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Over 200 Attend Lively
Iranian-American Obama Event

By Hamid Karimi
Photos by Arrash Jaffarzadeh

Sunday, September 7th, Sunnyvale, CA - Bay Area Iranian-American Democrats (BAIAD) held a special public event featuring Steve Westly, the former candidate for California governor and California co-chair of Obama’s campaign as the keynote speaker. The eloquent MC, Lily Sarafan, started the event by welcoming everyone and introducing the agenda for the evening which included a roster of speakers and grassroots community organizers.

The first speaker was Ira Ruskin, the California assemblyman from the 21st district who has led key efforts on environmental issues. Ira commended the Iranian-American community for taking the lead in becoming one of the fastest growing politically active ethnic groups in America; according to him it took other immigrant minorities many generations to realize the value of activism and civic participation. Ira also shared his experience of living in Iran right before the revolution of 1979 when he witnessed a society ready to erupt. He shared two great hopes with the crowd, first to see Obama become president and second for Iran to return to its main threads as a great culture and civilization.

The second speaker was Jamie McLeod, a member of Santa Clara city council who is running for re-election this November. Jamie’s self-described political philosophy focuses on fostering open governance, safeguarding communities and protecting natural resources. Jamie noted that our strength comes from a common belief in democracy and not shared bloodline. That is why organizations such as BAIAD are critical to the construct of a civil society. She denounced war as an instrument of policy by saying “in a war it is the civilians that ultimately suffer and not the politicians; Barack Obama understands that distinction.”

The third speaker was Teresa Cox, the chair of economic development in the city of Fremont who is running for the Ohlone’s College Board seat. Ms. Cox has the distinction of being the first female African-American with the nuclear engineering degree in the United States. She has worked on establishing global colleges in strategic locations such as Shanghai, China. In her opinion the Iranian-American community can use that example and extend the reach of global higher education system to people of Iran.

Mike Honda was unable to attend in person but sent a letter strongly supporting grassroots efforts of BAIAD and wished that Iranian-Americans would become more active in political affairs.

At half point, a 3-minute video clip that was shown at the recent GOP convention was broadcasted. In the video, there was a blatantly false claim linking Iran to Al-Qaeda and the events of September 11, 2001. Recognizable political figures such as Henry Kissinger were shown at the end of this clip expressing approval by a standing ovation while the crowd chanted "USA, USA."

Following the video clip, Mariam Ghazvini of BAIAD’s board of directors took to the podium and engaged the crowd. She shared a few key statistics reflecting of Iranian-Americans’ achievements as well as political apathy: More than 25% of Iranian-Americans have a Masters or PHD degree which is the highest among 67 surveyed ethnic groups; they earn 20% more than the national average; they also occupy more than 50 senior leadership positions at Fortune 500 companies and yet this is totally unmatched by this community’s political underrepresentation due to widespread apathy and callous indifference. According to MIT’s Iranian Studies Group (ISG), in many metropolitan areas, less than 10% of Iranian-Americans voted in the 2004 presidential elections. Building on these statistics, Mariam invited the crowd to become active participants in the political process and reminded them that in the Bay Area alone, there are 10,000 registered Iranian-American democrats whereas the number of paid members at BAIAD is under 50. In the end, Ms. Ghazvini closed her speech by quoting Abraham Lincoln: “Lets have faith that right makes might; and in that faith let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”

Steve Westly took to the stand as the keynote speaker next and shared history of his involvement with the Democratic Party; about 30 years ago, Steve became California’s youngest Democratic officer. He made his personal fortune working with Pierre Omidyar of eBay and has recognized the value of working with bright Iranian-Americans. Steve passionately laid out the roadmap for the growth of Democratic Party and stated that organizations like BAIAD are the key for such growth by opening a new chapter in American political playbook. Steve acknowledged the achievements of Iranian-Americans as the cause for envy and suggested that America’s greatness is precisely because of her embrace of productive, progressive immigrants. He went on to explain the differences between the two leading parties vis-à-vis policies towards Iran: “while Bush says that Iran is a part of axis of evil due to disagreements with the leaders of that country, Obama advocates active diplomacy.” To underline the stark philosophical differences between Democrats and Republicans, he used John Kennedy’ famous quote, “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” John McCain exemplifies the darkest contrast compared to Obama by saber rattling and adopting the most bellicose postures and case in point is the recent crisis involving Russia’s conflict with Georgia.

