Shallal sat down at the original Busboys location, at 14th and V streets NW, late last month for an extended interview for a Washington Post profile published this week. The following transcript has been edited for length, and some parts have been condensed for clarity.
You have said that in a word, “inequality” is the reason you entered the D.C. mayor’s race. And you have also called the District rich in resources but poor in vision. So, combining those two, what is your vision for addressing inequality?
When I say the city lacks a vision, what I am really referring to is the fact that the focus of the city should be about the people it serves. And I don’t think there is a clear focus about what the intention is of all the things we are doing. What are the developers doing? Who are they benefiting? And, is this the best option for us to do at this point in time when we make a decision about a certain development or a certain project? What’s the bottom line? And I think the bottom line oftentimes is looked at as “how much money can the city make?” The way I see it, the city is not a business. It should be there to serve the public, we should focus on what services and what benefits the city is getting from the developments that are happening in the city.
So, say, someone brings to you the idea of CityCenter, the $700 million development on the site of the old convention center. There was affordable housing, but mostly condos and very nice apartments, high-end retail. Would you have supported that?
I would certainly make sure the affordability factor is actually real — and not just to serve people who could afford $1,500 a month, but ones that can pay a good bit less than that. Try to increase the amount of inclusionary zoning right now, which I believe is about 10 percent for most of these projects, I would like to see it go up to 20 percent, and I think there’s a lot of discussion about this possibility. … When you’re talking about CityCenter, there wasn’t much there, it wasn’t like you were displacing people. That’s a bit of an exception, I think. What I see, for example, are areas like Barry Farm, which are now being — everybody is being pushed out of those areas to be able to build these new affordable housing complexes there. I think it’s making the people who are there entirely displaced. Some will come back but most won’t, and it’s going to be very hard for poor families to withstand that shake-up. To somehow be able to fix what’s there, as opposed to starting from scratch, is a better way to go. I think the development has to match the community it is going into. We’ve gone into a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all formula that doesn’t really fit. … You have to accommodate the communities you go into; you can’t just have every neighborhood in the city look the same. I want different neighborhoods to decide for themselves what their identity is and what they are going to look like and what kind of development goes in there.
14th Street, where we are sitting now, has changed dramatically, and some have criticized it, saying the area has become too expensive for most people to afford. What do you think of the development along this corridor?
The development along here has for the most part been actually good. But what I see now is there is a willingness to go even further. What has happened along U Street has been more organic in the way it has grown, it took a lot of time to sort of redevelop after the riots, so there was a sense of place and a sense of space there; it didn’t happen overnight. A lot of the developments that are coming into play are basically erasing everything that is there now and starting with new developments without a sense of place or space and I’d like to see that brought under control.
What about the Reeves Center next door? Should that be sold in exchange for land for a D.C. United soccer stadium? And if so, what should be built there?
When we talk about the Reeves Center here, and the idea of wanting to sell the Reeves Center and do the exchange with acreage [for a soccer stadium], for me that may not be the most — the wisest — thing to do. I think you need in a community, in a neighborhood like this, some mixed uses, not more condos and high-end retail just because that is what is going to maximize profits if you sell it to a developer. That’s what they are looking for, maximizing profits, but this is public land, we need community spaces where people can come and hang out in that are public, that are open, and available for anyone to walk into. A place like the Reeves Center is a precious commodity that shouldn’t just be sold off to the highest bidder. I see it as having so much potential to be an arts center, to be an incubator for so many small start-ups and local businesses and local entrepreneurs, and local IT companies and NGOs, creating this sort of beehive of all-day, all-night activity.
I can imagine the first floor being like a Torpedo Factory where you bring in artists from all over the city to showcase their products. Having a small stage for some performance art, some musicians, that can go throughout the day; that has a beautiful plaza in the front that you can do stuff outside during the summers, not just the farmers markets on Saturdays but throughout the week; maybe even having like a flea market kind of situation there and have all the atriums there, and all the spaces could be places for the creative economy to flourish, the fashion designers and musicians to intersect. It’s become a crossroads, really — 14th and U streets — great bus lines, close to the Metro. There are a lot of possibilities without having to go into a cookie-cutter format.
But I think the Reeves Center still has a lot of good years ahead of it, it seems like it’s in good shape; I haven’t done any special studies on its condition. I think it has a couple more decades to go; I would try to fix it up a little and keep it as a city property.
