Iraqi American businessman Andy Shallal runs for Mayor of Washington D.C.
By Ray Hanania
Andy Anas Shallal, a successful Washington D.C. business and family man is running for the office of Mayor of the City of Washington D.C., an unprecedented event that could put an American of Arab heritage in the heartbeat of the nation’s capitol.
Shallal, who is of Iraqi American descent, will run in the April 1, 2014 Democratic primary election. The general election to select the mayor will be held Nov. 4, 2014. Shallal is seeking to unseat incumbent Mayor Vincent Gray, who is also running for his second term in office.
So far, nine candidates have announced their candidacies in the same election contest, but the large field can help a first time candidate like Shallal win. The winner of the Democratic primary will face the Republican and Libertarian candidates, although the municipality is overwhelming Democratic and whomever takes the Democratic primary is expected to win the office in November.
Shallal recently participated in a public forum where he was endorsed by celebrity Hollywood actor Danny Glover.
Washington D.C. Mayor Gray has been involved in a growing scandal involving members of his 2010 election campaign. According to media reports in Washington D.C., there is an ongoing federal investigation that has resulted in guilty pleas to federal charges from several of Gray’s campaign associates. They include a close confidant who had played key roles in Gray’s earlier campaigns. Court documents have laid out two secret schemes that involve violations of elections law, the media has reported, that include secretly paying a fellow mayoral candidate to verbally attack the incumbent, and a “shadow campaign” allegedly financed by a city contractor that secretly pumped at least $650,000 into Gray’s election effort.
Gray has apologized for the 2010 election problems and it has become the focus of this year’s re-election campaign debate. Shallal said the voters will decide but suggested that an “apology [from Gray] might not be enough.”
Shallal’s Facebook Page is www.facebook.com/Andy4DC. Here is information about Shallal from his website at www.andy4dc.com.
Andy is a husband, father, and grandfather who lives in Adams Morgan.
Andy is an artist, social entrepreneur and the founder of Busboys and Poets and Eatonville Restaurant.
Andy was first introduced to the restaurant business while working at his father’s carry-out in Annandale VA and later while helping his father to manage the business. He opened Skewers, his first restaurant in the district in 1987 and soon followed with Café Luna, Luna Books, Luna Grill and Mimi’s American Bistro. Each one of his businesses earned high praise from customers and critics alike. In 2005, Andy opened Busboys and Poets. Named after Langston Hughes, who worked as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel in DC while writing poetry, Busboys and Poets became an instant hit and a center for politics, culture and art to converge and collide. It has been recognized as one of the most diverse and inclusive restaurant in the city. With 4 locations in the Washington metropolitan area, Busboys and Poets has become home for artists and intellectuals including such notables as Howard Zinn, Cornel West, Alice Walker, Harry Belafonte, Amy Goodman and Nikki Giovanni.
Andy’s businesses employ over 500 employees, nearly half of whom are DC residents, and have received numerous awards and recognitions as places where employees are treated fairly and earn living wages. He is currently working on the minimum wage and sick leave debate in DC and Maryland. This work led him to partner closely with the Restaurant Opportunities Center to establish the first progressive Restaurant Association called RAISE (Restaurants Advancing Industry Standards in Employment). Andy’s restaurants have earned the Gold Seal of Approval from the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), a national restaurant worker and owner association that focuses on sustainable business and employment practices. Busboys and Poets and Eatonville Restaurant are members of the American Sustainable Business Council. They have been at the forefront of environmental stewardship being one of the first businesses in Washington, DC to be 100% wind powered and are on the cutting edge of the local/sustainable food movement. He has received numerous awards including the Mayor’s Arts Award, Employer of the Year from the Employment Justice Center and the Mayor’s Environmental Award, The RAMY Award, The Jefferson Medal for Volunteerism among others.
