Valley Iraqis are Thomas boosters - East Valley Tribune: News

Valley Iraqis are Thomas boosters

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Posted: Sunday, February 24, 2008 7:25 pm | Updated: 11:57 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

One of the biggest sources of cash for Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas' campaign has come from a group of donors almost unheard of in Arizona politics.

On May, 8, a group of Iraqi-born Christians that included doctors, lawyers, real estate agents, liquor store owners, students and gas station attendants contributed more than $15,000 to Thomas' re-election campaign.

The take on that day alone amounted to about one-fifth of the $80,000 Thomas raised between Nov. 28, 2006 and Dec. 31, 2007, according to campaign finance reports filed with the county.

The records also show that a majority of the 80 donations came in $100 and $200 checks - far under the legal contribution limit of $390 for individuals. That means this group of nearly unknown political players could still raise thousands more for Thomas should he need it in a pinch.

And with a pair of strong Democratic candidates, which includes a former top aide to Gov. Janet Napolitano, expected in the upcoming county attorney election race, he could be in for an expensive fight.

All totaled, Thomas has raked in more than $200,000 since taking office in 2005, more than any other candidate for the county attorney's office in history at this point in the election cycle.

"We have that common foundation in faith," said Thomas in explaining his connection with the group of Iraqi Christians. Many who attended the event belong to the Chaldean Catholic Church in Scottsdale. Thomas, also Catholic, said he was introduced to the Iraqi community by a deputy attorney in his office who also organized the event. Thomas would not reveal the name of the attorney, but said she had long ties with members of the Chaldean Church.

Before the fundraiser, Thomas said he hadn't formerly met with church members or the tiny Iraqi community living in the Valley. But since then, he said he has enjoyed a growing relationship with them.

Nearly a month after the May 8 fundraiser, Thomas spoke at a rally in downtown Phoenix calling for the U.S. government and humanitarian organizations to stop thepersecution of Christians in Iraq.

Beside churchgoers, several employees from Thomas' office also contributed at the event, including deputy county attorneys, a paralegal and a member of the communication staff.

Some of the 80 people attendingdeclined to speak or did not return phone callst. But the few who did talk about their contributions, said they did so because fellow churchgoers asked them to - not because they felt a deep desire to support Thomas.

"What was he running for, again?" asked Silvia Mihilli, listed as donating $390 to Thomas, the most an individual can contribute under current campaign finance laws. "I don't know. Sometimes people ask us to give and we do." Mihilli's husband, George, also contributed $390, according to records.

Others who went to the fundraiser said they remembered very little. Frank Delly, who owns a liquor store in Scottsdale, said he went because his friends asked him, too. "I just wanted to hang out with my buddies," said Delly.

However, Mazin Sukkar, who owns an electrical company in Chandler, said he supports Thomas because he's tough on criminals.

Most of the Scottsdale church members come from Iraq, where they make up a small minority in a country dominated by Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Historically, the group has lived under the threat of violence in its native country. Since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, members of the community have been fleeing Iraq in growing numbers.

According to published reports, Christians currently make up about 5 percent of Iraq's population, yet account for roughly 40 percent of allthe refugees exiting the country.

Joseph Kassab, director of the Detroit-based Chaldean Foundation, said there are about 400,000 to 500,000 Iraqi-Christian immigrants living in the United States. Most reside in Detroit, San Diego, Chicago, Las Vegas and Scotts-dale.

Politically, Kassab said most of the organization's efforts have focused on Washington, D.C., where they have been pressing Congress to allow more Christians from Iraq to enter the country.

Shortly after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, the U.S. government instituted a ban on all Iraqis wanting to come here. The ban was lifted last year.

While Iraqi-Christians have been coming to the country and Valley for decades, most political consultants who host fundraisers said they have been almost invisible as a political donor class.

A review of national and state political contribution databases by the Tribune showed only a handful of those who donated to Thomas had given to other candidates. Some of those candidates included Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., as well as former presidential candidate Ralph Nader. But nowhere did they donate in such numbers as they did in May for Thomas.

"Since their names are showing up on campaign finance reports, now, you can bet they'll be getting calls from other politicians asking for money," said Stan Barnes, a GOP political consultant.

Barnes, no stranger to raising cash for campaigns, said he was completely unaware Iraqis were actively donating to political campaigns. The art of raising money, said Barnes, centers on targeting people likely to give and not wasting time by trying to court unpromising donors.

But with a new group of donors that have not reached the contribution limits, Thomas could have a much needed reserve of cash available to him as the campaign moves along. While there are no announced challengers to him in the GOP primary, he could need it in the general election.

Although it has been two decades since a Democrat has held a Maricopa County office, the party is optimistic about its chances to score an upset victory in the county attorney's race in November.

Gerald Richard, director of the legal support division for the Phoenix Police Department and Tim Nelson, who served as general legal counsel for Napolitano, are competing for the Democratic nomination.

Using the governor's political connections, Nelson should have his own donors lining up.

Thomas said he wasn't prepared to discuss the upcoming campaign - only that he would have some announcements coming soon.

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