The Greek-American Candidates for 2012 Congress Election

In the United States it is estimated there are as many as 3,000,000 people of Greek descent and the community has always avidly supported political candidates, including Philhellenes. This year, nine are running for Congress and are asking for your vote in the upcoming election which will take place on Nov. 6. Eight candidates are competing for the House of Representatives and one for the U.S. Senate.

Every two years, all 435 members of the House of Representatives must run for election or re-election, while 33 of the 100 U.S. Senate seats are being contested. While most of the attention is on the Presidential battle, the Greek-American community is also focused on the Congressional races, where members can make an impact on foreign policy issues. Philhellene candidates who have supported issues critical to Greece and Cyprus are also important to the community.

There had only been one person of Greek descent in the Senate, Olympia Snowe, a Republican from Maine, who is not seeking re-election, pinning the Diaspora’s hopes on Shelley Berkley, a Democratic Nevada Congresswoman, who is running for a Senate seat.

Three Greek-Americans are up for re-election to the Congress and there are three others whose ambition is to win for the first time. Incumbents Gus Bilirakis, a Florida Republican, and the Co-Chairman of the Parliamentary group for Greek Issues, John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat and son of former U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes, and Niki Tsongas, widow of former U.S. Presidential candidate and former Senator Paul Tsongas, hope to stay in office. Tsongas is not of Greek origin but is in the Greek issue group as well.

The candidates:

SHELLEY BERKLEY- Nevada
Berkley’s grandmother was from Thessaloníki and was part of the Greek Jewish community there. Berkley represents the 1st Congressional District, which includes the capital of entertainment, Las Vegas, and is an active member of the Congressional group promoting Greek issues.

It will be difficult. She is facing a strong and popular Republican opponent who has a small lead, polls show, but within the margin of error. The Greek-American community has gathered around her in hopes of helping her win. She is also supported by the state’s other Senator, Democrat Harry Reid, who is the Majority Leader in the body. Her chances may depend on how well incumbent Democratic President Barack Obama does in the state too.

Berkley was born in New York City and moved with her family to Nevada when she was a junior high school student. She attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and earned a degree in political science and served as the UNLV Student Body President.

She then entered the University of San Diego, graduating with a degree in law. She served in the Nevada Assembly from 1982 to 1984 and was involved in local civic affairs. While in the state legislature, she advocated consumer safety laws, campaigned against drunken driving, and founded the Senior Law Project.
Berkley was also appointed Vice Chair of the Nevada University System Board of Regents, serving at the position from 1990-98. Elected to the House in 1998, she serves on the Committees on Veterans’ Affairs and Ways and Means.

As a representative, Berkley viewed her top priorities as the fight for affordable health care coverage for all Americans, veteran’s rights, and alternative energy. Berkley is known as one of the supporters of the drive to regulate online gambling.

DINA TITUS – Nevada
Titus was a Congresswoman representing Nevada’s 3d Congressional District but lost her re-election bid two years ago by less than 1 percent of the vote and is hopeful of overturning that result this time around.

She was named for her grandfather Constandinos Kathonis who she said came to the U.S. from Trikkala at the turn of the 20th Century looking for a better life. Her grandfather was a restaurant owner and had shops in small towns in the American South. There were times of discrimination she remembers. But she recalled that the community got together to overcome it even though there wasn’t a Greek Church or Greek school to attend and she had to go with her grandfather to a town 140 miles away to get supplies of feta and kalamata olives.

When she became an adult, she said she realized what a great contribution her grandfather had made to shape her character. Before entering politics, she taught political science at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, where she has taught for 30 years, and talked to students about freedom, justice and democracy, principles from ancient Greece. From her grandfather she also learned the value of family, and the necessity to help those in need.

She has visited Greece many times, sometimes to see relatives or tour and to study. In the summer of 2009, she was Obama’s representative at the inauguration of the New Acropolis Museum in Athens.

Her chances of winning are relatively good but could be even better if Obama does well in Nevada. Titus started her career in politics as a Democratic member of the Nevada Senate, representing Clark County District 7 since 1988. She has been the Minority Leader since 1993.

CAROLYN MALONEY – New York
Maloney, a Democrat from New York’s 14th Congressional District is not of Greek origin but is directly connected with Diaspora issues with her identity has Co-President of the group in the Congress promoting Greek issues. This means she, along with Florida’s Costas Bilirakis, compromise the leadership of the group consisting of 140 members.

Along with New Jersey U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, who is of Cuban descent she is an important Philhellene. Maloney represents a district in New York which includes Astoria, with one of the biggest concentrations of Greek speakers in the country.

She also gives voice to millions of victims of organized crime, especially women who are taken advantage of every year by illegal rings of human traffickers all over the world and as Co-Chairman of the Committee Against Human Trafficking to fight human slavery. She supports issues that help the Diaspora. She is a strong favorite to stay in office.

BOB MENENDEZ – New Jersey
Regardless of how the race turns out, the Greek-American community can count on Menendez, a Democrat, who polls show is expected to easily win re-election in New Jersey. When Maryland Senator Paul Sarbanes retired in 2008 he turned the baton over to Menendez as point man for Greek issues in the Senate during a special dinner at the Greek Embassy.

