Andy Shallal, a 58-year-old Iraqi-born artist, activist and businessman, is the most progressive candidate running for mayor of Washington.
As owner of the popular Busboys and Poets restaurants, which serve as hubs for progressive activism across the DC area, Shallal has a proven track record of social justice work, which he makes no secret of.
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But he does more than just host activists. He’s an engaged participant, having been arrested in front of the White House for protesting the Keystone XL oil pipeline, among other things. He also sits on the board of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), a progressive think tank.
Conservatives are predictably throwing a conniption fit over his candidacy, labeling Shallal an “extremist” for his antiwar views on foreign policy and his criticism of Israel’s human rights abuses. It doesn’t seem to matter to them that foreign policy falls far outside the mayor’s job description.
But Shallal is undeterred, focused instead on bringing his commitment to social justice into the mayor’s office, where, if elected, he plans to tackle issues ranging from gentrification and the dismantling of public education, to rising income inequality and felon disenfranchisement. He also has a plan for how to deal with the offensive “Redskins” team name.
I recently spoke with Shallal about these topics and more over the phone. Below is a condensed version of our conversation.
Rania Khalek for Truthout: Why are you running for mayor?
Andy Shallal: I’m running for mayor because the city has become more and more divided. I’ve been living and working in this city for nearly 25 years, and I’ve seen it change a lot. It’s going through a big growth spurt, and I think that growth spurt is leaving a lot of people out.
I’m concerned that a lot of people are being left behind in this economic boom and no one else seems to care.
DC has lost half of its affordable housing in the last decade – which has been disastrous for low-income residents. How might you fix that?
I think we need to increase inventory of available housing that’s affordable. We need to preserve the public housing that we have, which we’ve lost half of, as you mentioned. We need to make sure that when we give our public property to developers that we insist on certain restrictions on how they can build and how many units they need to build that are affordable. So we want to make sure that we get enough affordable units in new developments that are coming up.
I want to make sure that all the developments that we have that are coming in actually match the communities that they’re going into to provide affordability for the people who already live there.
There are lots of different ways we can do that with programs that we already have in place, like the Housing Purchase Assistance Program and the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act. Those types of programs need to be strengthened and funded better. Whether they’re tenants or buying a house for the first time, they should have support from the city to guide them through the process, which can be very complicated and costly.
These are things that will help make sure that the people who have lived here during the hard times are able to survive and live well during economic boom times.
How would you alleviate homelessness in DC?
We need to have rapid housing for some of them. We have programs where rather than just sticking people in a shelter, we put them in a temporary situation where we can help them out with the first couple months of rent and give them some support so they can get off their feet.
Without a home, a person cannot get a job; a person cannot really go to school. There’s a lot of stuff that happens when you’re homeless.
I think we waste a lot of money in putting people in shelters now, and that’s become the default situation that a lot of people that have been chronically homeless end up in. They end up going from shelter to shelter, never able to get off their feet for a couple of reasons. One is that shelter living is not exactly a way to stabilize your life, and second, the shelters do not really provide enough wraparound services – ways to help people find a job or help them with child care or health care.
Permanent support for housing, especially for some of the challenged communities that end up being homeless, needs to happen as well.
Again, we have the programs. We don’t have enough funding for those programs, and we let the situation fester and get worse and worse. We’ve lost so much public housing over the period of the last decade that it has come to haunt us now, seeing how many people are homeless – thousands of people are being left out on the street every night.
Do you support raising the minimum wage?
It passed recently. There was a bill, the Large Retailer Accountability Act (it was also called the “Walmart bill”) that got vetoed by the mayor.
The new initiative which recently passed will raise the minimum wage to $11.50, I believe, by 2016 and then tie it to the cost of living. It will be increased by a dollar, I think, next year and then a dollar after that each year till it reaches $11.50, and then it will be tied to the cost of living.
Do you think that’s enough?
It’s really not, but I do believe it’s good that we’re moving in the right direction. But it’s probably taking too long to get there.
Also, the Sick Leave Act, which was recently passed, has had to be batted around back and forth to make sure it covers tipped workers as well as full-time and part-time workers, and that’s still a problem. That still has not been completed. So there’s lots more to do in that arena, that’s for sure.
Also, we have to insist that government projects include some sort of project-labor agreements with the contractors the city hires so that they pay top dollar, so that we’re not subsidizing developers.
What is your take on charter schools? Would you replace DC school Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who closed 15 schools last year, all of which were in poor black neighborhoods?
Education is a very complicated subject, and it’s not a one-word answer or a one-person issue.
We have to have a vision that really calls into play that education is an essential part of what our community is willing to commit to and make sure that it continues to look for ways to make education better and more effective. Some have given up on that on some level.
I would like to see us have more collaborative school leadership so that you’re not creating this isolated silo where you have the chancellor there and everybody else on the other side. I remember Michelle Rhee one time said, “Just give us your kids in preschool, and we’ll take care of them from there on,” sort of like telling parents to just stay away, we got it. That’s not how education works.
I think we need to have more professional development for our teachers. We need to enrich the curriculum. We need to go beyond just reading and math. We have to make sure we have more challenging thinking for our kids and bring the arts back into the schools. We need to make sure that our community is engaged and we want to make sure that our parents feel welcomed and a part of the process. We’ve sort of turned them off at some level.
We need to stop closing schools because there’s been this tear on shutting schools down and I don’t think that’s useful or effective and hasn’t helped us to improve the school system.
And what are your thoughts on charter schools?
