Andy Shallal glanced around the room full of D.C. voters, finally attentive, and then back at the two teenagers who wanted to first read poetry. The Busboys and Poets owner had been waiting for hours, past 11 p.m., to address the crowd. It was well beyond the point at which the five more-practiced politicians ahead of him in the race for mayor might have stayed to appeal to a house party.
But Shallal is not a typical candidate. He smiled and ceded the stage — and perhaps his moment — as the young poets struck up a hip-hop beat and began pounding out themes of peace, justice and the quest to send “Andy Shallal to city hall.”
Anas “Andy” Shallal, the Iraqi American scientist turned poet, painter, activist and multimillionaire restaurateur, is the hard-to-define outsider in this year’s Democratic primary for mayor. Shallal is a novice candidate but a natural politician. Despite the spoken-word, song and dance performances that surround his campaign, he also is no sideshow.
He is pushing a resolutely populist agenda, promising to close the gap between the District’s rich and poor in terms that echo the winning pitch of recently elected New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.
More than his policies, however, it’s Shallal’s personal story that has given him gravitas, at least with a swath of voters long uninspired by D.C. politics — its hipsters, artists, Bohos and liberal intelligentsia.
If you’ve ever attended the Capital Fringe Festival, joined the drumming circles at Malcolm X Park (also known by the less revolutionary moniker of Meridian Hill Park) or thought that Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” should be required reading for high-schoolers, you probably know who Shallal is and would consider voting for him. If you’re part of the rest of the District, you may not be familiar with Shallal and are probably wondering: Is he for real?
Shallal, 58, immigrated to the United States as a 9-year-old when his father fled unrest in Iraq and grew up washing dishes in his parents’ Northern Virginia pizzeria. He set aside a promising research career at the National Institutes of Health to pursue his passions. Married an Iranian. Ran restaurants. Protested war. Combined the two into Busboys and Poets — an all-in-one restaurant-coffee shop-bookstore-bar-gathering spot.
In a city long divided by race and class, Busboys and Poets became a multicultural hub for discussion, then a brand, then a mini-empire, with four restaurants and two more on the way.
And it blossomed as Shallal paid his now 500-plus staff of waiters, cooks and janitors more than the minimum wage and provided them with health insurance.
Along the way, Shallal became increasingly active politically. He campaigned to limit money in politics, for D.C. statehood and to elect Barack Obama president. He protested big oil, big banks and war. The latter, again and again.
Shallal frequently casts himself as untainted by the District’s string of corruption probes and convictions, but he also briefly took on the role of campaign chairman for former council member Michael A. Brown, who pleaded guilty last year to charges of bribery. Brown staffers said Shallal was a figurehead, and records show that he never contributed to the candidate. Shallal said he accepted the role as a favor to his sister and never heard from Brown after his arrest. “I’d like to ask him: What the . . . hell?” Shallal said.
In 2010, Shallal supported Vincent C. Gray’s bid for mayor and sought increasing influence on social justice issues. When it became clear that he didn’t have much sway on causes such as a higher minimum wage for Wal-Mart workers, he said, he began pondering his own run. He got serious about his candidacy while Gray (D), dogged by a federal investigation into campaign improprieties, dallied last summer over his own reelection plans.
Shallal bridges many of the District’s most treacherous fault lines, said E. Ethelbert Miller, head of the African American Studies Resource Center at Howard University and one of the restaurateur’s strongest supporters.
“We’re talking about transformative politics,” Miller said. “What’s happening is not a restaurant owner, but a movement. I don’t care if it’s D.C, Akron or Kalamazoo, people hear about this guy, they’ll be talking. It’s similar to Obama.”
Being heard, however, is perhaps Shallal’s biggest hurdle. A recent Washington Post poll found that three out of four D.C. residents had no opinion of the candidate, suggesting that most don’t know who he is. Among likely voters, 5 percent said they would vote for Shallal in the April 1 primary.
The candidate pegs his net worth at “$12 to $15 million” or maybe more. He lent his upstart campaign $45,000 and recently put in $50,000. But he won’t come close to contributing $1 million of his own money, he said, to rival the spending of Gray’s biggest challengers. Shallal wants his ideas, not his bank account, to win the election.
His camp professes confidence in an unlikely path to victory. It revolves around Shallal’s status as a political outsider. He can appeal to voters weary of corruption, scandal and political division by stressing that he has never held elective office and would do something wholly different with it if he did.
