Ethiopian Americans Weigh their Voting Options in November's Elections

Ethiopian Americans rally outside the White House against US war in Ethiopia and Eritrea
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Demonstrators protest the United States stance on the conflict in Ethiopia, outside the White House in Washington D.C., November 8, 2021. (Photo: REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein)

Teddy Fikre is an Ethiopian American, first generation immigrant, and independent Congressional candidate whose name will appear on the ballot in Virginia’s 8th District in November. Like many immigrants, he holds down two jobs to make ends meet, working as an IT manager during the day and driving for Uber at night. We spoke about both his domestic and foreign policy platforms, and about Ethiopian diaspora politics in the upcoming general election. 

Ann Garrison: Teddy, how long have you lived in the US?

Teddy Fikre:  I have been in America for forty years. My family and I arrived here in 1982 fleeing the despotic Derg regime in Ethiopia, and I have been living in Northern Virginia for most of my life. I am currently living in Alexandria.

AG: And why did you decide to run for Congress, and to run as an independent rather than a Republican or Democrat? 

TF: My decision to run for Congress was rooted in my deep dissatisfaction with the current state of the US political process. I was once a very dependable Democrat who traveled to 16 states in 2008 to get Obama elected, but during two years of homelessness starting in 2015, I shed the partisan scales from my eyes. I saw first-hand how both political parties are effectively colluding to enrich multinational corporations and the globalist oligarchs while indenturing the vast majority of humanity and impoverishing billions around the world. 

Democrats and Republicans are complicit when it comes to perpetuating economic inequalities. They condition us to fight each other based on our differences, while behind the scenes they are working together to pass policies that exacerbate the very social ills they pretend to rage against. 

That is why I decided to run for Congress as an independent. My aim is not to climb the political ladder or to become an entrenched politician in DC. My hope is instead to shake up the status quo and to make sure that we finally have one person who is not a partisan shill and a corporate mouthpiece and is willing to fiercely advocate on behalf of the poor, champion the rights of workers, and empower small businesses.

AG: What are your key domestic policy issues? 

TF: My number one domestic policy is economic reform that reorients legislation and policies in favor of workers and small businesses and breaks up these huge multinational corporations that continued to weaponize their wealth in order to commandeer politicians, gobble up media outlets, and metastasize inequalities. 

If we have any shot at preserving our agency as people and preserving or reclaiming this nation, we must bring these mega-corporations to heel. Their outsized influence in almost every aspect of our lives is truly dangerous. We are living in a corporate-fascist state. We are allowing a few players to monopolize almost every sector of our economy. 

This level of market consolidation leads to downward pressure on wages and heightens inflation. Neither Democrats nor Republicans are willing to take any meaningful action against monopolies and their neo-feudal owners because both parties are in the back pockets of industry.

That is why I am running for Congress as an independent; only someone who is not bought and sold by multinational corporations and the plutocrat class will be able to speak up for the burdened 99% and against wealth supremacists who ensconce themselves in DC, Manhattan, and Hollywood.

AG: What about your foreign policy platform? 

TF: When it comes to foreign policy, it boils down to three words: no more interventionism. We have enough problems here in America with homelessness spreading as fast as Covid-19, our infrastructure crumbling, and the pervasive feeling of hopelessness for us to insist on policing the world. We must lead by example, not through brute force and hubris. 

To this end, the era of declaring overt and covert wars overseas throughout the world in the name of a democracy we don’t even have here in America—given that two parties are colluding to forestall competitive elections—must come to an end. Instead of giving away billions of dollars in weapons that only enrich defense contractors like Raytheon, Boeing, Northrup Grumman, and my former employer Booz Allen Hamilton, let us reinvest those monies here in America so we can take care of homeless veterans, pave a path of opportunity for our children, alleviate the burdens of workers, and unleash the entrepreneurial spirit of Americans.

AG: I know that you’re running as an American, not an Ethiopian American, but because you’re part of the Ethiopian American community, I wanted to talk to you particularly about the role that the African diaspora—and particularly the Ethiopian diaspora—may play in this election. Could we do that with a caveat for readers—that you’re not running on diaspora issues, but you are willing to help us understand them? 

TF: Sure. I am heartened to see more and more Ethiopian Americans emerging from the shadows and engaging civically in a country that we have been living in ever since Ethiopian merchants arrived in America in 1808 and helped to establish the First Abyssinia Church. For too many Ethiopians, politics has been seen as something to avoid, given that speaking up too loudly in Ethiopia led to horrific consequences in the past. We learned through trauma and tears to be silent for fear of persecution.