Andy is an activist and organizer committed to progressive causes in Washington, DC. In 1991, he was heavily involved as an organizer and a precinct supervisor in the Jim Zais campaign for the Ward 2 DC Council. The campaign was one of the closest races in DC history with Jim Zais losing to Jack Evans by 300 votes. That same year, he worked on an initiative to limit campaign contributions to $100 for citywide races and $50 for Ward races. The initiative passed by an overwhelming majority of DC voters only to have it repealed by the City Council soon thereafter.
On the national level, Andy was an organizer and a delegate for Jerry Brown when he ran for president in 1992. Prior to moving to DC, Andy was a member of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee in Fairfax Virginia and worked on several races to elect Democrats to the Board of Supervisors. He became a precinct captain and helped to turn a traditionally Republican precinct into a Democratic one. Additionally, Andy has been heavily involved in schools as PTA President and appointee on the Human Rights Committee for Fairfax County Public Schools for several years. During his tenure as Chairman of the Human Rights Committee, he was instrumental in putting together a comprehensive diversity training program for administrators for the school system and dealt with several issues of human rights violations.
Andy has founded or co-founded several peace and justice organizations and holds leadership positions in numerous others. He is on the board of trustees for the Institute for Policy Studies and the Co-founder of Think Local First DC, a local business association of over 400 local and independent businesses working to make DC’s business scene more unique and vibrant. Last year in response to the living wage debate, he helped found RAISE (Restaurant Advancing Industry Standards in Employment), a business association of owners interested in improving business practices in the restaurant industry. He has served on the boards of several arts and peace organizations including The Anacostia Community Museum, DC Vote and the Washington Peace Center.
As an artist, Andy has done several murals throughout the city and in all of his various restaurants. His latest mural can be seen at the newly renovated Anthony Bowen YMCA near the U Street corridor.
Education and work background
Andy is a graduate of Catholic University of America where he studied pre-med – he later attended Howard University School of Medicine. He became disenchanted with pursuing a medical career, left school after one semester and traveled to pursue his entrepreneurial dreams. He worked as a server and later managed several local restaurants until he decided to open his own. His first restaurant was Skewers at Dupont Circle, which opened in 1987 to rave reviews. He later opened Café Luna, Luna Books and Democracy Center, Luna Grill and Diner, Mimi’s American Bistro, Busboys and Poets and Eatonville.
Seeking a more hopeful future in America, my family came to this country from Iraq in 1966. We landed in Arlington, Virginia, where I was enrolled in school at the age of 10. I remember being asked to fill in a bubble for my race. The school needed to know if I was “White,” “Black,” or “Other.” As one of the few brown kids in my school, I knew I neither fit in with the “White” team, nor with the “Black” team, and no 10-year-old wants to be labeled the “Other.” So I left those categories unmarked.
Being racially ambiguous in 1966 had its challenges. The white girls were not interested in me and the black girls would whisper, “I think he’s ‘high yellow’.” I had no idea what they meant.
Within the first days of school, I had already learned a lesson about the color line that divides this country.
A few years later, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. turned the world upside down. Washington, D.C. became one of the epicenters of racial discontent and uprising as people took their anger to the streets. Looting, shootings, and curfews became our reality for several days. I remember trying to fall asleep as I listened to the never-ending sirens that filled every night. It was then, at 13 years old, when I realized that race wasn’t just something you checked off in a census box, or whispered about in the hallway.
In fact, race determined where you lived, whom you associated with, and where you sat in the cafeteria. Race determined the quality of your school, where you could buy your home (if you could afford one at all), and how much you’d be able to pay for college or save for retirement. It determined what kind of job you got—if any—and where you worked. Race determined the likelihood of being stopped on the street, getting arrested, or serving time. Race also determined whom you could love and marry.
Fifty years later, after all the changes that took place, thanks to the Civil Rights Movement, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, we do live in a very different country, and a very different city. In many ways, we’ve experienced progress, but we’re still falling short.