That’s a tough one because charter schools for some parents have been a savior because it’s such a relief from the schools they have been used to.
That’s a problem. We’ve let schools fail to the point that we made charter schools essential. Now that we have charter schools, it’s really hard to turn the clock back.
It’s important for us to stop closing public schools and continue to make sure that public schools are in fact successful.
We have to really push hard to make sure our schools are well-equipped to handle not just teaching our kids but making sure that they come prepared to learn by having the wraparound services that are necessary. We need counselors. We need psychologists. We need career advisers. We need nutritionists. We need lots of stuff in certain communities that are missing. These are very essential ingredients for someone to learn. And if we don’t bring on these wraparound services, we’re really missing the point in what it takes to be able to teach a child.
There are certain neighborhoods, particularly in Ward 8, that do not have a single grocery store. How would you fix that?
Communities grow when you start putting the necessary ingredients to make a community successful. The necessary ingredients, of course, are having great schools, safe communities, affordable homes. All of these things lend themselves to having a much healthier environment and thus attracting businesses and other things that are necessary to make a community complete and create a marketplace and healthy commerce.
It’s really important for us to attract businesses that are providing great services for people that need them, and obviously grocery stores are essential. There are a couple grocery stores in Ward 8, but they’re far away and they’re not enough to serve the entire community.
It’s essential for us to attract such businesses, and there are ways we can do that, like making sure that the city insists that a grocery go on a track of land we sell or give to a developer.
DC is in the process of decriminalizing marijuana. Do you support this?
There’s a lot of support out there in the community to say yes, it’s time to legalize marijuana.
We need to stop pretending that people don’t use marijuana and just legalize it, just like we’ve legalized alcohol, and tax it.
What is your position on the drug war?
We have to treat it as a public health issue. There’s a difference between someone who uses and is addicted and someone who is distributing and is benefiting from the addiction of others.
DC has a growing voting bloc of returning citizens (former felons) who have organized a campaign to “Ban the Box.” Do you support this?
We actually implement it in our business, so we banned the box three or four years ago.
It’s really unfair for someone to have to serve twice. It’s already difficult enough for them to come back into society and be able to function. A barrier like [the “have you committed a felony” box] is very unfair and creates more hardships on top of what they already have to deal with.
There are over 60,000 returning citizens in the city, which is about 10 percent of the population, and we don’t provide enough resources to make sure they are set up for success. So we end up with people going back into the criminal justice system and costing us even more.
We need to work on issues of literacy and job preparedness. We need to make sure these returning citizens have opportunities that will keep them from going back in again.
If it were up to you, would you tear down the Barry Farm public housing complex?
Whether it needs to be torn down or not, we have to first make sure that the community there understands that there’s no intention to displace them. There’s a lot of anxiety, and I have not heard the mayor or anyone say, “We promise that we will not displace you. We promise to make sure everyone in Barry Farm has a home to return to should there be any kind of change.”
The people in Barry Farm are looking for safer communities, safer streets, some repairs to their homes to make sure that they’re livable. They’re not looking to be moved or displaced. They want to have their community intact.
To send them out in the wilderness and say, come back in three years, is an unfair situation to put somebody in. You’ve basically dismantled an entire community that is fairly tight-knit.
Yes, there is crime and drugs and so on. But there are ways that we should have been involved in that community to make sure that such situations didn’t continue to fester and grow. We’ve let a lot of public housing go down the tubes, and then we come back and say, you see, it’s falling apart. Now we have to tear it down and start over again.
We need to make sure public housing is clean and safe and well-managed – that the lights are changed in hallways, that the landscaping is taken care of – all the things that people want to see in their communities to make it feel like home.
We let these developments go to hell and then come back and say, “see they’ve failed, now we have to tear them down.” There are so many things that we could do to make public housing better, and we’ve failed miserably in that arena.
How are you financing your campaign, and what are your thoughts on money in politics?
It’s partly self-financed, and we’re getting donations from lots of people. We have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of donors that have come through with contributions from $5 to $2,000. This is part of a movement.
I was involved in an initiative years ago, called Initiative 41, which limited campaign contributions in the city to $100 for citywide races. Unfortunately, it was overturned by City Council even though the citizens passed it overwhelmingly.
That’s a shame. We have to play by the rules that are in place now, but I’d love to see some sort of public financing come into play.
How do you feel about Walmart coming into DC?
I’m not a fan of Walmart. It’s unfortunate that the mayor capitulated on the bill that was sitting before his desk that he should have signed, the Large Retail Accountability Act. That should have been signed.
Walmart is going to hurt a lot of small businesses. You already see it with the Walmart in Ward 4, which has caused a lot of businesses around it to shut down. Lots of small ma-and-pops will have to go out of business when Walmart comes in.
Do you think the DC government should be subsidizing sports stadiums, which current Mayor Vincent Gray supports?
If a developer wants to build a stadium, that’s wonderful. But DC taxpayers should not pay the cost for building it.
Do you believe the Washington Redskins should change their name?
I wouldn’t invite them back in the city unless they changed the name. It’s an offensive name to a fair amount of people. Many civil rights issues have come before us in the past. This is not going to be the last one or the first one. We need to evolve.
How do you respond to attacks coming at you from the right about your anti-war activism?
These things are just distractions. The focus here is about social justice, whether it’s the Middle East or Southeast. The fight for social justice transcends communities, transcends race. I want to focus on what DC needs and what the folks in DC deserve. And if we continue to distract ourselves with these right-wing nut jobs, we’ll end up not focusing on the important things, like addressing issues of inequality in the city.