How would you translate your experience running restaurants into running the mayor’s office? Do you see parallels? What would you spend most of your time doing?
I would spend most of my time talking to my deputies — all of the people in charge of the cabinet. I would spend a lot of time developing their skills. But also, the important thing that needs to happen, and I find the city becoming so racially polarized, I would like to be able to start out by addressing the issues that hold us back, the things we don’t talk about, the invisible things — race being one of them. It plays such a major role in the city, but oftentimes it does not get talked about. I would like to have an opportunity to discuss that with all of the deputies, to say, “How does race impact your day-to-day work? How does it impact your day-to-day life?” And how would you be able to have an honest conversation about that issue with your entire team, in order for them to be able to do their job better?” I would do that because I do believe things like race, the things like culture, get in the way oftentimes with how we conduct ourselves and how we do our jobs. I want to begin by opening up that conversation … that often percolates under the surface and manifests itself in the strangest ways.
Whether you’re at the DMV, DCRA, walking down the street, moving into a new neighborhood that is moving, you feel it, it becomes an issue. And I want to make sure we remove those barriers that prevent us from communicating with one another so we can excel at what we do.
You have interacted with the city on different levels. Have you ever felt race has been an issue?
I see it from a little bit of a distance, but yes, it’s definitely an issue when you go to the [Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs]; it’s definitely an issue when you go to the [Department of Motor Vehicles]. It’s an issue when you are walking down the street. And it’s an issue in my neighborhood in Adams Morgan. There are bars that are black clubs, bars that are white clubs, and very few that are mixed. It’s not a healthy environment. You see a lot of police presence to prevent the mingling and the friction that could occur. You need opportunities for people to intersect in a way that’s healthier.
You mentioned DCRA. You think someone looks at you and because of the color of your skin treats you differently?
I think people do, yeah, I do. It depends who’s behind the counter, how you’re going to be treated.
Which way do you see that more, someone who’s black behind the counter, dealing with someone who’s white, vice versa?
Either, or. I don’t think it’s one or the other. Sometimes even people of the same race deal with each other poorly. I see it very clearly in the restaurant business. Someone walks through the front door and, you know, say we just opened up, it’s a Saturday morning, and you have a black couple walk in. The hostess takes them through the entire room and seats them back in this room because it’s the coziest, sweetest room in the entire place. If you’re a black couple, what do you think your first thought is going to be? “Isn’t that nice, they’re putting me in a cute, little room?” or “Why are you putting me in a corner in the back?” If you have a white couple walk in, they get walked back here — “Oh, this is so cool, we have the whole room to ourselves. Isn’t that cute, cozy?” I’ve actually seen that with my own eyes. It happens, and those things are significant. They cannot be ignored because they impact our collective values — the way we connect with one another.
But that sounds like a situation where you have a black person and a white person, and they come in and are treated the same way but perceive it two entirely different ways.
That’s true. But the way that I talk about it, say, is that you have a black couple and a white couple follow each other in, and they’re standing in line, and you have a black hostess. The black hostess goes to the black couple and says, “Hey, how you all doing?” And then she seats them, and then she comes to the white couple and says, “Two? Right this way.” The white couple feels slighted; you feel like, “Why was she so enthusiastic about one and not with the other?” It makes a difference in how everyone is perceived. … I get comments sometimes, we have open mikes here sometimes that are often predominantly black, and I once received an e-mail from a white couple that came in here and said, “I can’t believe it, we were ignored, we came in here and didn’t feel welcome.” They thought their whiteness did not serve them in this situation.
How personal do you take those kinds of things? I was reading over the episode from 2011 when the cardboard cutout of Langston Hughes disappeared from the restaurant. [A poet had taken it as a literary protest over the low, $50 pay for author readings and didn’t like the portrayal of Hughes in a busboy uniform.] It seemed to lead to this kind of soul-searching over the issue.
I take everything very seriously, I mean, I think about it. Sometimes I just dismiss it, when I feel like it is not worth my time or effort. With the flat Langston issue, I really felt like it was a great moment. I evolved. I’m not like a person who is stuck, and lost their way. I evolved as a leader and when I see, for instance, a situation like that … I understand why people were affected. I didn’t like the way it was done. But I understand the offensive nature of what was happening.
