With the midterm elections approaching, the Greek-American community is once again proving to be a major player in the political landscape of the United States. With candidates at the federal, state, and local level in the November 6 polls, a Greek presence in the political map of the United States seems all but certain in the coming years.
This year’s slate of candidates includes numerous incumbents who are vying for re-election, some familiar faces who have thrown their name in the race for a new position, and several potential newcomers.
Regardless of the political party the candidates represent, a Greek-American presence in Washington and in important positions across the United States ensures that the Hellenic community, and issues of importance to Greek-Americans and to Greece and Cyprus, will have an opportunity to be heard and to earn backing and support.
It is widely known that one of the cornerstones of the Greek-American community and one of the characteristics for which it is best known, is its allegiance to family and tradition. This includes the close ties many members of the community maintain with their ancestral homeland and with the Greek Orthodox Church. Therefore, it should come as no surprise to any observer that Greek national and geopolitical issues, as well as religious issues, figure prominently among Greek-American voters and candidates alike.
One major area of focus is that of religious freedom. With the recent controversy surrounding developments in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, and with persecution of Greek Orthodox Christians an ongoing issue in Turkey, Syria, and elsewhere, the Greek-American community places a great deal of importance on matters pertaining to the defense of religious freedom and practice.
Furthermore, a strong attachment to religious faith may guide Greek-American voters to cast their ballot for candidates who are themselves Greek Orthodox, or who prioritize religious issues in their political platforms.
Greek national issues are also at the forefront at the present time, but for many in the Greek-American community, such issues have always been a high priority. The Macedonia name dispute and continuing controversy over the Prespa agreement, the ongoing Turkish occupation of over one-third of Cyprus, Turkish belligerence in the Aegean and East Mediterranean region, and recent provocations from Albania are all issues which are on the minds of many Greek-American voters and which Greek-American candidates at the federal level, if elected, will be expected to promote and to prioritize.
All of that being said, let us take a look at this year’s known lineup of Greek-American candidates at the congressional, state, and local level.
United States Senate
It has been over five years since a Greek-American held a seat in the Senate. Leah Papachristou Vukmir hopes to change that. A Republican running for Senate from Wisconsin, Vukmir is a daughter of Greek immigrants and, according to her bio, was raised in “a real-life big, fat Greek family.” She is a member of the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Wauwatosa, the community where she has lived for over 30 years, and is a nurse and military mom.
Vukmir describes herself as a “bold conservative” and her political trajectory as “mom-with-a-cause to state senator.” From an early start as an advocate for better education, she went on to hold elected office in Wisconsin, initially in the state Assembly and now in the state Senate, representing Wisconsin’s 5th district. Vukmir emerged from a field of five challengers in the Republican primary earlier this year, with 48.9 percent of the vote.
More information about her campaign is available at www.LeahVukmir.com.
United States House of Representatives
Unlike the Senate, there has been an ongoing Greek presence in the U.S. House of Representatives. In the current election cycle, four Greek-American candidates are up for election, in addition to two potential new entrants.
Republican Gus Bilirakis has represented Florida’s 12th congressional district, which encompasses New Port Richey and areas north of Tampa, since 2007. Himself a Florida native, Bilirakis is the grandson of Greek immigrants and was raised in the heavily Greek community of Tarpon Springs.
A practicing lawyer, Bilirakis served for eight years in the Florida House of Representatives, representing District 48. During his tenure, he was a member of the Congressional Hellenic-Israeli Alliance.
In 2006, following the retirement of his father, Michael Bilirakis, from the U.S. House of Representatives—and a seat that he had held for 24 years—Bilirakis entered the race and was successfully able to continue his family’s legacy. Bilirakis has made a name for himself as being a particularly active member of Congress, serving on the Energy and Commerce Committee and as Vice-Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
In addition, Bilirakis is also a member of the Republican Party’s Whip team, the Republican Study Committee, the Congressional NextGen 9-1-1 Caucus, is a ranking member on the House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Management, Investigations, and Oversight. Bilirakis is also Chair of the Veterans’ Affairs Task Force for the Republican Policy Committee, serves as a Co-Chair of the Congressional Military Veterans Caucus.
Of importance to the Greek-American community, Bilirakis is also a leading member of the Congressional Caucus on Hellenic Issues. More information about Bilirakis and his campaign is available at www.BilirakisForCongress.com.
Also from Florida, Charlie Crist, representing the state’s 13th congressional district, which includes the cities of St. Petersburg and Clearwater, is up for re-election. Crist, whose family name is derived from “Christodoulou” and whose father is partly of Greek Cypriot descent, was born in Pennsylvania but raised in Florida.
