Are Texans capable of electing as governor a native Palestinian and former hairdresser whose last name rhymes with “Mammy,” forcing him to use his first name as a campaign label much the way Sen. Clinton used “Hillary”? Especially when that first name is “Farouk,” as in “Farouk for Texas”? As in, to many minds, an immediate non-starter? Every cultural and political and religious stereotype of Texas comes slithering to the surface when one ponders the prospects of Farouk Shami. He has pledged to spend at least $10 million of his hair-care fortune in the Democratic primary contest against Houston Mayor Bill White. He says he was inspired by Barack Obama’s success, telling Dave Montgomery in the Star-Telegram: “If a president can be named Barack Hussein Obama, a governor can be named Farouk Shami,” he said. “If a president can be black, a governor can be brown.”The sheer volume of advertising that Texans are likely to see from Shami—here’s his introductory spot, which started airing in November—means that there exists some tiny speck of a remote chance that he could pull a surprise. But considering the political track record and statewide familiarity of his opponent, Farouk, a political novice, is unlikely to see any surprises on that Tuesday in March. He’s more likely to be stunned at how much he’s paid per vote after he sees how few he’s won. Farouk for Governor will be seen by some as a litmus test of sorts for the ethnic tolerance of Texas voters. Here’s a guy with a Palestinian name and accent. Will Texans reject him out of hand, and demonstate yet again the state’s runaway levels of prejudice and xenophobia? Just one problem: This is a lousy test case. Shami looks like a fatally flawed candidate, and not merely because he’s never run for public office and now wants the state’s top office. He hasn’t even voted much, as Elise Hu reports. And when he’s answering questions about what he’d do as governor, Shami sounds like yet another business mogul who fancies that making a killing in commerce somehow equips a person to run a government. How would he balance the state budget, for starters? “I will balance the budget because I know how to balance the budget,” he said last week in Austin, “and I’ve been balancing the budget of my company that started with $1,000 and went into the billions of dollars and we’re debt-free. And that’s how the state of Texas can be.”Well, no, in fact, it can’t.Against Bill White—whose leadership in Houston has been both popular and effective, and who has demonstrated that he knows how to run things and (in many ways) make them better—the political handicaps Shami brings to the race would almost surely doom any candidacy, including that of a white guy who was a doppleganger for George Clooney. So it wouldn’t be fair to plant a “racist” label on Texas Democrats because they rejected Farouk Shami’s bid for governor. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be displays of racism, both subtle and overt, that Shami’s campaign might very well coax to the surface. It still could, conceivably, turn into a sort of test for Texas Dems. For instance: Will Shami’s ideas and business record be given a full and fair look? Or will he be dismissed out of hand, without the same level of consideration that might be given to a white, Texas-accented, Clooney-style hair-care billionaire? It’s hard to know whether Shami will deserve to be taken seriously. His campaign is young, and so far what most Texans know about him comes from Shami’s first ad, in which he never speaks. In his two campaign events in Austin last week, Shami demonstrated why that might be, captured by the American-Statesman‘s Ken Herman. It’s not the accent that trips him up. The trouble comes with his antic, impatient delivery and, more seriously, his sketchiness about the details of a governor’s job. As you’ll see in Ken Herman’s video, Farouk tends to conduct himself on the campaign trail, in these early days, like a strutting, untouchable CEO. He responds to questions as impertinent challenges. And when he can’t say how he’d create jobs as governor—when he merely barks that he’s already raised jobs, as though the private and public sectors worked exactly the same—you know immediately that Shami’s problems do not begin and end with his name and his accent and his lack of political immersion up till now. He also has a knowledge gap that looks a little Palinesque. It won’t be fair to knock Texas Democrats as racist yokels because they choose the Houston mayor, one of the planet’s very whitest men, over an immigrant with a great backstory. But Democrats also have an obligation to live up to their party’s principles (as advertised) by giving Shami a respectful listen once he starts laying out real positions on the issues. So much for today’s sermon. For kicks, I’d recommend watching this 2007 video from Houston’s ABC affiliate about Farouk. You learn here, among other things, that the man owned 42 pairs of red boots as of 2007. I don’t know about you, but there’s something I can’t help liking about that. I bet Bill White doesn’t own 42 of anything.
Mon, Dec 14, 2009 at 12:00 am CST