Mr. Westly articulated the reasons for his support of Barack Obama in some detail. According to him, Obama represents a higher order of what this nation can offer by appealing to large masses that have historically been disenfranchised -- a phenomenon that has not happened for at least 25 years. Steve described three distinct areas of policy differences, first Obama unequivocally condemned the Iraqi war from the start, second he unabashedly supports the rights of women and minorities and third he is determined to end America’s addiction to fossil fuels. In contrast, Republicans represent the interests of oil, gas and coal companies and as we all know, the coal industry was a major sponsor of the Republican convention this year. There are several counties in California alone that are turning “blue” simply because of Obama’s outreach to these communities and their angst in the face of dire political and economic pictures. He then invited the audience to use this opportunity and widen the gap against McCain and the Republican Party through volunteerism and financial support.

Steve Preminger, chair of Santa Clara County Democratic Party was the last speaker of the evening. Since the inception of BAIAD in 2004, Steve has been an avid supporter of the organization and has helped it become a charter member of Democratic Party. Mr. Preminger expressed his gratitude to BAIAD for educating the county and state Democratic Parties on issues related to Iran and expressed that "a club is only as strong as its individual members and collective numbers."

During the Q&A session, the audience had a chance to ask candid questions of Steve Westly and Steve Preminger. In response to a question about Obama’s Iran speech at the AIPAC gathering the day after he became the presumptive nominee, Steve Westly compared and contrasted the views of both parties and described Obama’s language as a lot less hostile than McCain’s “bomb Iran” comment. Furthermore he invited Iranian-Americans to emulate the success story of AIPAC and build relationships with key politicians. In Obama’s recent visit to the Bay Area, Indian Americans who are a smaller group than Iranian-Americans in California were the biggest fundraisers. It is important for the minority groups to have their voices heard because unlike the Republican bunch, Obama gets it; he has lived abroad and understands the international community. In a democracy, there is no concept of them but us; any other view equates abdication of responsibility as citizens.

In response to the hypothetical possibility of Iran as a nuclear weapon state, Steve Westly supported Obama’s contention that active diplomacy is the only answer even if more states eventually follow that route.

In the end, Steve Westly reminded the crowd that what they needed was building a movement not a club. Only Obama can put an end to encroaching and intrusive legislations like the Patriot Act; Obama has created such excitement that 2 million new democratic voters have been registered in this election cycle and 3 million pairs of feet on the street are spreading the word and creating momentum. Democrats are also out-raising Republicans and given all these factors, it will be difficult not to imagine president Obama.

About Steve Westly:
Wikipedia page on Steve Westly

Steve Westly is CEO of The Westly Group, a venture advisory firm which helps entrepreneurs build the clean technology companies of the future. He currently sits on the boards of the electric car company Tesla and the biofuels company Altra, while consulting for a variety of startups.

Before launching his firm, Mr. Westly was California State Controller and the chief financial officer of the world’s sixth largest economy. As Controller, Westly spearheaded innovative tax programs to help close the State’s budget deficit and led the effort to commit more than $1 billion to clean technology investments. Westly ran for Governor in the 2006 Democratic Primary and was narrowly defeated.

Westly began his career in government in Washington DC, where he worked on Capitol Hill and in Jimmy Carter’s Department of Energy in the Office of Conservation and Solar. He returned to California where he worked at the Public Utilities Commission and for the city of San Jose. Westly was Vice Chair of the California Democratic Party and served four terms as a member of the Democratic National Committee.

In the private sector, Westly guided the online auction company eBay through its period of most rapid growth, working as a senior vice president of marketing, business development, mergers and acquisitions, and international operations. Prior to taking eBay public, Westly was a senior executive for a number of technology companies in Silicon Valley.

Westly remains active in public life as Chair of the California Leadership Committee, a PAC dedicated to supporting the next generation of Democratic leaders. On the national scene, he serves as California Co-Chair of Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. He sits on the Board of the newest University of California Campus in Merced. He and his wife Anita run a charitable foundation focused on education, health, and the environment.

Mr. Westly grew up in California and attended public schools in San Mateo County. He earned his BA and MBA at Stanford University, where he was student body president and later served on the faculty for five years. Westly currently lives in San Mateo County with his wife and two kids.


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Views expressed by guest speakers do not necessarily express the views of BAIAD