Why you should care
The amiable delegate is a canary in the coal mine for Republicans: Can the party adapt to America’s changing demographics?
Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
David Ramadan is a second-term representative to the Virginia House of Delegates. He was born and raised in Lebanon. His mother is Muslim, his father was baptised Christian, his wife is Methodist and his most enthusiastic constituency appears to be Hindus.
His own affiliation? Republican.
Ramadan is Exhibit A in the conservative quest to make the Grand Old Party more welcoming to non-whites. It’s a hard sell these days, what with Republican antagonism toward little Latinos at the border, the lily-white faces at tea party rallies, the “birthers” who refuse to die. Right or wrong, the rub on Republicans is that they’re xenophobic and even racist at the fringes — especially when it comes to Arab-Americans like Ramadan.
“I vehemently disagree with that statement,” says Ramadan, over the phone. “The Republican Party is very well known for being the big tent. This is the party of Lincoln!”
Unlike other “ethnic” Republicans, who go to lengths to appear as white as possible, Ramadan makes his ethnicity sound fun, even a bit hedonic.
Maybe not lately, he concedes. In 1992, just 31 percent of Asian-Americans voted for the Democratic presidential candidate, Bill Clinton. Twenty years later, 76 percent of them did, this time for Barack Obama. George W. Bush managed 44 percent of the Hispanic vote; Mitt Romney, a paltry 27 percent.
According to Ramadan, decline in minority support is partly a matter of Bush’s “foreign policy wars” and partly because Republicans haven’t done enough to keep minorities “in the fold.” It’s a lost opportunity, he says, because immigrants and Republicans have a natural affinity.
“Most immigrant and minority groups are people of faith, whether they’re Christian, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikh,” Ramadan says. “Most come to leave the old country for less government and less government intervention. That’s a Republican creed. They’re for more liberties and more capability of having a better future for their kids. Again — a Republican creed. You’ll find most minorities are more aligned in their outlook with the Republicans.”
Maybe that’s true in northern Virginia, where Ramadan is part of a much-watched effort to make the Republican Party multicolored. The region is affluent, professional and ethnically diverse: Indians, Koreans, Hispanics, etc. Between 30 and 40 percent of the people in the counties Ramadan represents, Loudoun and Prince William, are not white, according to a Washington Post analysis. Demographically, Ramadan’s constituency portends America’s future. By 2050, whites are expected to be an ethnic minority.
Ramadan’s constituents voted for Obama — twice. And for him — twice. He thinks of himself as a Reagan Republican: limited government, low taxes, and libertarian-ish. One signature effort is an investigation into road toll increases. At times, though, he skews red-meat, cultural conservative. He has co-sponsored bills to repeal purchase limits on handguns and authorize Sunday hunting, declares himself “100 percent pro-life,” and co-founded the Redskins Pride Caucus. It’s a bipartisan Virginia coalition that aims to save the “Redskins” football team name.
Perhaps the key to this conservative’s success is what we’ll call ethnoreligious promiscuity. He and his wife, Christie, go to a couple of community churches, but he claims no particular religious affiliation. He also frequents the ADAMS Center mosque, in Sterling, Virginia. And the Rajdhani Mandir, the big Hindu temple in Chantilly, Viriginia. The night before his 2013 re-election, the pandit at Rajdhani temple called him up at 11 p.m. “He said, ‘I want you here now.’ I told him I had to be at the polls at 5 a.m. He said, ‘I want you here now.’” When Ramadan arrived, “There were a bunch of them there, all waiting for me. We all prayed together, did an offering. I got my red dot on my forehead, and my blessed bananas.”
As former House Majority Leader Dick Armey put it, ‘You can’t call someone ugly and expect them to go to the prom with you.’
Ramadan looks solid, like he’s been fed by every auntie in Loudoun County. With his sweep of dark hair, salted goatee and business suit, Ramadan could pass for Pakistani, Turkish, Iranian, maybe Greek or even white. But unlike other “ethnic” Republicans, who seem to go to lengths to appear as white as possible, Ramadan has gone the other way. He makes it sound fun, not forced, even a bit hedonic.
Ramadan attended an American prep school in Beirut. He was 13 when a suicide bomber blew up the American Embassy there. He read the Constitution and “fell in love with American ideas and American dream,” he says. When he left for college, at George Mason University in Washington, D.C., his family was supportive. It was 1989. He graduated, became a businessman — he holds the license for the women’s gym Curves in India and the Middle East — and consultant.
Ramadan also brought everyone over: his four brothers, one by one, and then his parents. They live nearby, and every Saturday night, they convene at his parents’ place. About half the clan practices Islam, he says — his mom covers herself — and the other half doesn’t. One cousin is married to a Jew. A soon-to-be niece is Indian.
These are the sort of family values the Republicans will need if they’re to survive, according to the Republican National Committee’s post-mortem on the 2012 elections. “If we want ethnic minority voters to support Republicans, we have to engage them, and show our sincerity,” the report said. Or, as former House Majority Leader Dick Armey put it, “You can’t call someone ugly and expect them to go to the prom with you.” Even ideologically aligned whites don’t want to support a party that seems hostile to non-whites, the report said.
Ramadan won in 2013 by 187 votes, a real squeaker, but: “I tripled my margin!” he says. (He won by 51 votes in 2011.) “My district went for Obama twice — and I am a conservative who holds the district and defends it.”
For now, he has no aspirations for a higher office. “What could be higher than serving in Jefferson House — a dysfunctional Congress?” he asks, laughing.