Harry Reid later this fall.

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    Kane Farabaugh

    Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.