It helped us change in an amazing way … the fact that we talked about poetry more, that we discussed how poets are paid through that, it brought up a huge conversation that otherwise would not have been had. It was a great moment. Every incident that comes across like that that seems terrible ends up being an opportunity to grow.
Here’s a question I was going to ask in some form later, but it seems like the right time now, reading back through the hundreds of times you’ve been quoted in some form or fashion over the years, it’s a very, neat and tidy narrative if you will. You’re someone perceived as kind of pushing out the limits on the left, being progressive, experimenting in different ways. Do you perceive yourself as having a very clear, neat and tidy narrative in your life, or do you feel it has been more messy than that?
I’ve been an activist all of my life, I really have. I didn’t just become an activist to open a restaurant. Someone once said — this was some angry person — “Oh, he puts up Gandhi on the wall, if it was convenient or made more money, he’d put up Hitler on the wall, or Satan on the wall.” It was something like, Come on? Really? You’re taught over and over again: never bring politics into business. That was the thing you don’t do in business, right? You don’t talk politics or religion. So, what do we talk about? Politics and religion. And we talk about it all the time. Oh, and race, the other taboo situation. So when we first started this place, one of the most frequent questions was, “Is the owner black?” Some of the staff didn’t know; some of them didn’t know what to say. So we decided that that’s obviously a discussion that’s important to have because people are asking it, and asking it frequently, more than where the bathroom is. So we need to have a discussion to find out what this is all about, because it’s an opportunity. So we started these conversations called A Continuing Talk On Race (ACTOR). These conversations have been going on since the first month and have been some of the best and probably longest-running race conversations in the city, if not the country. It’s been, what, eight years now. We have blacks and whites who sit here and pour their hearts out and talk about issues from identification to the death penalty to the new Jim Crow, how we do policing, how we do housing, and how does that get impacted by race? A lot of people want to talk about these issues but don’t get a chance to do so.
So how would the citywide dialogue on race that you propose benefit the city?
You would have a more cohesive community — that actually looks out for one another and cares for one another. I think when people start to have shared values so they don’t feel completely divorced from each other; it makes a huge difference in how they perceive themselves, how they feel they fit into the community. It manifests itself in many ways, in community engagement and how we do policing. A simple example is that report that came out last year July about how the policing [for marijuana] is done here and is so skewed for the same crimes. To have a colorblind police department is not, I think, a very useful thing to have. You have to have a police department that is very color-conscious, not colorblind. You don’t want colorblindness at this point, because when you do that, you render certain people invisible. And we are not blank slates; we come with lots of baggage in our heads. We know what that looks like, what that feels like, that sense of prejudice and bias that we come with is obviously going to create certain affects and impacts on our behavior.
It would seem it is one thing to have a restaurant where you can talk about all of these issues, an open forum, a discussion around theater performances, but when you’re in the mayor’s office you could probably more easily offend people.
I think everything has to be, obviously, you have to be more nuanced because you are trying to reach a much wider audience. You have to meet people where they are, and you have to bring them along. Every community needs to have its own dialogue; it’s not going to be one central dialogue. Ward 3 has one conversation to have, Ward 8 has a conversation to have, other wards have conversations to have around issues of race and access. It’s not about my particular experience that matters, but the collective experience that comes out.
Your particular experience, the Iraqi-American experience, what would you take from that experience into being mayor?
I think being the other often helps you see things from a different perspective. You know, I think people who have been born and who grew up in this country, race is in their DNA and therefore it’s really hard to imagine a different way. I sometimes liken it to people who have been in D.C. for a long time don’t really think about voting rights as much as people who just moved into this city from a state where they did have voting rights and suddenly they see it gone. They come and say, “Something is wrong with this picture,” and people just say, “Oh, that’s the way it is.” But the people who come into here become the real activists for statehood.
The other stuff, I look at stuff even as fundamental as the Emancipation Proclamation. That’s a document that is really fraught with white privilege and to have it be that someone can actually give you your emancipation, I think, this might be dangerous to say, but I think white people needed to be emancipated. They needed to be emancipated from white supremacy; that was the problem. It wasn’t the people under captivity; they didn’t do anything wrong.
Speaking of things that could be taken out of context, that, in sound bites, might be hard to digest.
Ah, yes. “Andy hates white people: Headline.” Just kidding, that’s off the record, I didn’t say that.
