Georgia: Ethiopian/Eritrean Voters in a Key Senate Race

Herschel Walker and Raphael Warnock
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Record amounts of money are pouring into the Georgia Senate race between Herschel Walker and Raphael Warnock.

The US Senate could flip Republican in November if retired football star Herschel Walker defeats incumbent Senator Raphael Warnock. Walker was in the lead until recent revelations that he has several unacknowledged children, despite railing against fathers who don't fulfill their parental responsibilities. 

Warnock is now holding a 10 percent lead four months ahead of the election. However, now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned, Georgia is about to enact a bill banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, and it will no doubt become a contentious issue in this race, with Warnock backing women's right to choose and Walker backing states’ right to choose. 

Two years ago, a concentration of Ethiopian and Eritrean American voters in Georgia rallied behind Joe Biden and Raphael Warnock, delivering, by their algorithmic calculation, 15,000 votes in an election that Biden won by 11,780 and Warnock won by roughly 94,000. They are even more motivated this time, though not all in support of Reverend Warnock.  

I spoke with Ethiopian American activist Tsehai Alemayehu about how he thinks his community will vote this time.

Ann Garrison: Tsehai, can you tell us about the Ethiopian American community's relationship to the Democratic Party and to Joe Biden and Senator Raphael Warnock in particular?

Tsehai Alemayehu: The Ethiopian and Eritrean American community here in Georgia, like most immigrants everywhere, have traditionally supported the Democratic Party. I have personally been a Democrat for all the many years I've lived in this country and have always voted Democratic. And during the 2020 election, we organized our communities to support the Biden campaign and to support the senatorial campaigns of Reverend Warnock and Jon Ossoff as well. So we thought, given our work, and given the results that we delivered to the Democratic Party, that we would have great supporting relationships going forward. Unfortunately, once these gentleman got into office, when trouble started in Ethiopia and we sought support for our issues, they turned their backs on us. So we haven't had much of a relationship with Senator Warnock or President Biden since the 2020 election, not since they took office.  

And in fairness, because we are a small Georgia group here, our relationship with Joe Biden would have been through our elected representatives rather than directly with the White House. We don't have lobbyists. We only use our voices and the voices of our representatives to speak with the White House. And of course, like I said, the main actors, Senator Warnock and Senator Ossoff, whom we contributed to electing into office, were not willing to speak on our behalf with the Biden administration. 

AG: Did you attempt to meet with Senator Ossoff and Senator Warnock?

TA: Yes, we did. We spent many, many, many months trying to meet with Senator Ossoff and Senator Warnock. We have spoken many times with their staffers, first in Washington, actually, in the case of Ossoff, only with his staffers in Washington and the local office.  In the case of Senator Warnock, we have spoken to his senatorial staff, as well as with his campaign staff.  We have also met with Senator Warnock himself on two different occasions. 

AG: And what happened in Ethiopia after the election that made you seek their help? 

TA: In the first hours of November 3, 2020, which was election day in the US, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which had been removed from power just a couple of years earlier, declared war and attacked the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), who were stationed within Tigray. And initially, the Ethiopian government organized a response, and, fairly quickly, the TPLF leadership was chased out of the main urban centers. And it looked like the war was quickly over. So in December, January, February, we had no reason to worry about the issues across Ethiopia. And we had no reason to speak with our representatives to develop policy in support of Ethiopia. 

AG: And what happened then? Why did you then need the support of the Biden administration and your representatives, your senators?

TA: So a number of things happened. On the war front, the TPLF—with the support of many of its sponsors, which, to our regret, include the United States—were able to dislodge the Ethiopian National Defense Force from Tigray. And when they crossed over into Amhara and Afar territories, in town after town, they committed gross human rights violations and war crimes.  They engaged in public mass rape of men, women and children, entirely designed to dehumanize, humiliate, and break the fighting spirits of people.    

We engaged our representatives, asking and expecting that they would condemn these inhumane acts and persuade the Biden Administration to condemn TPLF and use its influence to rein in that organization. We spent months, first just trying to get audiences and then to educate staffers and legislators about what was going on in Ethiopia.

