VIDEO: In Nevada primary, Muslim facing Jew says he was passed over for his faith

Come November, voters in the suburban Las Vegas district of Henderson, Nevada, may well elect to Congress Jacky Rosen, a software developer and president of her synagogue.

A Jordanian-American lawyer says her win would be at his expense, and it’s because of his Muslim faith.

But Jesse Sbaih isn’t blaming Rosen. Rather, he is blitzing Nevada media with his claim that Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Democratic boss in the state, counted him out of the race in Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District because he is a Muslim.

Jesse Sbaih in his law office photo/jta-ron kampeas

The race is to replace Joe Heck, a Republican whose run for Senate leaves his seat open. Sbaih is not saying that Rosen was selected because she is Jewish. Instead, he said, Reid was simply seeking someone who was not Jesse Sbaih.

“Let me be blunt, you can’t win this race because you’re a Muslim,” Sbaih quoted Reid as telling him last August when they met at a Las Vegas hotel.

Reid’s office acknowledges the meeting but flatly denies Sbaih’s religion came up.

“We have said many times that Jesse is not telling the truth,” said Kristen Orthman, the senator’s spokeswoman.

Sbaih remains in the running for the June 14 congressional primary, but Reid’s full-throttled power is behind Rosen. Reid is retiring this year and wants to leave his mark on the state. Heck’s open seat is an opportunity — President Barack Obama won the district in 2008 and 2012, albeit by relatively small margins.

Reid’s Searchlight Leadership Fund political action committee is backing Rosen. She also has the backing of a political action committee associated with Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the powerful minority whip in the House of Representatives, and Emily’s List, which backs pro-choice Democratic women.

Sbaih, who is a lawyer, said Reid’s machine has cut off access to Democratic consultants who could help him. Much of his campaign is self-funded.

He says he is running to give back to the community — he arrived in the United States with his parents when he was 11.

“I believe in the goodness and the spirit of the American people,” Sbaih said. “There are serious issues facing our community. In this district of 744,000 people, we have 64,000 people living below the poverty line.”

Did Reid bring up Sbaih’s faith? It comes down to he said/she said — quite literally.

Two weeks before meeting with Reid, Sbaih met with Rebecca Lambe, a political consultant to the senator. Sbaih said she was the first to suggest his faith could be an obstacle. He points to a series of texts he sent to Lambe after his Aug. 25 meeting with Reid, in which he candidly discusses whether he should suspend his campaign because of his “ethnicity/religion.” It is not clear from the texts if she straight out said being Muslim would be a problem, or if he simply inferred that from her saying that he should anticipate attacks because of his religion — which she acknowledges.

What’s also not explained is why Democrats would fear running an Arab American or a Muslim for office. Multiple Arab Americans from both parties have served or are serving in Congress, and there are two Muslim Democrats from the Midwest, although Sbaih would be the first member to be both Arab American and Muslim.

Where Sbaih has ammunition, however, is in the claim by Reid’s team that the senator simply wanted Sbaih, 40, to gain seasoning — through the statehouse or federal government work — before running.

“Senator Reid said, ‘You have a future, you should look at running for state Assembly or state Senate,’” Orthman said. “That was the crux of the meeting.”

The problem with that argument is that Rosen also was not a known quantity, although Orthman said she’s been a community leader for years and is known in the district.

The Rosen campaign deflected multiple requests for an interview. A video of the candidate’s April 19 appearance at a town hall for the LGBTQ community shows a confident and warm speaker, albeit with name recognition issues. The group, the Stonewall Democratic Club, prepared a label for her as “Jack Rosen,” which she successfully turned into a joke.

She told the crowd she was fighting for “the freedom to be your authentic self, go to the bathroom wherever you choose, thank you very much — you can be Jack or Jacky Rosen,” she said, nodding at the label and earning appreciative laughter.

Regarding her leadership experience, all she cited was her presidency of Ner Tamid, a Reform synagogue here and the largest shul in the region. She noted the synagogue’s use of solar panels to conserve energy and said she balanced a budget of $2.5 million a year.

Otherwise, Rosen appeared to lack preparation, eager to avoid wonky topics and to focus on a feel-good message.

“We can talk about energy and education and economics, but what’s most important is to talk about empowerment,” she said.

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief