TRENTON, N.J. – Democrats pulled an Arab-American candidate from their election ticket on Saturday amid a furor over comments he made four years ago that some interpreted as sympathetic to Palestinian suicide bombers.
At the urging of state party leaders, including Gov. Jon S. Corzine and U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, Passaic County Democrats withdrew its endorsement of Sami Merhi for freeholder, a member of the county's legislative body. They chose a school board member to run in his place.
"I'm in shock, feeling betrayed," Merhi said. "They should be ashamed of themselves."
The Lebanese-born Merhi made the comments at a September 2002 Democratic fundraiser U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, where he condemned the Sept. 11 terrorists "as cold-blooded murders" and "crazy fanatics."
When asked whether he would apply the same label to Palestinian suicide bombers who target Israelis, Merhi said, "I can't see the comparison."
In an interview with The Associated Press earlier this week, Merhi said, while all murder is wrong, the World Trade Center attack was mass murder on an unprecedented scale. It also was an attack in which his godson was killed.
Merhi, who narrowly lost out on the party's nod in 2004 because of the comments, was endorsed by the party last week. But top Democrats said they opposed his candidacy and asked county leaders decided to reconsider.
Merhi said he appealed to them during Saturday's meeting, saying that he opposes all forms of terrorism and that killing innocent people is always wrong. But, he said, party chairman John Currie told him, "We love you. We all like you. But this is about politics."
Currie did not immediately return messages left at his office and home Saturday.
"They have insulted an entire community," said Merhi, who runs a medical marketing firm with his business partner, an Israeli Jew. "I have done nothing to deserve this insult."
James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute in Washington, said the county Democrats had offered Merhi another, lesser position. But he said New Jersey Democrats still risk alienating a sizable community of Arab-American and Muslim voters.
Merhi has not decided whether he will run in the primary without the party's endorsement or whether he'd consider changing his party affiliation to Republican.
He said he was asked after the meeting if Democrats should be worried about whether a ticket with him on it could win in November in the heavily Arab-American area.
"They should be more worried about a ticket without me on it," he said.