Andy Shallal, a restaurant owner and activist, has racked up a few high high-profile endorsements since he launched his bid for mayor of Washington, DC, less than two months ago. Lethal Weapon star Danny Glover, for one, who appeared at a community meeting in the Anacostia neighborhood with Shallal in early January. George Pelecanos, a local crime novelist who wrote parts of The Wire and Treme, is supporting Shallal, too.
But a better reflection of the kind of race that Shallal is running are the two dozen young people that he has hired to staff his campaign. They’re from DC’s Wards 7 and 8, where the official unemployment rate is about 14 and 22 percent, respectively; where only four in ten high school freshmen will graduate; and more than a third of the residents are poor. Some of Shallal’s youth staff are students. Some are working. Others have criminal records and are on probation. It’s an underdog alliance, with Shallal judged as likely to succeed as his young staffers.
“I just had to get with it. I think he’s gonna change things,” said James Wood, one of the youth squad leaders, about his decision to work for Shallal. “One thing that I was happy about hearing from him is when he said that ‘I’m not in it for the salary. I’m in it to help these people in Ward 8.’ Because it’s like everybody’s trying to push people from Ward 8, Ward 7, and 6 out. That ain’t gonna help nobody. You’re trying to change our city for the next people, when it’s supposed to be developed for us.”
Gentrification, jobs, failing schools, soaring income inequality, racial disenfranchisement—these are the issues animating the Democratic primary, which takes place April 1. Shallal is one of eight candidates in a field that includes the incumbent, Vincent Gray, as well as four current city council members.
With several of the establishment candidates weighed down by ethics inquiries, what most distinguishes Shallal is his outsider status. He is an antiwar activist, an Iraqi immigrant and the owner of Busboys and Poets, an expanding chain of restaurants that offer employees “exceptional” wage and benefit packages, and serve as community hubs for activists and artists. He serves on the board of the Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank dedicated to progressive activism and inquiry. His activist bonafides include his being arrested for protesting the Keystone XL pipeline at the White House, and serving vegan bean soup to Occupy protestors.
It isn’t only Shallal’s background that’s unusual. In his vision for the city, Shallal differentiates himself by prioritizing the city’s most vulnerable—the working poor, teenage dropouts, citizens returning from prison.
“Our politicians like to count cranes, and high rises—how many cranes do you have now?” he asked the audience in Anacostia. “Forty-nine,” someone in the audience called back. “But they forget to count the things that really matter, and what really matters are the people. They’ve been left in the shadows of those cranes, and in the shadows of those high rises, and they’ve become invisible,” Shallal said, over a low chorus of that’s right and yes, sir and scattered applause. “This is Ralph Ellison time, folks!”