A Democrat running for the open 3rd Congressional District seat says U.S. Sen. Harry Reid dissuaded him from running, saying because he’s Muslim he cannot win the race.
Jesse Sbaih, a Henderson attorney who immigrated from Jordan with his family at age 11, sent out a fundraising email blast to supporters Tuesday headlined: “Don’t let Harry Reid and the Washington elites decide who you can vote for.”
Although Sbaih, a first-time congressional candidate, stands by his account, the Senate minority leader’s aides deny it strongly. Both sides agree a meeting took place, but they disagree about what Reid, D-Nev., and his associates told Sbaih.
The Washington Post first reported on the meeting, which unfolded in a Paris Las Vegas conference room on Aug. 25.
The 3rd Congressional District, which stretches from metropolitan Las Vegas south to the state border, is an open race because incumbent U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., is running for the Senate seat of Reid, who is retiring. Seven Republicans and six Democrats have filed to run for their party’s nomination.
Sbaih said Tuesday the issue of his religion and ethnicity was “front and center” during his conversation with Reid.
“Basically, I was told I would not be able to win because of my religion and ethnicity,” he said. “I said, ‘I respectfully disagree with you.’ I believe in the goodness and the spirit of the American people. The American people have embraced me since I’ve been to this country and I’ve embraced them back as an adopted son.”
Recalling what Reid told him, Sbaih said: “I think the quote was: ‘Let me be blunt, you’re not going to win the race because you’re a Muslim.’”
Reid spokeswoman Kristen Orthman said Tuesday: “Sen. Reid didn’t say that.”
Orthman said Sbaih is trying to use Reid to “bolster his congressional race,” noting he mentioned the senator in his fundraising email. Sbaih was told to get experience and pursue a position lower on the political ladder — such as a state legislative seat — before running for Congress, she said.
Sbaih sought a meeting with Reid, Nevada’s key powerbroker for Democratic candidates. Before he met with Reid, Sbaih met Aug. 6 for coffee with Rebecca Lambe, a chief adviser for Reid. Megan Jones, a political consultant and Reid’s political director in 2010, helped arranged both meetings.
Sbaih said Lambe raised his religion and ethnicity as factors that would make winning the seat difficult. Lambe denied Sbaih’s account through a spokeswoman.
Before the meetings, Sbaih texted Jones in June, saying he hadn’t decided what district to run in. He mentioned the 4th Congressional District and that supporters have suggested he run as a moderate Republican in the 1st Congressional District against U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev.
“I am still trying to figure out which district will give me the best opportunity to serve our country,” Sbaih texted. “Some people have even suggested that I run as a moderate Republican against Dina. I am hoping to make my final decision by early next week.”
Sbaih said an attempt to use the text to paint him as a party switcher simply shows how “desperate” Reid’s camp is. Sbaih said he was simply repeating in the text what others had suggested and didn’t seriously consider running as a GOP moderate.
“They’re grasping for straws,” he said.
Jones said not every candidate gets a meeting with Reid and called Sbaih an opportunist.
“He is doing whatever he thinks is politically expedient,” Jones said. “Calling Reid a liar may raise him a few national dollars but it will seal his fate with Nevada Democrats who love and trust Sen. Reid because he has always had their back.”
In September, Sbaih sent emails to Reid’s associates. In one, he wrote, that he is “profoundly disheartened and saddened that the Democratic Party is refusing to accept a candidate like me because of my religion and ethnicity.”
In her response, Jones said it was “never about the Democratic Party not embracing your ethnicity or religion … It was about how to create a path and a base of support so you could withstand the attacks that we knew would inevitably come from the opposing side.”
Reid’s office kept talking to Sbaih. In October, Sbaih was offered a recommendation from Reid for a $157,000-a-year appointment as a commissioner on the Election Assistance Commission.
Sbaih declined the offer, saying he’s staying in the congressional race.
Ikram Khan, a past president of the Islamic Society of Nevada, rebutted the idea that Reid would discourage a candidate for running because of religion. Southern Nevada’s Muslim community regards Reid highly, said Khan, who has known the senator since 1978.
Reid, he said, has worked with and supported the Muslim community long before it was fashionable for people to do so.
“To me, it is really offensive at a personal level to have somebody allege that Sen. Reid would have said that and I say that for a good reason,” Khan said.
Sbaih sees it differently. He points out that Reid is supporting Democratic candidate Jacky Rosen in the race even though it’s her first run for office — just like him. Sbaih said he was told to get more experience, but she wasn’t.
Orthman said Reid supports Rosen because of her community leadership, adding that Rosen entered the race in January, months after the August meeting between Sbaih and Reid.
“The time frame doesn’t match up,” Orthman said.
The Washington Post contributed to this report. Contact Ben Botkin at email@example.com or 702-387-2904. Find him on Twitter: @BenBotkin1