Initially a Republican, his political involvement began with an unsuccessful campaign for a state Senate seat in 1986, prior to being elected to the state Senate seat for the 20th District in 1992. A meteoric rise in politics followed, with Crist elected as Florida Attorney General in 2002 and as Florida Governor in 2006, serving until 2011 and narrowly losing a new bid for the governorship in 2013. Crist became a Democrat in 2012.
In Congress, Crist is a member of the House Committee on Financial Services and the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. He is also a member of the New Democrat Coalition, the Blue Dog Coalition, and the Climate Solutions Caucus. More details about Crist’s campaign can be found at www.charliecrist.com.
Another Greek-American candidate up for re-election is John Sarbanes, a Democrat who is the U.S. Representative for Maryland’s 3rd congressional district, which includes parts of Baltimore as well as the state capital, Annapolis.
Of Greek descent from his father’s side, Sarbanes followed a similar path as Bilirakis, as his father Paul Sarbanes (who later went on to a long career in the U.S. Senate) once represented the same congressional district which his son holds today. And like Bilirakis, Sarbanes has served in the House of Representatives since 2007.
Sarbanes currently serves on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, the Subcommittee on Health, is Co-Chair of the Congressional Public Service Caucus, and a member of the United States Congressional International Conservation Caucus, the Joint Congressional Human Rights Caucus, the Congressional Arts Caucus, the Congressional NextGen 9-1-1 Caucus, and the Pakistan Caucus.
Of particular interest to the Greek-American community and its allies, Sarbanes is a member of the House Congressional Hellenic Caucus, as well as the Armenian Caucus. More information about Sarbanes and his campaign can be found at www.johnsarbanes.com.
In Nevada, Congresswoman Dina Titus, originally born in Georgia to parents of Greek descent and a family with a political background, has represented the state’s 1st Congressional District since 2013. The district includes much of Las Vegas. Titus has an extensive political past, having previously represented Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives between 2009 and 2011, and prior to that, serving in the Nevada Senate between 1993 and 2009, representing the Clark 7th District. In the state Senate, she rose to become the body’s minority leader.
Titus has also enjoyed a long career as an academic. After getting her start at North Texas State University, she went on to teach political science courses in American and Nevada government at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) for 30 years. Titus founded and continues to coordinate UNLV’s Legislative Internship Program.
Of note for the Greek-American community, Titus is a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Congressional Hellenic Caucus. She is also a member of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, the Congressional Arts Caucus, and the United States Congressional International Conservation Caucus. More information about Titus’ campaign is available at www.dinatitus.com.
In addition to the aforementioned incumbents, two Greek-American potential newcomers are vying for a place in the House. Michael Waltz is attempting to become the third member of the House from Florida that is of Greek-American descent. Running as a Republican in Florida’s 6th district, which includes Daytona Beach, Waltz is a combat decorated Green Beret who served for 21 years in the U.S. Army, reaching the rank of Lt. Colonel and having served multiple combat tours to Afghanistan. Waltz has been awarded four bronze stars for his military service, including two for valor.
Waltz has also served in the Pentagon, as a defense policy director for Secretaries of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates, before serving in the George W. Bush White House as Vice President Dick Cheney’s counter-terrorism advisor. Further details about his campaign can be found at www.michaelwaltz.com.
Democrat Chris Pappas is also vying for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, running in New Hampshire’s 1st Congressional District, which includes Greater Manchester, regarded as one of the most competitive electoral districts in the United States. Indeed, Pappas emerged out of a field of 11 contenders in this year’s primary, including Levi Sanders, son of former U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
Of Greek descent via his paternal great-grandfather, Pappas entered political office in 2002 after being elected to the New Hampshire House of Representatives, where he served two terms. He then was elected to two terms as Hillsborough County treasurer, and has been elected three consecutive times to the New Hampshire Executive Council, most recently in 2016. More information about Pappas’ campaign is available at www.chrispappas.org.
Finally, it should be noted that Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, representing Massachusetts in the House since 2007, will not be running for re-election. She is Greek via her marriage to the late Paul Tsongas, a former presidential candidate with a long career representing Massachusetts in both chambers of Congress.
State and local races
Finally, a number of Greek-American candidates are participating in state and local races nationwide. Here’s the state-by-state breakdown:
In the largest state in the United States, Greek-American Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis is a candidate for Lieutenant Governor. Running as a Democrat, she would become the first female Lieutenant Governor in state history if elected. She has previously served as the former U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, having been appointed by President Barack Obama. More details about her campaign can be found at www.eleniforca.com.
Also in California, Greek-American Konstantinos Roditis, a Republican, is running for State Controller. Stemming from a business background, Roditis served as Anaheim City Commissioner between 2011 and 2017. More information about his campaign is available at www.roditisforcontroller.com.