This generation of Ethiopian Americans is speaking out boldly and giving voice to the voiceless back in Ethiopia who are bearing the burdens of unjust foreign policies that have revived colonialism in Africa and throughout much of the world. 

With large populations in crucial and contested states like Virginia, Georgia, Minnesota, Colorado, Nevada and Texas, Ethiopian-Americans can become a powerful voting bloc. What I hope to see within the Ethiopian-American community and African diaspora writ large is what I hope to see for African-Americans and beyond. 

The days of being a loyal voting bloc for any one politician or party must come to an end; the mere fact that we are called anyone or any party’s base is deeply insulting and is indicative of how we are viewed by the establishment. 

Votes must be earned not given; those who show party fidelity when it comes to elections are in effect engaging in a form of self-voter-nullification. It is my hope that my campaign can be a turning point in this way, for we must wean ourselves off Democrats and Republicans and empower true independents. Ethiopians and the African diaspora in Virginia can play a crucial role in doing exactly that if they turn out in force to vote for me come November.

AG: The Ethiopian diaspora is the best organized and most politically active diaspora I’ve come into contact with. I’m on several of their discussion lists, and I’m invited to at least one Ethiopian American webinar a week, so I know that many of them, particularly those of the Amhara ethnicity, are furious with Joe Biden. Can you explain why?

TF: It’s simple. Betrayal. My first foray into US politics was in 2008 when I was determined to get Obama elected. Through a group called Ethiopians for Obama, I worked diligently to do just that and convinced countless numbers of Ethiopians to enthusiastically support a candidate we were convinced would fundamentally alter the way a ruthless regime by the name of TPLF were being coddled by previous administrations.

To our dismay, the Obama administration did the complete opposite. People like Susan Rice, Samantha Power et al. embraced that group, the TPLF,  even though the Department of Homeland Security had labeled them as terrorists. These same holdovers, Rice and Power, are now firmly entrenched in the Biden administration as they continue to support a regime that ruled Ethiopia with an iron fist, committed countless atrocities over 27 years, and revived apartheid in Ethiopia. After attacking the Ethiopian military in the dead of night on November 3, 2020, the TPLF waged a campaign of terror in an effort to take power by force. Instead of rebuking these acts of treason and criminality, the Biden administration—aided by too many in media—rushed to their side and were bent on justifying their extralegal and inhumane actions.

This is par for the course. For too long African countries have been kept in perpetual states of strife and poverty because the same powerful forces that are decimating the middle class and indenturing the working class here in America are determined to destabilize nations in order to loot their natural resources. Ethiopians, and really everyone, irrespective of their identity, should stand up and say no to this type of chicanery that we have seen over decades because the struggles of Ethiopians in Addis Ababa and beyond are tied directly with the struggles of Americans in towns and cities throughout the United States.

AG: There’s a neck-and-neck mayoral contest underway in Los Angeles between California’s 37th District House Rep. Karen Bass, a Democrat, and billionaire real estate magnate Rick Caruso, a lifelong Republican who registered Democrat because you have to do that to be elected in LA.

There’s also a neck-and-neck Georgia Senate race between incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock, the former pastor of Martin Luther King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and Republican challenger Herschel Walker, a former University of Georgia and NFL football star.

Both of these races are so close that they could be decided by thousands or even hundreds of votes, and some Ethiopian Americans are so angry with Democrats that they’re organizing to defeat both Karen Bass, Rafael Warnock, and Democrats across the board. What do you think of the strategy?

TF: We don’t have the complete count of how many Ethiopians live in America for a variety of reasons. I think the main reason is because for too long Ethiopians have been conditioned over 27 years of repression during the reign of TPLF and 19 more years of terror during the Derg regime to keep our heads to the ground and not stand up to be counted. But we do know that there are very large Ethiopian communities in LA, Atlanta, the DC metro area, Minneapolis, New York City and Dallas. Of course some of these places are as deep blue as they can get, so our votes might not be enough to flip control in those states, but in others like Georgia, Virginia and Minnesota, Colorado and Nevada, a large concentration of Ethiopians can have a decisive impact on the outcome of local, state and national elections. So in those races you mention, I’ve been saying for a while that politicians have to earn your vote and that our votes should not be given away out of loyalty. So if Democrats are not paying attention to the needs of the community or are outright hostile to the concerns, then the logical thing to do is to take our votes elsewhere.

