When Michael Avenatti got up to speak Sunday night at a fundraiser for a Muslim American activist group in Northern Virginia, he knew the crowd might be surprised to see him. He also knew his anti-Trump, anti-racism, pro-immigration, Democratic political message would connect with the audience.
"What you may be asking tonight is what is some porn lawyer doing here in Northern Virginia to talk to us about the future of the republic," Avenatti told the crowd organized by Emgage, a Muslim American nonprofit that is organizing for and aiding candidates all over the country.
Although he has not yet decided whether to run for president, Avenatti gave what could only be described as a stump speech to the 300 or so attendees, and he even pledged $10,000 from his new Fight PAC to help the group's political wing support mostly Democratic candidates in local and national races across the country.
In an interview afterward, Avenatti told me that President Donald Trump's policies and rhetoric demonizing Muslim Americans in particular and immigrants in general has opened up a huge opportunity for Democrats to make the case that their party shares the values - and therefore deserves the support - of this increasingly active and organized voter bloc.
"There's no question it's a big opportunity for Democrats, and shockingly many Democrats have ignored this community," he said. "The Muslim American community has been ignored for far too long, and yet they have been disproportionately impacted by the policies of the last two years."
Emgage estimates that half of the nation's approximately 3.5 million Muslims are registered to vote and notes that their turnout numbers have increased greatly over the past eight years, especially in key states including Virginia, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Texas. The group has used its limited but growing resources to get out the Muslim American vote through phone calls, door-knocking and social media ads.
Its political wing, Emgage Action, is supporting a raft of not just Muslim candidates but also non-Muslim candidates who share its views, such as Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum in Florida. While the group is officially nonpartisan, its focus has shifted markedly to Democrats since Trump became president, for a lot of understandable reasons.
During his campaign, Trump called for a complete ban on Muslims entering the United States "until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on." His administration pushed through a travel ban that this community still views as a "Muslim ban" because it disproportionately targets Muslim-majority countries. Trump's treatment of Hispanic immigrants seeking asylum on the southern border also offends many Muslims whose families recently found safe harbor and opportunity in the United States.
Muslim American political organization is not new. During the 2016 presidential election, both Trump and Hillary Clinton had help from groups representing Muslim or Arab Americans. But these were mostly focused on wrangling wealthy donors and defending the policies of whichever campaign they were already associated with.
Now, younger Muslim American activists and politicians are coming to the fore. About 100 Muslim Americans ran for office in 2018, many of whom represent a younger generation that is less tied to their families' country of origin and more concerned with issues such as immigration, the economy, social justice, education and gun control, said former State Department official Wael Alzayat, Emgage's CEO.
"The new generation of American-born Muslims, they want to engage with politicians on issues that affect Muslims but also on issues that they care about as Americans," he said. "We can and have supported Republican candidates, but right now the overwhelming number is Democratic because very few Republicans are articulating the type of vision for an inclusive and tolerant America that all of us demand."
For example, in the 2016 cycle, Emgage's Virginia chapter supported Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., who had made it a point to engage with the Muslim American community in her district in Alexandria. This cycle, the group is supporting her Democratic opponent, Jennifer Wexton.
"She made all the right noises of not being a Trump Republican. She turned out to be a Trump Republican," journalist Mehdi Hasan said about Comstock at the fundraiser. "Yes, she turned up at mosques, and yes, she offered mild criticism of the very first version of the Muslim ban, right at the start. But she's also voted with Trump more than 90 percent of the time."