Andy Shallal isn’t following the path of the career politician. That’s because up until a week ago, the owner of Busboys and Poets was not a politician. He became one two Fridays ago, when he picked up the forms to run in the Democratic primary for the District’s mayoral race. Since then, he’s been getting a quick primer on politics.
Shallal’s best known as the restaurateur-activist pushing for social justice. He has been arrested in front of the White House for protesting an oil pipeline, and he was a vocal dissident of the Iraq war. He stands out as an ostensibly different face in a crowd we’ve become so used to. Yet he chose to run as a Democrat, the party of so many of the other candidates looking to be mayor.
Shallal said he didn’t want to appear as any more of an outsider than he already might. “I think oftentimes in this city, if you’re not running as a Democrat, you’re kind of seen as a fringe candidate,” Shallal said. “And I’m not a fringe candidate.”
In this race, however, Shallal is a long shot. The field is heavy with D.C. Council members and a former U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president.
Some supporters thought that if Shallal ran as an independent he might have a clearer path to becoming mayor. He could avoid the muckraking of the primary process, all the while raising money and spreading his message in a city where he’s gained a significant following. But Shallal wanted to mix it up.
“I wanted to be involved in the debates and be able to express my ideas in an environment that’s going to be heard,” he said. “I think that when you have a crowded field, you can also stand out easier. I think sometimes you can carve your space or your niche. And I think I’m pretty different than the rest of them.”
On Thursday, he yet again made it clear that he didn’t want to be connected to the establishment. He parted with the political operative who was to serve as his senior field director, and the only person in his inner circle with any experience running a citywide campaign.
Shallal said he wants to appeal to the people in the city “who are sick and tired of business as usual.”
“I’m appealing to most of the city that wants some integrity and trust in their government,” said Shallal, 58. “I’m also appealing to people that don’t go out to vote. And the reason why they don’t vote is not because they don’t want to, it’s not because they don’t think it’s important to vote, but they don’t think government can do anything for them.”
The voters are out there. In the past two years, census figures show that the city’s population has gone up by 30,000 people. The Washington Post reported in June that “the bulk of the growth since 2010 has been among people between the ages of 25 and 39.” Moreover, only 133,854 of the 370,416 voters registered in the District in 2010 showed up to the polls for that year’s Democratic primary, according to the D.C. Board of Elections.
If Shallal is to make inroads, he’s going to need people like David Bransfield, who was sitting in Shallal’s restaurant when he learned the owner is now a mayoral candidate.
“Hopefully, this turns into something,” said Bransfield, 23, who lives in Eastern Market and hasn’t voted in the District. “But I haven’t really researched any of the candidates. I have no idea what [Shallal] stands for.”
Angie Chuang, an associate professor of journalism at American University, with whom I once sat on a Busboys and Poets panel series discussing race in Washington, thinks that Shallal’s identity could be a big advantage, if handled correctly.
“I think an Iraqi American candidate for mayor who has built his identity and name on D.C.’s historically black neighborhoods and culture is symbolically an important entry into the mayor’s race,” Chuang said in an e-mail. “If Shallal can frame our associations of him with the redevelopment of U Street — and all the good and bad of it — in a way that shows us who he truly is as a leader, he could be a unifying figure. If others get a hold of the narrative before he does, it could go downhill quickly.”