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!”
Shallal was speaking at a Baptist church, beneath a thirty-foot mural of the Last Supper that depicted the disciples as civil rights leaders, including Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman. “Everything that happens in this city has a race overlay,” Shallal told the audience. “Whether you’re running for mayor, whether you’re talking about schools, whether you’re talking about gentrification, whether you’re talking about affordable housing, whether you’re talking about public safety, race is at the front and center.” Later, Shallal told me that he thought talking about race was an “essential” first step in taking on what he sees as the city’s most pressing issues, namely housing, education and economic development.
“There are too many people who are spending way too much of their income on their housing, and I think that’s where you have to begin,” Shall told me. He proposes to raise the percentage of housing units that developers must set aside for low to moderate earners under the city’s inclusionary zoning law when they build large residential buildings. He wants to reinvigorate public housing projects too. “I think we’ve given public housing really bad name by doing it very badly, and I think at some level you really need to have some foundational homes for people that are just coming out of poverty, or trying to get out of poverty,” he argued, adding that the shelter system has become “a warehouse for families.”
When it comes to education, the first thing on Shallal’s list is to halt school closures, which have disproportionately impacted low income and minority children in the District. Shallal was unsparing in his assessment of DC’s education system, noting that the city has some of the highest dropout and illiteracy rates in the country. But he doesn’t see school closures as the answer to the problem. “There’s no such thing as a failing school. It’s our responsibility to make it succeed,” he said at the community meeting. Instead of focusing on “choice,” Shallal wants to make sure there are good schools in every neighborhood. He has new curricular ideas too, like embedding a six-week life skills course into middle schools, and turning the final year of high school into a civics crash-course.
Shallal’s vision also includes free public transportation for seniors, marijuana decriminalization and a living wage standard. He proposed easing the property tax burden for elderly residents to help them keep their homes. He’d like the city to make more micro-grants available to small businesses to spur development. He’s said the city should encourage small-scale, local projects—community centers, arts collaboratives, start-up incubators—rather than big ticket items like sports stadiums.
I asked Shallal whether he drew any lessons from Bill de Blasio’s successful mayoral campaign in New York City. He was careful not to paint himself into a corner, and emphasized the success he’s had as a small businessman. “Yes, de Blasio’s progressive agenda would be very similar to mine, I would probably agree with that,” Shallal said. “But I think I would also bring a bit of Bloomberg into the picture, because I do have business acumen as well. It’s useful to see the perspective of how to run a city in a way that is fiscally responsible and fiscally sound, and at the same time make a city work for everybody.”
Shallal has his work cut out for him. His vision is distinct from candidates like Jack Evans, a twenty-two-year veteran of the city council who prioritizes big downtown developments and faces ethics questions related to his use of campaign funds, and Mayor Gray, himself subject of an ethics investigation and widely criticized by the left for continuing the Michelle Rhee–era education reforms. Several of the candidates have records that undercut their progressive rhetoric; for example, Gray and city council members Muriel Bowser and Tommy Well blocked a living wage increase last fall that would have affected large retailers like Walmart.
But Shallal is lesser-known, and with many candidates also talking about inequality, gentrification, affordable housing and wage increases, Shallal’s challenge is to convince voters that he has a record and policy agenda that renders his progressivism more than talk. In a poll taken in early January, Shallal finished with only 5 percent of the vote. He shrugged it off as too early to mean much. “I think for us, this is when the campaign really started,” he said. “Once people really hear the message, I think they’re hungry for it.”
Other politicians have noted that hunger, and with midterm campaigns underway nationwide, many are test driving the language of economic populism. But their policy prescriptions aren’t always ambitious, or even new. The mayoral race in DC will likely illuminate this tension between style and substance; between rhetorical support for the working poor and practical subservience to special interests.
“I always tell people: Look, you can vote for the same people over and over again, and expect different results, but that’s insanity, that’s not how things happen,” Shallal said. “Sometimes you’ve got to make a choice that’s different.”