However, as to going with another party thinking that Republicans will be a better option than Democrats, on that front I vehemently disagree. The reality is that both Democrats and Republicans have shown us over time that they have no interest in representing our voices or meeting the needs of the community, we must stop voting for the lesser of two evils and actually vote for the good. If we really want to get true representation in DC, it is imperative to break the duopoly and elect independents. All other gambits are nothing more than escaping plantations to plant our flags in jail cells. 

AG: OK, let’s talk about each of these two neck-and-neck races in Los Angeles and Georgia, starting with the Bass/Caruso race in LA.

TF: OK.

AG: Karen Bass is stepping down to run for mayor in Los Angeles, but for now she still chairs the House Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa and vice chairs the Board of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). NED, like USAID, is a form of imperial “soft power.”

Can you explain why so many Ethiopians in Los Angeles are refusing to support her, perhaps even supporting Republican Rick Caruso, like prominent Ethiopian American blogger Alemayehu Gebre Mariam, recently the author of Little Ethiopia, Big Ethiopia: Vote Rick Caruso for Mayor of Los Angeles! 

TF: It has to do with the Democrats’ embrace of the terrorist TPLF regime and their insistence in collectively punishing the people of Ethiopia through immoral sanctions like HR6600. It has become very evident that the TPLF have leveraged the tens of billions of dollars they looted from Ethiopia over 27 years to buy up politicians and policymakers throughout America and beyond. The fact that the vast majority of the Congressmen and women who are supporting sanctions bills in the House and the Senate are Democrats has shown Ethiopian-Americans that their voices are not welcomed by the party that talks a good game about social justice while purveying economic inequalities through their actions. However, Republicans are no better; like Malcolm X noted, there is no profit to be had by choosing between wolves and foxes.

AG: Karen Bass is stepping down from a federal office to run for municipal office, and running largely on her promise to seek humane solutions to the catastrophic numbers of unhoused people in LA. And she’s been a good liberal, better than Caruso is likely to be, on prisons and policing issues. Do you think Ethiopian Americans in Los Angeles should set their foreign policy grievances aside to vote for her?

TF: My days of advocating for Democrats are over. That ship sailed when I saw Obama becoming Bush 2.0. However, that doesn’t mean that I am a Republican booster, as they are no different. To that end, it is really time to stop believing that voting for someone other than a Democrat or a Republican is a wasted vote. I think Ethiopians should actually identify a third-party person or an independent who is running and then vote for that person in droves. If Democrats end up losing by less than the margin of votes the alternative candidate gets, a message is sent and in the process we can start to build roads for someone other than Democrats or Republicans to represent us.

AG: OK, let’s talk about the Rafael Warnock/Herschel Walker race in Georgia, where some vocal Ethiopians argue against voting for Warnock, even though a Walker victory would flip the Senate from Democrat to Republican. Can you explain that?

TF: I think Ethiopians are exercising their vote in ways that can yield a result in terms of getting the attention of politicians. If there is no threat of voting for someone else, we are begging to be ignored or taken for granted.

AG: And what’s your own opinion?

TF: Irrespective of who wins the seat in Georgia, the truth is that our government will continue to be driven by moneyed interests and globalist oligarchs. Warnock and Walker are just window dressing in this way; individual politicians have zero effect on the outcome of legislation. The House and Senate are governed through consensus. In this paradigm, party bosses like Pelosi, McCarthy, Schumer and McConnell yield all the power, and politicians like Omar, AOC, Greene, Warnock et al. are just mannequins paraded before us to give us the pretense of opposition when in reality both parties are working together to advance the agendas of multinational corporations, special interests, lobbyists and their billionaire patrons. Until we break this paradigm completely by breaking the duopoly, we will keep voting for change every two and four years only to get the same result. The end result is the insanity of a status quo that remains as entrenched in DC as the National Monument.

AG: Teddy, thanks for speaking to Black Agenda Report, and good luck in November.

TF: Thank you, Ann. I really appreciate the conversation and thank you to Black Agenda Report for the intrepid work that you continue to do on behalf of African Americans and the African diaspora.

Ann Garrison is a Black Agenda Report Contributing Editor based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2014, she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes region. She can be reached at ann(at)anngarrison.com .

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