Right here in the nation’s capital, unemployment rates are still higher across the river than across the park. In the capital city of the most powerful nation in the world, working men and women can work all day, every day, and still live in poverty. Young African-Americans are still more likely to drop out, to have their neighborhood school shut down, to be stopped and frisked on the street, to get thrown in jail. Young African-Americans are less likely to graduate and consequently, less likely to find a job. Right here in the nation’s capitol, we still have a divided city. A city of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’ a city of rich and poor, a city of Black and White, with growing numbers of Latinos and Asian-Americans.
So how do we lift up our city, create meaningful prosperity, and a sense of belonging, commitment, and personal investment for everyone?
Building a place that celebrates diversity was on my mind as I started to think about creating Busboys and Poets. Whether you’re on this side of the river or that side of the river, I wanted Busboys and Poets to be the hub for sustenance, culture and ideas.
The U Street Corridor first came to mind. It was “Black Broadway.” It was birthplace of the Harlem Renaissance – the place where jazz, music, poetry, and books took flight.
In the early 2000s, a lot of change had taken place. As I was looking around for the perfect spot to place Busboys and Poets, I noticed a tanning salon in a building called The Ellington, named after the legendary Duke Ellington. The blatant cultural disconnect between the history and spirits that once thrived and the businesses sprouting was concerning. What happened to honoring “Black Broadway” and the cultural legacy it left behind?
Around the corner from The Ellington, I finally found the soul of the neighborhood when I came across a building called the Langston Lofts. It was here that the spirit of Langston Hughes would be resurrected and poetry would be recited. Many of you know the story, that Busboys and Poets is named in honor of Hughes, who worked as a busboy while writing poetry here in Washington, D.C.
It’s a beautiful story. Langston Hughes worked as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, DC, and one night a very famous poet by the name of Vachel Lindsay happened to be dining there. Hughes’s entrepreneurial spirit took hold when he strategically left some of his poems next to Lindsay’s plate. Lindsay read some of the poetry, nodded approvingly, and the next day, Hughes, on his way to work, picked up the newspaper, and opened it up to see that Lindsay had just “discovered” a busboy poet. It was a very exciting time for Hughes and had he not had the courage to drop off his poetry, we may have all been deprived of reading and learning from a great poet.
When the doors to Busboys and Poets opened, I intentionally tried to unearth some of that spirit under the ground; the spirit of poetry, the spirit of art, and the spirit of music. I painted a mural that depicted the struggles of the civil rights movement, the greatest progressive struggle of my lifetime that I later named ‘The Peace and Struggle’ mural.
One memory that stands out for me most in the early days of starting my small business was while I was waiting for my permits to arrive. As I anxiously awaited the inspector, I saw two elderly African-American women peering through the window. I quickly rushed to the door and motioned them to come in. They gave me that look, wondering if I was “high yellow,” but they came in and let me show them around. I took the two women to the back room and opened the door to the Langston Hughes room for them to see the mural. Their eyes took in the iconic photos of the civil rights struggles, the poetry, and writings. It showed the marchers, the heroes and sheroes, all kinds of civil rights and human rights icons—Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Jesse Jackson, Gandhi, Joan Baez, the Dalai Lama, and Martin Luther King Jr, and my favorite poem, “Let America Be America Again” by Hughes.
“Let America be America again/Let it be the dream it used to be.”
I was nervous, wondering if I had done justice to the history of the neighborhood, only to realize that one of them had a tear rolling down her cheek. That’s when I knew that I had created a space where truly, racial and cultural connections would be uplifted, a place where arts, culture, and politics would indeed come together and collide… A place that people would come to, and take a deliberate pause, and feed their mind, body, and soul.
And I did believe at that moment, that by creating such a place, we could indeed change a corner of this city, and then the city itself.
(Ray Hanania is a veteran Chicago political writer and political media consultant. He is the managing editor of The Arab Daily News newspaper www.TheArabDailyNews.com.)