On a recent Saturday, Shallal and a couple dozen supporters spent hours waving signs amid a windchill factor of 9 degrees at five city intersections. Mehrunisa Qayyum, 34, who works on international development policy in Africa, was among those bouncing up and down at 14th and U streets NW to stay warm.
“I spend all day working on issues far away,” Qayyum said, “and he’s really made me take another look at my own community.”
She was standing beside a Code Pink antiwar protester, who was next to an LGBT activist, who was near an Iraq war veteran. All had their own reasons for supporting Shallal, but they were united in embracing his promise to be different.
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” Shallal says in one of his most oft-repeated campaign lines. The criticism lumps Gray in with the four Democratic council members seeking to replace him: Muriel Bowser (Ward 4), Jack Evans (Ward 2), Tommy Wells (Ward 6) and Vincent B. Orange (At Large). “They have been in office for years and years, and what have they accomplished?” Shallal often asks audiences. “The city is more divided now than it ever was.
“I have the right mix of business acumen and compassion to do things better,” he says.
Of course, if he were elected, Shallal would face staggering challenges. American voters have elected actors, professional wrestlers, teenagers and other political neophytes to mayor’s and governor’s offices before. Rarely have they excelled.
At his restaurants, Shallal often dines with his wife and leaves a note for the manager with a critique of the service. He hires and fires at will — including a manager last month for fraternizing with a subordinate.
In the District, he would face a bureaucracy that includes 250 boards and commissions and more than 23,000 employees — most unionized and plenty resistant to change.
Shallal has offered a handful of first steps for aiding the city’s poor. He wants free Metrobus and Metro subway rides for low-income residents and seniors. He wants to double the mandatory share of affordable housing in most new developments to 20 percent and to embark on a major expansion of permanent housing for the homeless.
He would work to slow the displacement of longtime residents, he said, by making sure that every new development is judged through the lens of whether it is “fixing and improving” what’s there. Most of those that “erase and replace” should be stopped, he said.
Shallal has rarely throttled down that message, even when talking to skeptical groups of D.C. business leaders. But as a businessman himself, he said, he knows how the District fails them.
“I’ve stood in line at” the city’s building permit office, he said. “You can see the biggest developers always getting to cut in to the front of the line.” Shallal would create a dedicated window at the permit office for small businesses, run by former small-business owners.
He wants to lead “a citywide dialogue on race,” he said, and to retrain city employees — including the Department of Motor Vehicles and the police — to be more open and tolerant.
For Shallal to broach such topics effectively as a public official, he acknowledges he would have to be “more nuanced” than he has been at times as a private citizen.
For nearly a decade at the D.C. Jewish Community Center, Shallal co-hosted an after-theater forum known as Peace Cafe with Theater J’s artistic director, Ari Roth. The discussions were supposed to promote better Jewish-Muslim dialogue, but the JCC ended its affiliation with the forum two years ago, and some think it was partly because of the fallout of an unusually fierce anti-Israel comment Shallal made in 2007.
The “U.S. and its allies sit on the side, getting their marching orders from Tel Aviv,” Shallal said near the U.S. Capitol, warning of a “a new Israeli-American century, where those who dare to speak out will be squashed.”
Roth admonished Shallal for the comment at the time but recently lent his name to a fundraiser and wrote him a check for his campaign. “Andy is not a perfect person; I’m not a perfect person. But he’s an authentic human being,” Roth said. The decade-long run of Peace Cafe, and an offshoot that has since met a couple times at Busboys and Poets, should speak louder than any single comment, he said.
Shallal’s commentary on the Middle East may have far less of a bearing on his chances for mayor than another issue closer to home. Critics in Ward 8 complain that he has not moved quickly enough on a promise to locate a Busboys and Poets in Anacostia. He said he intends to but was noncommittal about when, saying he wanted to partner with local African American developers. Most often these days, developers pay Shallal to open a restaurant.
If continuing to operate the chain “becomes an issue” for voters, he said he would be willing to sell the business, perhaps to his brother and daughter.
Miller, the Howard poet, thinks Shallal is simply the most inspiring person running for D.C. mayor. “All due respect to the other candidates, I find them dull,” Miller said. “Gray kept a good city good. Andy can make a good city great. You dig?”
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.