December 11, 2013

D.C mayoral contender Anas “Andy” Shallal wears his politics on his sleeve and on the walls of his Busboys and Poets restaurants, where customers might see images of iconic figures — Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi — and excerpts of poet Langston Hughes’s works: “Let America be America again / Let it be the dream it used to be . . .

“I am very political, but I am not a politician,” Shallal told me last week. At more than six feet tall, he is physically imposing. His opinions and policies are marked by both an activist’s passion and a businessman’s pragmatism.

Can that blend help him win the Democratic Party nomination? If he makes it through the ballot qualifying process, it should earn him a serious look from voters dissatisfied with a field dominated by officeholders: Mayor Vincent C. Gray and D.C. Council members Muriel Bowser (Ward 4), Jack Evans (Ward 2), Vincent Orange (At Large) and Tommy Wells (Ward 6). A similar dissatisfaction compelled Shallal to run, although he had initially said he would support Gray. “I realized he was more concerned with business as usual, and I wanted to go in a new direction,” said Shallal.

The misinformed have tagged him a neophyte, as if that means he can’t win. Does anyone remember Anthony Williams? In 1998, the bow-tie-wearing chief financial officer, who lacked deep political roots in the city, trounced his opposition in the Democratic primary.

With an ongoing federal investigative cloud hanging over the current government, anything could happen. This is not an endorsement. I’m just saying.

Besides, Shallal is no novice. In 1991, he coordinated volunteers for Jim Zais, who competed against Jack Evans for the Ward 2 council seat. Zais lost by 386 votes, but Shallal racked up important experience. He was active in 1992’s Initiative 41 campaign, which sought to limit all political contributions to $100; the measure passed but the council later struck it down. Recently he was involved in the push for a hike in the city’s minimum wage. He served briefly in 2012 as campaign chairman for disgraced Council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large), but Shallal said he lent only his name and had no responsibility for internal campaign operations. He said he knew nothing of Brown’s criminal activities; when the news broke, Shallal said, “he never even called me.”

An Iraqi immigrant, Shallal has lived in this country since he was 10. He has taken heat, mostly from right-wing conservatives, for his positions on the Middle East, including support of a two-state solution, an end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and a reduction in U.S. military funding to Israel. “I’ve been very consistent in my conversations about social justice. Whether it’s the Middle East or Southeast, I stand for justice,” he said.

He’s not running to be secretary of state. Further, many Washingtonians agree with his position. But most are focused on their back yards: affordable housing, government ethics, education and economic development.

“The issue of inequality is the issue of our time,” Shallal said, spouting a mantra of political progressives. While some liberal opponents may agree, he’s still the outside man, standing farthest left in the field.

“We’re at a moment . . . this is like the Titanic: It’s beautiful, it’s luxurious, but we are getting into north waters,” continued Shallal. “I’m the one ringing the alarm, saying it’s time to slow down a little, time to reassess the direction we’re going into.”

Many people welcome his call for a moratorium on school closings and a review of the proliferation and performance of charters. But any consideration of repealing mayoral control of public education, as he said he favors, would be an entirely different matter. That might win him a few donations from the Washington Teachers’ Union but lose him plenty of votes. Most parents don’t want to return to the days when school board members bickered incessantly and schools rapidly declined.

Shallal’s insight into the affordable housing crisis could get some attention but won’t separate him from the pack. He offered that long-term residents aren’t the only ones affected. Young professionals are being forced “to live three and four in an apartment because they can’t afford [the rent]. . . . That’s a concern for me.”

If he’s mining for votes east of the Anacostia River, like other candidates, he could secure support with his assault on the current administration’s economic development strategy. “The tendency is to throw things at them [rather than] allowing the indigenous entrepreneurial spirit to rise,” said Shallal, adding that loading neighborhoods with government buildings is not an economic development strategy.

Existing home-based businesses in those areas could grow into retail shops, fashion centers and restaurants, if the city relaxed guidelines, he said. “Why not give [temporary] licenses, so we don’t end up with businesses parachuting into a community and pushing everyone out of the way, as opposed to allowing the indigenous population to create the world they want to live in?”

Shallal said current elected leaders lack the vision to take the city through “a new century in a new way. I will unite new D.C. and old D.C. There has to be someone to bridge that.”

That’s true. Is he the one?

jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com