To the contrary, right about that time, the State Department was engaged in pronouncements of its support for the TPLF.  Going a step further, the State Department issued daily threats against the government of Ethiopia, the Amhara and Afar state governments, and even the peoples of Amhara and Afar. The State Department was insisting that the TPLF should have a free run of the house not only in Tigray, but also in Amhara and Afar Regions. Neither the people of Afar and Amhara, nor the ENDF, were supposed to defend themselves and their fellow citizens from the TPLF.  

And we were first confused as to why exactly this was happening. How could pursuing this line of policy possibly advance the interest of the United States? We were appealing to our senators and congressmen to please listen to us to learn what exactly is going on. We tried to educate these men in the recent history of Ethiopia, believing that their positions arose from ignorance. We spent nearly six months pursuing this dead-end strategy.  But none of them were anxiously awaiting to hear from us. Not our senators and not the White House.

It was as if the Biden administration had decided it would have the final say as to how Ethiopia governs itself, and the US’s preferred Ethiopian partner would be the TPLF.  We tried to tell all within earshot how dangerous that line of thinking is.  But we were rebuffed at every turn.

AG: And did this really surprise you, given that the US supported the TPLF throughout its 27-year rule?

TA: Well, it certainly surprised me. And our community was very much surprised. The United States is very well aware of the kind of administration the TPLF ran for nearly 30 years in Ethiopia, what kind of rule it had, where a small gang of people controlled everything. Dissent of any kind, including expressions in newspapers or in other media outlets were completely forbidden. Any dissent from the TPLF’s narrative, even if it was not expressed in organized electoral politics, was forbidden. Even private conversations, people discussing their government with their neighbors was forbidden. 

The TPLF had developed a comprehensive spying network that covered every citizen. It was really a very clever idea developed during the years when Kenya, Uganda, and much of the HOA was terrorized by Al-Shabaab. They said that they developed it to prevent Al-Shabaab from infiltrating Ethiopia. TPLF organized villagers and city folks in groups of five who would regularly come together and discuss the goings on in their neighborhood. One of the five was the head spy who reports everything to a higher level spy and so forth. In any event, the United States government is very well aware of all of that. And so we were very much surprised that after all of that they would be supportive of TPLF and take part in an active regime change operation.  

AG: And are you planning to organize unless things change, unless Senator Warnock starts listening to you? Are you planning to support Herschel Walker?

TA: That's a very complicated situation, we have actually approached the Republican candidate for the Senate, and we have spoken to his people about the kind of support we would need. And if he pledges to actively support our cause, then we might be willing to organize our people to deliver the votes to him. We have not gotten an understanding and agreement on that. 

But also, to be frank, and equally important, is the fact that that particular campaign seems not to be doing very well, at this point actually sliding downward fast. Right now it will not be very productive for us to jump in headlong in support of this campaign. And we have to work very carefully not to be hanging our hats on something that is not viable.  By not viable, I mean a candidate who doesn’t seem to have a decent chance of winning at this point. For a while, Walker was several points ahead in the polls, but now Senator Warnock has taken a double-digit lead.

AG: So if Walker's election becomes less and less likely, you will not be throwing your support his way?

TA: Yes, that's just being very honest, even if he fully embraced our issues, given our singular and pressing concern, there is absolutely no value or merit in supporting a candidate who is destined to lose. When he initially declared his candidacy, a large chunk of the state was behind him. But his business record and his personal life is just too complicated. Every day, we hear of something, and he loses points in the polls. And it becomes very difficult for our community to stand behind that.  

But whatever the outcome of this election and the next, we're going to be here for a long, long time. The Ethiopian community here is about 45,000+.  We're not going to go away, our issues are not going to go away. We're going to be walking in the political realm to try to get our community the full support it needs not only as it relates to developments in Ethiopia, but also here, right here in Atlanta. We have many, many needs, and we don't want to do damage to our long-term viability as a cohesive vibrant community for no possible return.

AG: Okay. You said you have about 15,000 voters now, within a population 45,000 people. Do you know how many voted in the last election?

