Marcos Bretón

Opinion: Twin Rivers candidate smeared for ethnic, religious background

Basim Elkarra is one of two candidates running in a Twin Rivers school board special election.
Basim Elkarra is one of two candidates running in a Twin Rivers school board special election. aseng@sacbee.com

Running for a school board seat doesn’t normally result in the candidate being linked to Mideast terrorists. But it has for Basim Elkarra, an American of Palestinian descent who is running for the Twin Rivers Unified School District board – and whose ethnicity is being used against him in campaign literature distributed to voters over the weekend.

It’s unclear whether these inflammatory fliers were sent via the mail or dropped in mailboxes by someone trying to do Elkarra harm. It makes a difference because campaign literature sent by mail must identify who paid for it. No one is claiming responsibility for this crudely designed flier, which contains a photo of Elkarra posing with a man incorrectly identified as co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Then there is a picture of Elkarra seated with young Muslim women at a youth conference. The way the photo is displayed seems an attempt to play to anti-Muslim sentiments, as if voters should be leery of who Elkarra is consorting with.

Above the photo, Elkarra’s full name is displayed in red ink. The flier asks a series of questions beginning with: Who is Basim Elkarra?

Then it says: “Why doesn’t Basim Elkarra want you to know about his ‘non profit organization’ – The Council on Islamic Relations?” In truth, Elkarra makes his living as the executive director of the local chapter of CAIR – the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

The 35-year-old is highly visible in this role and has been quoted in many Sacramento Bee stories on various topics related to CAIR’s mission as a national civil rights group. He has spoken out against terrorism and has been a voice for inclusion.

Elkarra did believe his ethnicity would be used against him in some way when he decided to run in the May 12 special election for Area 5 of the Twin Rivers district, which includes North Natomas and Robla. His opponent is Sonja Cameron in the race to fill the seat vacated by Cortez Quinn.

Elkarra’s background and affiliations have caused him harm before. In 2006, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer was going to give Elkarra a community award before rescinding it because of concerns about CAIR, including the sentencing of a Texas member of the group for engaging in financial dealings with a leader of Hamas. Another CAIR member had been indicted for conspiracy.

At the time, CAIR disavowed the two men, but the damage was done. The publicity from Boxer’s snub resulted in Elkarra receiving death threats. Somewhat like Japanese Americans during World War II, it’s not uncommon for American Muslims to have their loyalty questioned.

“It’s ugly, but I’m just going to stay positive,” Elkarra said. “Twin Rivers is one of the lowest-performing school districts, but I want to help turn that around. I want to raise my family here.”

Cameron, Elkarra’s opponent, said on Tuesday that the fliers targeting Elkarra made her ill. She said her campaign would never endorse such a personal attack.

“I married an African American man 47 years ago, and people hollered (racial epithets) at us,” said Cameron, who was born in Denmark. “That wasn’t in Mississippi. It was in Sacramento ... I saw a future where my biracial grandchildren would not have to deal with this ugliness, but apparently it has not disappeared.”

Cameron’s strongest supporters also condemned the attack on Elkarra: “We categorically oppose any electioneering of this fashion,” said Carlos Marquez, political director of the California Charter Association Advocates. “If we learned that anyone in (Cameron’s campaign) was responsible for this, we would not hesitate to pull out.”

Only 2,000 people are expected to vote in this race. The Twin Rivers School District is arguably the most troubled in the Sacramento region and has been plagued by fiscal mismanagement – and now this.

Every time it seems the politics of dysfunction in Twin Rivers can’t get any worse, it does.

Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.

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