Wednesday, October 29, 2003

The state Senate race in Virginia’s heavily Democratic 31st District pits that party’s caucus chairman against a Republican immigration lawyer who recently achieved notoriety for sticking up for an accused financier of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Republican nominee Kamal M. Nawash, who hopes to become the first Muslim member of the General Assembly, is a senior partner with the law firm representing Abdul Rahman al-Amoudi. Mr. al-Amoudi was arraigned yesterday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria on charges of smuggling cash from Libya into the United States to fund terrorists.

Mr. al-Amoudi also is a chief architect of the Pentagon’s Muslim cleric-training program who selected for service Army Capt. James Yee, a suspected al Qaeda spy currently detained in a military brig.

Political handicappers and even the Virginia Republican Party say the high-profile case has done little to better the odds of Mr. Nawash’s long-shot challenge against Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple, a Democrat first elected in 1996 and chairwoman of the Senate Democratic Caucus since 1999. Elections will be held Tuesday.

“This is a very Democratic district and it would be surprising if it changed and voted for a Republican nominee,” said Mrs. Whipple, a Presbyterian originally from Watseka, Ill. But she credited Mr. Nawash with campaigning aggressively and raising a significant amount of money.

Mr. Nawash has raised $116,067 to Mrs. Whipple’s $70,637, according to the Virginia State Board of Elections.

Mr. Nawash said Mr. al-Amoudi donated $10,000 to his campaign.

Mr. Nawash returned Mr. al-Amoudi’s donation. President Bush and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, returned similar donations, though critics say Mr. Nawash was in a better position to recognize the source of the funds when first accepting them.

Despite Mr. Nawash’s lead in fund raising, Virginia Republican Party spokesman Shawn M. Smith said, “This is certainly going to be an uphill battle.”

Mr. Nawash, 33, remains confident that he has been underrated and that Mrs. Whipple is vulnerable among new voters in the redrawn 31st District, which includes Arlington, Falls Church and parts of Fairfax County.

Mr. Nawash has said he has been erroneously identified by some media outlets as Mr. al-Amoudi’s attorney. Mr. al-Amoudi’s defense team is led by New York City lawyer Stanley L. Cohen. But, one member of that defense team is May Kheder, who is a partner with Mr. Nawash’s Falls Church-based law firm of Hanania, Kheder & Nawash.

Mr. Nawash blamed Mrs. Whipple’s campaign for spreading the false information and exploiting his loose connection to Mr. al-Amoudi to incite anti-Muslim sentiment among voters.

“She is a mean-spirited racist,” said Mr. Nawash, who was 6 when his family moved to the United States as refugees from Bethlehem. “The reason she focuses on this … is because she wants to draw innuendo and say, ‘Look at this guy. He is a Muslim and he has ties over here to terrorists.’”

Mrs. Whipple, 63, said neither she nor anyone in her campaign had made Mr. al-Amoudi a campaign issue. “I have not done anything of the sort,” she said. “I have not criticized Mr. Nawash for the sources of his funds.”

In response to being called a racist, Mrs. Whipple said, “I have a strong record in the areas of human rights and civil rights.” She noted that, as a member of the Arlington County Board, she helped found the county’s Human Rights Commission.

“I always run a positive campaign,” she said. “I have a record of eight years in the Senate to run on.”

Among the legislative accomplishments Mrs. Whipple cites is the passage of the Virginia Non-Tidal Wetlands Protection Act that protects about 500,000 acres of land. Her campaign Web site touts her experience as being vital to fixing traffic gridlock, ailing schools and the state’s outdated tax code.

Mr. Nawash’s campaign has focused almost exclusively on solving traffic and school problems, which have long been chief concerns among voters in Northern Virginia.

“I just focus on these two issues, and I think I’m going to beat her,” Mr. Nawash said. “She has been in office for eight years, she has been on the transportation committee, and she has done nothing to solve the traffic problem.”

He said Mrs. Whipple supports eliminating the $10,000 income-tax deduction for senior citizens and imposing taxes on Internet commerce and professional services, such as medical and legal work. “She is focusing on taxes,” Mr. Nawash said. “You name it, she wants to tax it.”

He proposes expanding the Metro system throughout the populous suburbs of Northern Virginia and paying for it with a 10-cent cigarette-tax increase and federal and state funds. For schools, he proposes recruiting retirees to volunteer as teacher’s aides and tutors. He also wants to keep schools open until 7 p.m. with programs to serve “latchkey” children.

Mrs. Whipple said her rival has offered extremely expensive plans but no way to pay for them. “Being an experienced legislator, I try not to make promises which I cannot deliver,” she said.

As for the al-Amoudi case, Mr. Nawash said he was not in any way affiliated with the suspect’s defense team. However, he said he has commented publicly on the case as a legal expert and identified himself as someone who knows Mr. al-Amoudi.

He said he was incorrectly identified as Mr. al-Amoudi’s attorney by the Internet magazine Islam Online and other media outlets repeated the mistake. “Maybe I jumped in this to get some media attention out of it,” said Mr. Nawash. “Maybe this backfired.”

Still, Mr. Nawash defends Mr. al-Amoudi, and stands by comments he has made about the case. “I certainly don’t believe he does have any links [to terrorism],” he said. “It is just inconsistent with everything I have heard about him. I just don’t buy it.”

Mr. al-Amoudi, who was carrying $340,000 in cash when arrested in London, was attempting to smuggle the money to terrorist organizations including al Qaeda, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, according to a federal affidavit.

Mr. Nawash said that he has always been a strong opponent of terrorist groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

“Any organization out there, no matter what their cause is, that condone the use of violence to effect change is unacceptable and must be eliminated,” he said. “These organizations should not be allowed to exist. Period.”

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