For DC, a mayoral candidate fluent in Anacostia, art and Arabic

JAN 31, 2014


Andy Shallal, an Iraqi-American businessman who preaches fair-labor practices, tries his hand at politics


Washington, D.C. — On the morning of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, mayoral candidate Andy Shallal, 58, posed for a photograph in front of the Lincoln Theater, one of the last remnants of Washington’s historical “Black Broadway,” with some of the city’s progressive black artists. It’s a community that Shallal has long been part of as a local muralist and activist, even though he is not African-American. Most people, however, assume he is.


Half an hour later and around the corner, he was back at Busboys and Poets, the bookstore and restaurant that became an instant D.C. institution when Shallal opened it in 2005. Onstage in the room reserved for readings, meetings, organizing and performances and under portraits of the Dalai Lama, Mohandas Gandhi and King, Shallal welcomed an eclectic crowd that included volunteers knitting for low-income and homeless children and an Egyptian musical troupe touring the U.S. performing “Les Miserables” in translation. Shallal spoke to both groups at the same time, borrowing two needles to knit a few stitches — saying his grandmother in Baghdad taught him how — and greeting the Egyptians in their (and his) native Arabic.


“Artists are the foundation of civilization. I’m an artist, and it saved my life,” he told them before returning to his stump speech criticizing the widening gap between Washington’s wealthy and poor in terms of income, education, literacy and health care.


Before noon he was on the other side of town, marching in the annual Peace Walk through Southeast, an area left out of the development boom that has transformed D.C. in the past decade. Many people who live on the other side of the Anacostia River — a seemingly nontraversable barrier — had never been to the neighborhood. It is also where Shallal’s campaign headquarters are located.


Of the Democratic mayoral candidates in this race (there are seven plus the incumbent), perhaps only Shallal can move so fluidly among the city’s different and often disconnected communities — its native residents, the majority of whom are African-American; the transplants who hail from every state to work for the federal government or in the political industry; and those who come from all over the world to staff embassies and international organizations.


On this unseasonably warm day, Shallal cheerfully crisscrossed the two-mile stretch of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to shake hands with people lining up on the streets, sitting on car hoods and peeking out from their doorsteps.


“Hi, I’m Andy, and I’m running for mayor,” he said, received variously with an embrace, a smile, a shrug, a plea or a talking-to directed at anyone who would listen.


Many a candidate seeking elected office has tried to convince voters that he or she deserves a chance as an outsider to it all. In this race, Shallal, for better or ill, may have the best claim.


Since 1974, when Washington held its first election after being granted the ability to elect its mayor and City Council, all six mayors have been African-American. The first elected mayor was the presidentially appointed mayor-commissioner in the years before home rule. Three of the others were City Council members, another the Democratic National Committee treasurer, and one was the CFO of D.C.


Shallal was born in Iraq and moved to the Virginia suburbs of Washington at the age of 11. He suffered from a terrible stutter and was 80 percent disfluent into his early 30s — in both Arabic and English. He may be an artist, an activist and a restaurateur but has never held public office.


But observers say he might have a shot. “He is outside the political structure, but he’s not outside of D.C. culture,” said Tony Norman, a community activist and an advisory neighborhood commissioner in the city’s Ward 1.


And Shallal is putting forth his art, his activism and the influence of his businesses — on job creation and neighborhood revitalization — as better credentials to run the city than those of his competitors.


For those who don’t know Washington, his friends say, the label “restaurant owner” or “businessman” doesn’t completely capture the impact of Shallal’s businesses.


“He is democracy’s restaurateur,” said Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate and former Green Party presidential candidate. “He broadened his definition of a restaurant to make it a community gathering place and has brought more people to more issues, discussion, enlightenment and debate.”


Shallal met Nader in 1987 when he opened the restaurants Skewers and Café Luna in a brick row house on P and 17th streets. Nader, whose office was nearby, went for the Middle Eastern food. The men became friends, and with Jerry Brown — whose grass-roots campaign for president Shallal ran as a volunteer in northern Virginia — they brainstormed ideas for creating a political salon that could promote democracy and civic engagement. Shallal decided to transform the floor above Skewers into a meeting and organizing space. When he began to toy with the idea of adding a bookstore, Nader’s interns walked over with boxes of books Nader donated to the project.


“Jesse Jackson, Howard Zinn, Alice Walker — we all used to hang out drinking and discussing changing the world,” said Shallal.


Soon the quarters were cramped. At the same time, Washington’s rapid development began to expand into the U Street corridor, a neighborhood just a few blocks away that had been home, historically, to a thriving African-American community. (Howard University is nearby.) But the area was the epicenter of riots after the 1968 assassination of King and were devastated in the violence.


A Whole Foods, condominiums and expensive restaurants began popping up on what were once blighted streets. New business and residences riffed on the neighborhood’s rich African-American heritage but served mostly white patrons and homeowners. The sense among some — that “Chocolate City” was being left behind in D.C.’s rapid gentrification — appeared validated when developers constructing a new housing development, named for Duke Ellington (who was born nearby), circulated glossy advertisements with renderings of what the completed building and surrounding area would look like. The images depicted residents and passersby, none of whom were African-American.


But it was available retail space in another development, the Langston Lofts, named for poet Langston Hughes, that Shallal zeroed in on. He has long found comfort in memorizing the lines of Hughes’ poetry.


Shallal mortgaged his house, signed over his car and, with a loan from the Small Business Administration, transformed the space into Busboys and Poets. (The name is an homage to Hughes’ time as a busboy at Washington’s Wardman Hotel, where he worked before gaining success as a writer.)


Shallal went on to hire 30 people, 20 of them full time with benefits; he has helped found Restaurants Advancing Industry Standards in Employment (RAISE), which advocates for health insurance for employees and other practices.