Some of the discussions around Peace Café, at different times, people have perceived those as more illuminating or less illuminating; sometimes people have left feeling roughed up a little. What’s the message you take to the Jewish community in the city? Some of the things you’ve said, people could take the highlights of those speeches and string together something that doesn’t sound very nice.
A very nice commercial for someone, I’m sure.
Right, “the new Israeli-American century.” The U.S. “taking its marching orders from Tel Aviv,” et cetera. Is that something you feel that you need to address?
I feel that people who have known me for so many years — and I’ve been doing these for over 20 years, these Arab-Jewish dialogues — I think those people understand where I am coming from. Sometimes I may lose the nuance and say things that may be inflammatory at times, but I think I have evolved. Sometimes, out of frustration with the intransigence of this conflict, you want to push it just a little bit further and harder and, yes, it may not work. So you try another tactic to try to dislodge this issue that’s so stuck in some ways. But, like I said, I think my record speaks for itself overall. And the conversations I have had inside the Jewish community, outside the Jewish community about the issues that deal with Israel and Palestine, I think we are in agreement for the most part, for many of the more progressive, obviously from the Jewish community and the more progressive Arab community as well. …
To have opportunities to interact, to intersect with people who are Jews, who are Arabs, who are interested in this conflict has been a very, very useful and enlightening experience for me. I used to think that the Peace Café was about going in and changing others, and I learned that it’s really about changing oneself, and I think that’s really the key because you have no power over someone else’s thinking or how they are going to walk away from any conversation that you have, but you certainly have power over yourself. That was like an “a-ha” moment for me at somewhere along the line.
To be honest with you, it wasn’t that long ago, unfortunately. I was a little slow on the uptake there, but it really was not that long ago, because I think people who have a certain perspective like, “If I could just hit you one more time on the head with this, then you’re going to get it.” But, no, the fact of the matter is I don’t know what’s inside your head, you’re not sharing everything with me. So at some point, I want to like shock you, surprise you, make you uncomfortable and maybe that’s not necessarily a bad thing but the intent of that should be about me, what am I getting out of it? It shouldn’t be about what I expect you to do. It’s really that I learn more about myself than about you.
So if you win the primary and continue on and win the general election, do you continue to operate your business?
I haven’t been running my business. It runs with a real organization and system I put in place. I am really good at setting up systems.
I’m just wondering, I don’t think D.C. has ever had a mayor who has had such a business enterprise, a business presence in the city. You would be involved with the liquor inspectors, the building inspectors that could all affect your business. How would you separate the two?
Well, you have to have that firewall. Luckily, we don’t have a business that has a lot of those issues, so that’s a good thing. [Colorado Gov. John] Hickenlooper was a bar owner, he’s now the governor, and he was a mayor. He started a small, mini chain of bars when he was running for office.
I mean, you’re not Michael Bloomberg, but you’ve got more business in town than other candidates.
I would probably eventually sell the business. I would say that if that’s necessary, that’s what I’ll do. I mean, my brother is very deeply involved in the business now; my daughter, Laela, is very involved in the business now. And, the top-tier managers are involved in the business and owners as well. There is stock ownership of the top tier of management — all together about 10 percent.
You said you haven’t been running your business. What is your role?
I am more of an adviser now, honestly. I eat out at my businesses a lot. I’m like the secret shopper. I’ll eat out and leave a note. I’m not so secret, but I’ll leave a note, a critique. That’s honestly my input now.
How do you reconcile these two ideas of you as businessman mogul and protester-activist?
I’ve always been those two. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive, I really don’t. I have been advocating for raising the minimum wage. A lot of people think that’s not the business thing to do, you shouldn’t do that. But I don’t agree. I think there’s a new way to see business.
And now moving to the uncomfortable part of the interview: Michael Brown?
What’s your response when people say, “Oh, he’s really not an outsider; he was Michael Brown’s campaign manager.”
I was Michael Brown’s campaign chair for two months. I met him through the restaurant. He would come here on a regular basis, and he went to law school with my sister. So my sister worked for Ron Brown for a long time when Ron Brown was at the DNC. So my younger sister was a fan of the family; she knew the family very well. So when Michael Brown came, she said he wouldn’t ask you to do something and then do something stupid. Of course, famous last words. My sister was coming on board, trying to help him with fundraising and her knowing him and having this conversation with her, I thought, “All right.” And you know what? I haven’t talked to him since. He didn’t call me and say, “I’m really sorry this happened; I apologize.” Not one call. Like, I can’t reach him.
