This Day In History: January 3

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On January 3, 1959, George A. Kasem takes office in the U.S. House of Representatives for California’s 25th District, making history as the first Arab American Congressperson.

Kasem, who is of Lebanese descent, was born in Oklahoma and raised in Los Angeles. He ran as a Democrat, flipping the seat previously held by Republican Congressman Patrick J. Hillings, who retired to run for Attorney General of California. Kasem won by a razor-thin margin—50.1% of the vote over Republican candidate Prescott O. Lieberg’s 49.9%—and was part of a national shift during the 1958 midterms, during which Republicans lost 48 seats to Democrats during President Eisenhower’s second term.

Kasem’s national political career proved short: He served in the House of Representatives for one term, during which he advocated for federal funding for education and for the San Gabriel Valley Flood Control project. After taking office, he visited Lebanon and drew the ire of some of its citizens, with two newspapers calling for his expulsion from the nation in response to a statement he made in support of Israel, in which he called the country’s creation “the best way to restore the tranquility of the Middle East.”

Kasem, who was a World War II veteran and former lawyer, ran for re-election in 1960, but lost to John H. Rousselot, a Republican. He returned to practicing law in California before becoming commissioner of West Covina’s Citrus Municipal Court from 1978 to 1984. He died of pneumonia in 2002 at age 82.