Democrat Eleni Kavros DeGraw is running for State House District 17, which encompasses Canton and most of Avon. She is seeking to enter elected office for the first time. More information about her candidacy is available at www.teameleni.com.
Also in Connecticut, Democrat Susan Bysiewicz is campaigning for Lieutenant Governor. Having an extensive political background, Bysiewicz previously was elected to three terms in the Connecticut House of Representatives, representing the state’s 100th Assembly District between 1993 and 1999. She later served three terms as Connecticut Secretary of State, between 1999 and 2011. Bysiewicz ran an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2012, and originally announced her intent to run for Governor of Connecticut this year, before opting to run for Lieutenant Governor. More details about Bysiewicz can be found at www.susanforct.com.
Democrat Kathy Kramedas McGuiness is running for Delaware State Auditor. If elected, she will become the first Greek-American woman elected to statewide office in Delaware. Previously, she has served as Rehoboth Beach Commissioner for nearly two decades. More details are available at www.votemcguiness.com.
The granddaughter of immigrants from Crete, Maria Pappas has held the post of Cook County Treasurer for 20 years. Cook County is, of course, home to Chicago—and one of the largest economies in the world. This year, Pappas is vying for a fifth term. Previously, Pappas served as Cook County Commissioner for eight years. Further information about her campaign is available at www.mariapappas.net.
Also in Illinois, Erika Harold is the Republican nominee for State Attorney General. A lawyer by profession, this is her second attempt to be elected to public office, after an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2014, representing the 13th Congressional District seat. More information about her campaign is available at www.erikaharold.com.
Greek-American political activity is particularly strong in New York State. State Senator Mike Gianaris, a Democrat, is the first Greek-American to be elected to office from New York City and the second Greek-American to be elected to the State Senate. He is running for re-election in Senate District 12, which includes the historically Greek neighborhood of Astoria. Elected to the State Senate in 2010, Gianaris previously served in the New York State Assembly for 10 years, representing the 36th District. More details about the Gianaris campaign can be found at www.mikegianaris.com.
Aiming to join Gianaris in the New York State Senate is first-timer Andrew Gounardes, running as a Democrat in Senate District 22. This district includes the neighborhood of Bay Ridge, home to a substantial Greek community and the area where Gournardes was raised. More information about his candidacy is available at www.andrewgounardes.com.
Another first-timer vying for a seat in the State Senate is Democrat James Skoufis. The son of a Greek immigrant, Skoufis has been elected to three terms in the State Assembly, representing the 99th District, and is now a candidate for the 39th District of the State Senate, in Orange County. Further details are available at www.skoufisforny.com.
In the New York State Assembly, two Greek-Americans are campaigning for re-election. Republican Nicole Malliotakis has represented the 64th Assembly District, encompassing parts of Staten Island and Brooklyn, in 2010 and has been re-elected three times. She also unsuccessfully ran for mayor of New York City in 2017. More details about Malliotakis can be found at www.nicolemalliotakis.com.
Democrat Aravella Simotas currently represents the 36th Assembly District once held by Mike Gianaris; a district which includes the heavily Greek areas of Astoria and Long Island City. Like Malliotakis, Simotas was first elected to office in 2010 and has been continuously re-elected since then. More details can be found on her Facebook page, www.facebook.com/SimotasNY/.
Finally, Greek-American Nomiki Konst is running for the position of Public Advocate of New York City, a position unique within American politics. More information about her campaign is available at www.nomikikonst.com.
A second-generation Greek-American, Jim Trakas is a Republican with an extensive background in politics. Beginning in 1991, Trakas served two terms on the Independence, Ohio City Council, and in 1998 he was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives, representing the 15th and later the 17th District. His tenure included two terms as House Majority Whip. In 2008, he ran an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives in Ohio’s 10th congressional district. Trakas is now running for the 6th District of the Ohio House of Representatives, encompassing parts of suburban Cleveland. More details are available at www.jimtrakas.com.
Also in Ohio, Democrat Zack Space is running for State Auditor, who formerly served as U.S. Representative for Ohio’s 18th District, representing a large swath of Southeastern Ohio, between 2007 and 2011. Further details about his campaign are available at www.zackspaceforohio.com.
Democrat Leonidas Raptakis is a State Senator in Rhode Island, representing District 33, which encompasses East Greenwich. Raptakis has a long political past, serving in the Rhode Island House of Representatives, representing District 31, for two terms between 1992 and 1996, and serving several non-consecutive terms in Rhode Island State Senate Districts 20 and 33 since 1997. Raptakis is also a member of the World Hellenic Inter-Parliamentary Organization. More information about him can be found at www.leoraptakis.com.
(Mike Manatos contributed to this report)