Yes. I had an old phone number for him. It’s gone. I wanted him to talk to me, eye to eye. I would like to ask him: What the [expletive]? I mean, what the hell?” It was so blatant and so shocking.
Okay, rapid fire. Any estimate you would like to be the public estimate for your net worth?
Is that public knowledge? I guess you can dig it up and find out.
I’m not worth that much. I think, I’m not really sure, but I think something like $12 to $15 million.
And that’s with all your assets, you’d have to sell everything?
If I sold everything? I don’t know, maybe closer to $20 million.
You campaigned against one of your current competitors decades ago when you supported Jim Zais for Ward 2 council member. Jack Evans, in a word?
In a word, I can’t. But he’s great for Ward 2. … He speaks a certain language, and connects with certain people. I’m not sure how much appeal he has beyond his ward, is what I’m trying to say.
Your council member, Jim Graham, in a word?
You opposed Graham’s push for some of the Columbia Heights development with Target and Best Buy.
I think it could have been done better to bring in local businesses. I have mixed feelings about that.
You’ve used the phrase, speak truth to power. As mayor who would you be speaking to?
We have done a poor job of giving the public a voice in government. It makes for better citizens when they feel a sense of involvement and ownership in their government. Right now, I don’t think many people believe their government is there to serve them in any way, shape or form. They feel disconnected, disenchanted. … Even the current mayor, when he goes out in public, there is so much animosity, it is palpable. It makes me wonder, when was the last time he was out in these communities that there is so much anger? It must not happen often, or when it happens, it’s very orchestrated, very controlled. Part of the role of a leader is to be more accessible.
I know you’re speaking of the Ward 8 straw poll, where some in the audience booed the mayor. Speaking of Anacostia, there is not a Busboys and Poets down there. You’ve said you would like to build one. Do you think the time it has taken to do so has cost you any support in that community?
No, I don’t think so. We’re in conversations. I mean, I want black-owned businesses to open there. If I open a Busboys and Poets there, it’s going to go gangbusters. I know it’s probably going to be my busiest place in no time at all. I just, I don’t want to become the one who pushes it over the edge. I want to make sure there’s a bigger plan of what kind of businesses want to go in there, what kind of businesses want to survive and thrive there. In fact, I asked my agent. I said I want to find some black entrepreneurs, you know, people who live in that area, who are interested in investing in it and be able to give it to them, have them do it. It would be like a franchise. My brother is searching through that, trying to make that work. It will happen; it will definitely happen. I just don’t want to be first to plant the flag.
Why did you run for mayor? The story last summer was that if Gray ran, you might have endorsed him.
Frankly, I was hoping to have more access and influence in his administration. Not a job or anything like that, but I thought, someone needs to address this issue of this inequality that has ran amok and it needs to be addressed in a more intentional way, as opposed to say, “Oh, it’ll fix itself.” Things like that don’t fix themselves. There has to be an intentionality of city government, and I don’t feel like the commitment is there. … You know, the people who have influence have done very well and maybe they are the ones whispering in his ear, saying things are great, keep doing it.
Busboys and Poets has a mission statement, a “tribal statement” that you often repeat on the campaign trail, saying the city at large should be “a community where racial and cultural connections are consciously uplifted.” What would be the equivalent for the mayor’s office?
Yes, I would do a tribal statement for the mayor’s office. I would love to be able to have a tribal statement where it encompasses every department. Oftentimes you walk into office buildings, and you have the picture of the mayor. I always thought, really? That’s necessary? There would be no such thing, but I would love to have a tribal statement or a community statement, whatever people felt comfortable calling it, that kind of unites it at some level. That idea of “one city” is nice, but it doesn’t really have true meaning. I’ve read the whole thing, it’s not inspiring. You need, somehow, to have a statement that everybody who comes to the city somehow understands what it is about, and I would like it to be an example for the rest of the country like where we say in our tribal statement that connections are consciously uplifted. Imagine you walk into the DMV, and it says on a banner, “This is a place where racial and cultural connections are consciously uplifted.” Very different feeling, and it’s not just putting up a statement but training the staff to understand what that statement means and how to uplift someone and to connect with a person as other than just a number.