TA: Actually that 14,000-15,000 is the number of Ethiopian and Eritrean Americans who voted in the 2020 cycle.  We actually started with the Secretary of State's record of Georgians who voted during the 2020 general election and tried to identify who among the 5 million or so Georgia voters are Ethiopian and Eritrean Americans. We developed a little algorithm to pick Ethiopian/Eritrean non-Muslim names from the voter roll.  And then we adjusted our finding upward to reflect the fact that some 40% to 50% of the Ethiopian/Eritrean population is Muslim.  So, one in three of the 45,000 people are voters or were voters in 2020.  That is a fairly high turnout, by the way.

AG: What was the significance of so many of your voters being Muslim?

TA: For whatever reason, Muslim communities, just like non-Muslims, tend to congregate with one another. The Harari Muslims, for example. You've heard I'm sure that they have a fairly large community here even though they're very tiny worldwide. There are about 2000 of them here. I cannot explain to you why, how they came. Typically, there is no grand plan how people settle in a place, just one person follows another and before you know it, you get quite a few coming from the same place. And I think that's how it happened. There are 2000 of them and several 1000s of Somali Ethiopians, and of course, a lot of Muslims of other ethnicities. 

AG: So do you think you’ll vote more or less as a bloc again?

TA: I think and I know for a fact that in the last election we all looked at the world the same way. The polarizing events in Ethiopia came after the election. For the 2020 election, we organized together, we rallied together, we campaigned together. Would that be the same today? I have to be honest; I don't think so. I think there are a few  factions. I actually think we are quite a bit more fractious. So not all 15,000 are going to go the same way. But a big chunk will. Clearly a majority, a decided majority of the Ethiopian/Eritrean American community in Georgia will cast their votes on the basis of US policy towards Ethiopia.

AG: Are you seeing any religious factionalism at the moment?

TA: Not so much religious factionalism. Just ethno-political factionalism. 

AG: Okay. I was just confused by your mention of how many Muslims there were in the community. I'm not sure what relevance it has.

TA: My fault. When we started sorting and studying the number of people who voted, we developed an algorithm that selects Ethiopian names. Okay? And we developed a list of Ethiopian non-Muslim names, because Muslim names are universal. Muhammad is everywhere. And so we found about 8000 Ethiopian names. And then we figured there had to have been almost the same amount of Muslims, at least 6000 to 7000 Ethiopian Muslims who voted. So that my distinction is to say that our data is constructed by looking at the actual number of non-Muslim Ethiopians whom we know to have voted. And then adding our own estimate of the number of Muslims. Muslims can be about half, which reflects the Christian/Muslim distribution in Ethiopia. You have about half Muslim.

AG: Okay. You said you're on the Coordinating Committee of the Georgia Democratic Party, right?

TA: Yeah. I have been a volunteer for the Democratic Party in Georgia for a long time. I regularly worked in elections, going back to the Clinton campaign of ‘92. And right now, I am a member of the Georgia Democratic Party Leadership Council, which sounds more powerful than it actually is. We talk mostly. We get together twice a month and talk about what we see on the ground in our respective communities, and we give counsel to politicians through the party leaders. Then party leaders will talk to candidates about what is going on in this community or in in that community.

AG: You told me that you read the Black Agenda Report. And if you read the Black Agenda Report, I imagine you know, that Black Agenda Report editors consider imperialism, a bipartisan project. Do you differ with that idea?

TA: Not at all.  I ascribe to it actually.

AG: So although you understand that imperialism is a bipartisan project, you nevertheless organize to demand that your representatives meet your needs in exchange for your votes. 

TA: Yes.

AG: Last question.  Now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned, Georgia is about to enact a law banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, and this will no doubt become a contentious issue in this Senate race, with Warnock backing women’s right to choose and Walker backing states' right to choose. What do you think your community might do if the race tightens over this issue?

TA: In a normal year, the threat to women's right to choose would drive many, but not all, Ethiopian American voters to the polls. But this is not a normal election year for us and I suspect this community is set on being a one-issue voting block for this election cycle. That issue being US policy towards Ethiopia. Most folks are likely to vote against Democrats. Given our history of high turnout, sitting out the election will also be viewed by some as a vote against Democrats. So some will just sit out the election.  

AG: Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Tsehai.

TA: You’re welcome.

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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