During a recent meeting at the campaign headquarters for Andy Shallal, the restaurateur running for D.C. mayor, you could see those in the room scanning his face, trying to answer one question:
What is he?
In a city where an African American has held the position of mayor since home rule government in 1975 and where demographic changes may soon end that run, race matters.
“You’ve got to tell people that you are not white,” said Elwood “Yango” Sawyer, who works with ex-offenders and helps them register to vote. “The reality is that most black folk go with black folk.”
Not that Shallal gives a hoot.
“I am not white,” he replied. “I’m not black, either.”
He is an Iraqi American.
“We love putting people in boxes, don’t we?” Shallal said.
Left up to Shallal, we might not even have a race box to check on the census. What kind of people would we be then?
“Everybody is unique,” Shallal said. “But we’re all human.”
It’s one thing to say that, something else to really believe it, even dangerous, as Shallal ought to know by now.
Back in 1997, before moving into the District, Shallal served on a human relations advisory committee for the Fairfax County School Board. When he learned that Chantilly High School was hosting a wrestling match between two little people, he made such a fuss about the indignity of such an event that the fundraiser had to be canceled.
“Yeah, I remember that,” Shallal said, smiling, during a recent chat. “People were very upset at me. I even got death threats.”
You’d think an Iraqi American would want to lie low, steer clear of controversy, especially politics and religion, considering the scrutiny many have been under since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
He demonstrated in front of the White House against military intervention in Iraq and even had the gumption to drive to Leesburg, Va., and speak up for the construction of an Islamic school.
Shallal has a lot of nerve.
Here is a guy — neither white nor black — whose signature restaurants, Busboys and Poets, pay homage to African American culture. He supports historic black institutions, such as the YMCA Anthony Bowen, giving money and donating artwork. At his restaurant in Hyattsville, he offers a weekly children’s storytelling hour, called “Rise and Rhyme.” You’ll find multiracial groups of children sitting in a room decorated with portraits of Nelson Mandela, Leo Tolstoy, Emma Goldman and Frederick Douglass.
Only Shallal would have to gall to try something like that — and make it work.
Now he’s running for mayor, saying it’s time that the District elect someone with both business acumen and a social conscious.
“You have two choices,” he said. “On one side, there is a group looking to make a career out of politics. On the other side, you have me, totally committed to social justice. I don’t need the money. I already have a job.”
At the meeting in Southeast Washington to discuss issues facing ex-offenders, Shallal homed in on the money that the city had allocated to help those returning home from prison. Many needed jobs, housing and medical treatment — lest they end up back in prison, costing the city even more.
“There’s $286,000 in the budget, but only $10,000 goes for services — the rest mostly for salaries,” Shallal said, animated by the disproportionate allocation.
If elected, he vowed to donate his salary to charitable causes. And whether or not he wins, he will continue working to help those newly released from prison.
“He’s compassionate and has a lot of empathy,” said Corwin Knight, chief executive of the D.C.-based Hope Foundation Re-entry Network, which helps ex-offenders transition back into society. “He gets emotional seeing people struggle, and when he says, ‘I will fight with you,’ you can count on it.”
A few days earlier, Shallal had invited ex-offenders to his home in Adams Morgan — a house that one of the guests thought he had broken into some years ago. Shallal served tea and finger foods. He made everybody feel at home. He wasn’t just making political points. He was making new friends.
The nerve of this guy.
To read previous columns by Courtland Milloy, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.