D.C. restaurateur Andy Shallal kicked off his bid for the Democratic nomination for mayor Tuesday, saying the city needs a fresh approach to grapple with a continued crisis of public education as well as a businessman’s acumen to leverage a wave of economic expansion, including expanding affordable housing.
As owner of the successful Busboys and Poets – a space Shallal said he created to “collide art, culture and politics” – he is best equipped to bring a new perspective to city hall. “It’s possible to change this corner of the world, and it’s possible to change this city for the better,” he said to applause from supporters who gathered at the historic Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street, around the corner from two of his Northwest Washington restaurants.
Left unsaid by Shallal, but hammered on by his surrogates, was another key element of Shallal’s candidacy – and a potential benefit of his outsider status:
“Someone fresh and new, like sunshine, to clear away the cloudy pall that exists over D.C. politics,” said radio host Rock Newman, who introduced Shallal. “Someone wholly untainted by the cesspool of Washington D.C. politics.”
Newman recounted the ongoing federal investigation of a $600,000 “shadow campaign” to help elect Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), and the resignations and indictments of four council members over the past two years, then promised that the city would get something entirely different in Shallal: a businessman who doesn’t need the paycheck and would be “ridiculously honest” with the public, Newman said.
Shallal lacks the name recognition of four Democratic council members seeking the party’s nomination: Muriel Bowser, Jack Evans, Tommy Wells and Vincent Orange. He also begins the race after they have cumulatively amassed more than $2 million for the fight.
On Tuesday, Shallal said he was undeterred by the need to raise money, saying no one would have shown up at his kickoff if they were concerned he couldn’t do it. And Shallal brushed off earlier ruminations that he might only stay in the race if Gray decides not to seek reelection. “At this point, we’re in,” Shallal said.
Shallal’s first public event, in which he spoke without notes, also offered a hint of what his unscripted candidacy could look like in mayoral debates and forums, the first of which is scheduled for Wednesday evening.
A parade of bongo players ushered Shallal to the front of a packed room at Ben’s, and the candidate clapped along as they formed a circle and improvised for several minutes.
Born in Iraq and brought to the United States as a 10-year-old, Shallal said he began to learn the importance of race and identity when girls in his class called him “high yellow.” As a student during the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the ensuing riots, he said he realized the seriousness of race politics.
Shallal said the city must now be sensitive to longtime residents who feel as if they are being pushed out by gentrification.
“As soon as a corner store starts carrying fresh fruit … they feel they have to leave” because the area becomes too expensive, he said, speaking about longtime residents.
Shallal said city leaders must stop “counting cranes” as the only measure of economic development and assess more thoroughly if and how each new project benefits D.C. residents.
On education, Shallal said that he’s “not a big fan” of standardized testing, that overemphasis on those scores is masking problems with truancy, and that dropout rates leave many in the city without an education at all.
Additionally, Shallal said he wants the city to get into the business of augmenting its students’ social development.
“I notice this in my work — a lot of people come apply for work that are not prepared for life — the basic things, ‘emotional intelligence,’ as we call it,” Shallal said.
“I want to create academies for young people, maybe after fifth grade, maybe before they go into middle school, to be able to go to a six-week program to sort of learn about life, learn what it means to get along with others, to fend off bullying, what it means to be a good friend … these kids can learn a new language, a new way to express themselves, express their anger, express their frustration.”
Shallal also took a swipe at Gray’s “One City” slogan, saying “we need a better vision for the city.”
“This idea of a ‘one city’ is nice, but it needs to be much more ingrained into the psyche of everyone,” Shallal said. “One city doesn’t have much meaning to me, but if I told you I want to create a city where racial and cultural connections are consciously uplifted … people will start to get it and understand what that means.
“We have to train everybody in cultural competence, whether they are working at the DMV or whether they are head of a department … they should know what these issues are, they should know how to interact with the people who have been living here a long time.”
Busboys and Poets’ director of poetry Bomani Armah began the kickoff with a driving call-and-response:
“Make D.C. a city for all — make some noise for Andy Shallal — he fights for the big and the small — so let’s put him in city hall.”
Shallal said promoting the arts would be a central theme of his administration if he was elected.
“I want to see artists at every meeting, at every table … they help us to connect our heart with our mind,” Shallal said. “Too many times, politicians try to separate that, they think from the neck up, and that’s not a good way to operate, that’s not a good way to lead.
“You got to lead with that connection between the heart and the mind. The arts can do that.”