“Andy has been an example of how to do business ethically in the city,” said a man who goes by Mr. Tate. The two met at a small-business development forum; Tate runs a barbecue cafe that trains local high school students for careers in the food industry.


Shallal also opened Eatonville Restaurant across the street, inspired by Zora Neale Hurston. (Sharing a corner, the sibling businesses are meant to reconcile Hurston and Hughes, who fell out after fighting over rights on a collaboration.)


Since opening the flagship Busboys on 14th Street between U and V, Shallal has opened three more, with a fourth on the way. Across his businesses, he employs 530 people. (More than half are full time; everyone has sick leave and access to health care, and the full-time employees have retirement plans with matching contributions.)


“What he did was bring a real cutting-edge business into the ward. He had a vision that was very different than most of these types of bars, and it became an exciting place to be, and it’s added to the excitement of U Street,” said Jim Graham, councilman for Ward 1.


Now developers pay the costs for Shallal to open a Busboys and Poets, using it as an anchor to attract other businesses and investors. They are hoping the changes he helped bring to U Street can be re-created in other parts of the city.


Muriel Bowser, a rival would-be mayor, said, “I like Andy. He’s going to open a restaurant in Ward 4,” referring to a Busboys and Poets launching later this year in Tacoma.


It was the events that ravaged U Street 46 years ago that shaped Shallal, then 13, who had just arrived as Anas Shallal from Baghdad.


He remembers watching from suburban Arlington, Va., as smoke rose above Washington in the riots that rocked it and many other U.S. cities as racial tensions boiled over after King’s assassination.


That race — a concept that didn’t really exist in Iraq — could be so significant a factor in people’s lives left an impression on him.


Shallal, who attended an integrated public middle school, was neither black nor white. “Race was already a big reason I couldn’t fit in,” he said.


And for a foreigner with limited ability in English and a severe stutter, the isolation, he said, “created a sense of understanding of others who have had limitations or obstacles in their lives.”


Although that empathy would spawn Shallal’s later passion for social-justice causes, at the time he was constantly asking his parents when they would return to Baghdad. His parents always planned to return to Iraq, but they never did.


Shallal’s father arrived in Washington in 1966 as the Arab League representative to the U.S. But by the time the term ended in 1969, the Baathists had seized power in Iraq, and the family found itself marooned in Virginia. Shallal’s father was about to move to Salt Lake City to take a job as a professor when a family friend persuaded him to instead buy a pizza-and-sub joint that was for sale in the Virginia suburbs, telling him business, not academia, was where the money was.


Shallal’s father kept the name — Pizza Kaezano — and Shallal worked there every day after school with his brother Yasir. It was there that they became Andy and Tony, and the names stuck.


Shallal finished high school at 15 and graduated from Catholic University at 19 in 1974. He worked at the National Institutes of Health in leukemia research and initially followed his parents’ dream for him, to become a doctor. He lasted a semester before dropping out of Howard University’s medical school. He traveled across the country and spent a year in San Francisco before moving back to D.C., down the street from where the first Busboys and Poets would open.


“Back then in 1980, it was very different,” he said. “It didn’t feel unsafe, but there were a lot of hookers.”


He eventually returned to what he had a talent for, food and business. He persuaded his father to let him take over at Pizza Kaezano, which he converted into a sit-down Italian restaurant, eventually selling it for a profit. (He credits the sauces he created and a signature cheesecake.) He married twice, the second time to an Iranian-American — at the height of the war between their two native countries.


Although Shallal has long been active on campaigns against war in the Middle East, as well as environmental and anti-war causes, Nader said, “He’s not a static ethnic.”


And years later, that racial ambiguity has, in some sense, helped him fit in in Washington.


When Norman’s friends learn where Shallal is from, Norman said, they are amazed: “‘You mean to tell me he isn’t black?’”


Shallal has never hidden his ethnicity, and word has begun to get out.


Wayne Nelson, 45, a supporter who carried an “Andy Shallal for mayor” sign at the Peace Walk, said he knows Shallal is not black.


“Everyone has got a shot,” he said. “Even if he’s from Afghanistan.”


If Shallal wins the April primary, making him the presumptive winner of the general election in this Democratic stronghold, he said he knows what he’s doing on his first day: “I’m going to convene my entire Cabinet, go on a retreat and talk about race. How does race impact you, the city, services, your life? We’d have a very deep discussion and then open the discussion up to the city so people can connect in a different way.”


He believes that having those conversations means he can get traction on his other priorities: creating jobs with paid sick leave; making housing affordable for people at all income levels; providing more assistance to seniors, youth and people returning to the community after serving prison sentences; and ensuring that public housing is “restored and renovated rather than destroyed and shuttered.”


While that’s an agenda that would naturally appeal to progressives, Shallal thinks the business community should also embrace him. He wants to boost support for startups, local businesses and entrepreneurs by, for example, providing financial benefits to socially and environmentally responsible businesses and those that open in underdeveloped neighborhoods.


Because of his success as a businessman, he’s made this promise, a la former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg: “I’ll donate my mayoral salary back to the city.”


That appeals to James Wood, 22, a D.C. voter who said he was turned off by corruption in the 2010 mayoral campaign of the eventual victor, Vincent C. Gray, who leads this year’s race with roughly 25 percent of the vote. (Two of Gray’s former aides have pleaded guilty to making illegal campaign contributions and other payments to another candidate to disparage Adrian Fenty, the incumbent candidate at the time.)


“(Shallal is) not in it for the money. He can’t be bought,” said Wood.


For now, Shallal knows his task is getting name recognition. Just because people know the businesses doesn’t mean they know his name.


“My least likely voter,” he said, “are the folks who don’t know me yet.”

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Originally published by Al Jazeera America


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