JAMES CARGAS – Texas
Cargas won the primary as a Congressional candidate in Texas and the Democratic choice for the seat of the 7th District. In the first round, he easily won the nomination with 57.8 percent of the vote. He started his career in 1998 immediately after his graduation from the University of Michigan where he got a degree with a specialty in Communications. His first job was spokesman of a then-Congressman from Michigan.

In 1992, after recent studies at the American University of Washington’s law school, he received another degree that opened the door to work at a major law firm in the Capitol. He became an advisor on energy issues at a major oil company and then passed the bar in Washington, Michigan, West Virginia and Texas, to practice law. Today he is a contractor counsel in Houston for environmental and property issues among others.

Cargas is married to Donita Papageorgiou, also of Greek origin. He is Greek Orthodox and said he regularly attends the Cathedral of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, in Houston. There are no current polls in his race but generally Texas is considered a Republican fortress.

JOHN ARVANITES – New Jersey
Arvanites is a Democratic candidate for the 11th District of New Jersey. He is an accountant whose ambition is to go to Washington and create more jobs. He is an advocate of hard work and equal opportunity and said he wants everyone considered equal and to have the chance to succeed. Many of his principles came from his Greek family, he said.

New Jersey has a strong Democratic base which seems to favor his candidacy. However, his Republican opponent is the incumbent and a formidable challenge who has gathered 10 times more in donations for a campaign war chest.

JOHN SARBANES – Maryland
The son of former U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes, John Sarbanes is the grandson of Greek immigrants. Sarbanes’ grandfather was Spyros Sarbanes and grandmother was Matina Tsiwouni, who came to the United States from Laconia and opened a restaurant in Salisbury, Maryland. The candidate was born in Baltimore, an hour by car from Washington, D.C. and was four years old when his father, Paul, entered politics and became a U.S. Senator from Maryland.

From a young age, Sarbanes learned about politics and issues for the common good, especially his connection to Greek values and principles. Sarbanes has repeatedly said that his ambition is: “To instill in Congress the values he got from my family, to be fair, show respect, and not to forget his roots.” He said he is passing that on to his children.

One of his main issues is to pass on to the younger generations of Greek-Americans the pride the Diaspora has for its legacy. Analysts believe he is sure to be re-elected. In a TV program about the 2010 elections, Sarbanes was featured.

He has represented the 3d Congressional District of Maryland since 2007. The district includes the state capital of Annapolis, central portions of the city of Baltimore, and parts of Howard and Baltimore counties.

Sarbanes was born in Baltimore on May 22, 1961. He received a B.A. cum laude from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University in 1984 and a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1988.

Sarbanes lives in Towson with his three children and wife Dina, who he met at Harvard and wed in 1988. She is an Assistant County Attorney with the Baltimore County Attorney’s office. Sarbanes sought the Democratic nomination for Maryland’s third congressional district after incumbent representative Ben Cardin chose not to seek re-election in order to run for the United States Senate seat of John Sarbanes’ father.

COSTAS BILIRAKIS – Florida
Descended from sponge divers from Kalymnos, Bilirakis’ grandparents immigrated at the turn of the 20th Century to Tarpon Springs, a quiet fishing village in Florida on the Gulf of Mexico and made it the capital of sponge diving in the U.S. and featured in a movie, Beneath The 12-Mile Reef, in 1953.

His father, Michalis, was a Member of Congress who for 24 years represented the same district in Washington, who retired in 2008, but his son kept it in the family name. In one of his many interviews last year, Bilirakis said, “I will not rest until Cyprus is free, until the Ecumenical Patriarch is secure, and until the Skopje issue is settled.” Polls show he is on a course to win again.

Before being elected to Congress, Gus Bilirakis had been a member of the Florida House of Representatives since 1998. He grew up in Tarpon Springs, Florida as the second-generation son of Greek immigrants. His grandfather opened a bakery in Tarpon Springs. At an early age Bilirakis began working at his family’s bakery.
He attended Tampa Bay area public schools and continued to work in his grandfather’s bakery during his childhood. Bilirakis graduated from Tarpon Springs High School and St. Petersburg Junior College. He then attended the University of Florida, where he graduated in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He received his law degree from Stetson University College of Law in 1989. Bilirakis has a Tampa Bay area law practice titled the Bilirakis Law Group. The firm specializes in probate and estate planning, which he took over from his father. He has helped run his father’s campaigns for the past 23 years. He is the co-chair of the Hellenic Caucus.

NIKI TSONGAS
Tsongas represents the 5th Congressional District that includes his home town of Lowell, one of the most vibrant centers for Greek-Americans early in the 20th Century. She has held the seat for five years. She is the first woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts in 25 years and the first female Democrat elected to Congress from the state in 35 years. She has a law degree from Boston University and started Lowell’s first all-female law practice.

In 1967, when her father, a military man, was serving in the Pentagon, she met her future husband, who then worked in the office of the Congressman holding the seat. She became an avid supporter of her husband during his early campaigns for Congress, starting in 1975 and the Senate in 1978.

She was also by his side when he was seeking the White House, making the Diaspora proud, as well as later when he withdrew from the campaign to fight cancer. He died in 1997 and she was appointed to fill the seat to continue his work. She is proud of her late husband’s heritage and is one of the main speakers at functions in Congress each year to mark Greek Independence Day on March 25.