First Person of Muslim Heritage Elected to Va. House of Delegates

November 21, 2011

David Ramadan was 13 years old and living amid the unceasing bloodshed of civil war in his homeland of Lebanon when a blast rattled his house in an Americanized Beirut neighborhood in 1983.

He sprinted through the city's chaotic and panicked streets until he stood before the death-strewn wreckage of the bombed U.S. Marine barracks and beheld mind-scarring scenes of carnage that haunt him to this day. He witnessed history: the dawn of terrorism aimed at Americans.

Nearly 30 years later, Ramadan helped shape history in his adopted homeland of Virginia, winning election by only 50 votes to the House of Delegates and becoming the first person of Muslim heritage to hold a seat in the Western Hemisphere's oldest continuously meeting legislative body.

"I was a child of war," Ramadan, now a successful 41-year-old businessman, said in an Associated Press interview last week. "I grew up in the midst of a bloody civil war."

"I stood there that day and I saw it all. It was so horrible," he said, his voice trailing off. "I was just a boy."

Ramadan was educated in American schools in Beirut, tucked alongside the U.S. Embassy which was also bombed in 1983 by the militant Islamist group and Lebanese political party Hezbollah.

He left Lebanon and settled in Virginia in 1989, when he was 19, and he was drawn instantly to Republican politics. Within three years, he had worked for his first campaign, the failed re-election bid of President George H.W. Bush. He paid his dues as a Republican activist and party leader for two decades.

"The creed I believe in is the Republican creed," Ramadan said. "That means lower taxes, freedom of religion, free market rights and property rights, Second Amendment rights."

But in winning elected office for the first time this year, Ramadan learned that religion carries a price tag even when it's free. Anti-Muslim organizations attacked him as a tool of radical Islam, as one who — wittingly or inadvertently — aids, abets or is beholden to terrorists.

It might not have seared him as deeply had his wartime boyhood not put him in the midst of terrorism rooted in religion and nationalism.

"It was hurtful to see because it was not true and these people were making it up for political purposes. It was pathetic and it was bigoted," he said. "But I have a tough skin, so I dealt with it."

The Virginia Anti-Shariah Task Force attacked Ramadan for being one of six Arab or Muslim Republicans who signed a letter to the editor of the New York Times. The letter admonished fellow Republicans of the political peril of trying to block construction of a Muslim Community Center on private property in lower Manhattan near the site of the fallen World Trade Center, ground zero of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Blocking the project, the letter argued, undermines Republican beliefs in freedom of religion and private property rights.

An anonymous website that went online during Ramadan's campaign claimed he was tied to "hostile intelligence services in Iran and Syria" and darkly implied that his funding came from sinister terrorist sources.

James Lafferty of the anti-shariah group said he doesn't allege that Ramadan is a terrorist. "If he's dangerous, then he's dangerous in that he pretends to be a conservative Republican but is involved in groups that are neither conservative nor Republican," he said.

Yet Ramadan's list of supporters reads like a roll call of the Republican right, including Gov. Bob McDonnell; U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf; U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Richmond; Virginia House of Delegates Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox; Virginia House Speaker Bill Howell; and Edwin Meese, who was U.S. attorney general under President Ronald Reagan and is now a senior fellow at the nation's best-known conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation.

Meese and Cantor endorsed Ramadan in his primary battle with longtime GOP activist Jo-Ann Chase.

"I was impressed with him immediately," Meese said. "I never had the least doubt about supporting him."

And were Ramadan an extremist, he would never have secured the backing of Cantor, who is Jewish.

"I am from a Muslim family and culture, but I am not a practicing Muslim," he said. His father, born Muslim, was baptized by Lebanese Christians as a child. His mother is Muslim. Both now live in the northern Virginia House district he will represent when he officially takes his seat on Jan. 11.

"I grew up in a mixed family, and it was not a religious family," Ramadan said. "But I do believe in God. I believe in the Ten Commandments, things common to both religions."

These days, he said, he spends more time in his wife's hometown Methodist church in Rocky Mount, Va., than he does in Muslim houses of worship. More commonly, he said, they attend a Baptist church or a community church in Loudoun County, where they reside.

Ramadan's 50-vote margin out of 10,886 votes cast in the 87th House District was within range for a recount at government expense had his opponent, Democrat Mike Kondratick, requested one. But Kondratick conceded the race, and Ramadan becomes part of a 68-member GOP majority in the 100-member House, the party's largest ever.

Ramadan specializes in overseas franchising of U.S.-based companies. He owns the franchise rights in the Middle East and India to Curves, a leading women's fitness spa.

His upbringing abroad and his business ties there give him a unique perspective on an issue of illegal immigration, an issue certain to appear before the General Assembly next year. Having entered the nation legally and become a naturalized citizen in 2002, Ramadan has no tolerance for those who enter the nation illegally, he said.

"This is a problem the federal government is responsible for and the federal government has done nothing to control it," he said. "I'm not a supporter of amnesty, but I'm a pragmatist, and I'm not sure what the practical solution is."

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