Ray Mahmood opens his home almost weekly for dinner parties with guest lists that can top 100. Photograph by Melissa Golden.
Outside the largest house in a wealthy Mount Vernon neighborhood, the cars have been collecting for some time. Along with the polished Mercedes and BMWs, there are beat-up older cars with pro-life bumper stickers.
The cars belong to influential Republicans and Tea Party leaders, and they’re clustered near the home of George Allen, the Republican who served Virginia in the US House and Senate and as governor. The guests aren’t here to visit Allen, though—they’re heading next door to the mansion of Pakistani-born Democrats Ray and Shaista Mahmood, who open their home almost weekly for dinner parties with guest lists that can top 100.
One of the largest, Shaista Mahmood says with a hint of pride, was a crowd of hundreds who came to their new property in 1999. Before they’d even finished building the house, they hosted a fundraiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Vice President Al Gore arrived by helicopter, landing on the Mahmoods’ eight-acre lawn. Then the reception began, with high-powered guests mingling on the unfinished concrete floors.
Ray Mahmood, born Rafat Mahmood in Karachi, is among the best-connected Pakistani-Americans in Washington. A real-estate developer, he and his wife, Shaista, know the Clintons—they have had lunch with Hillary at the State Department—and have hosted Vice President Joe Biden, Congressman Howard Berman, former Pakistani president General Pervez Musharraf, and many others at their home.
The Mahmoods are also close to the political establishment in Pakistan—Ray’s official title, ambassador-at-large for Pakistan to the US, was given to him by Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari, husband of the late Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto, herself a great friend of the Mahmoods’.
The ambassador-at-large title is nice to have, but it doesn’t come with any actual responsibilities. Ray Mahmood’s influence stems more from his money, his connections, and the diplomatic skills he applies to his relationships in this country, of which he’s been a citizen since 1980. He’s a soft-spoken, well-dressed man with ample weight on his large frame and hair that he dyes black to cover the gray. When he speaks, he doesn’t especially command attention; if anything, it’s his determination not to draw notice that people remember about him.
A master of backroom diplomacy who knows how to bring the right people together, Mahmood has become known in Washington as a big player in South Asian foreign policy.
“This is a guy who has President Zardari on his speed dial,” says Virginia congressman Jim Moran, a friend of the Mahmoods’ for 36 years. “The Clintons respect his opinions, as do a lot of people. Without any actual position, he’s risen to a higher level than I have in politics.”
Mahmood doesn’t have ambitions of the sort that many in Washington do—he doesn’t plan to run for office or seek an appointment, here or in Pakistan. He’s already living out his dream: helping to shape policy between the two countries that matter most to him. It’s a role that has become increasingly important as the US relationship with Pakistan has devolved into a full-blown foreign-policy crisis.
Ray Mahmood often says he worked his way up from nothing. His business success began with a Sunoco gas station he bought in 1975 for $5,000 in Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood. Back then, Del Ray didn’t have the affluent small-town feel that it does today; it was a rundown place without a lot of prospects. The $5,000 he paid for the station represented two years of savings he’d made working—during the week at the Pakistani Embassy and on weekends at a convenience store—while taking night classes at the USDA Graduate School. No one thought the gas station was a good investment.
But putting $5,000 into a company—any company—and hiring employees was, at the time, the first step toward applying for a green card. As business picked up, Mahmood secured a green card for himself. After he married Shaista in Lahore, he was able to get one for her. He bought more gas stations, including the land on which they stood.
Mahmood believed that anything was possible in America. When talking about his adopted country, he peppers his conversation with phrases such as “land of opportunity” and “the best country in the world.”
He hasn’t abandoned his native Pakistan—it’s the main focus of his political work—so much as he has decided he’s more American than Pakistani. He feels comfortable advocating for Pakistani-Americans and their causes but doesn’t want to represent the Pakistani government. He says he’d never consider becoming the official Pakistani ambassador to the United States, in part because he believes that would require giving up his US citizenship, which is unthinkable. “We know someone who gave up his US citizenship for a posting and tried for years to get it back,” Mahmood says. “He died before he could.”
Mahmood likes to tell a story about an afternoon not long ago when he saw George Allen standing on his back deck with another man he couldn’t quite place. They were staring out at Mahmood’s house and beyond to the Potomac.
Allen invited Mahmood over and introduced his friend—Mitt Romney. Mahmood slows down the pace of the story when he gets to this part, as though to savor the telling: “I’d never met Romney before. So he said his hellos and then he asked, ‘What do you do, Ray?’ And I said, ‘Look at me! Look at this place, this neighborhood, this view. What do I do? I live the American dream!’ ”
Being next-door neighbors has led to an unlikely friendship between Allen and Mahmood. Their wives have followed suit: Susan Allen and Shaista Mahmood often chat in their yards, where Susan spends a lot of time gardening, and the Mahmoods let the Allens use their tennis courts. Ray Mahmood hasn’t ever voted Republican, but in his semi-official role as political conduit, he makes an effort to be nonpartisan, and George Allen has introduced him to many conservatives.
“We quite regularly attend charity fundraisers at their beautiful home,” Susan Allen says. She pauses. “Political events, not so much. I always know that if there’s a lot of cars in their driveway and we haven’t been invited, it’s because they’re hosting a Democratic fundraiser.”
In 2006, the Mahmoods had a fundraiser for George Allen’s senatorial campaign. Susan Allen says they have on occasion been invited to come over on evenings when they were outnumbered by Democrats. But she adds that Ray “doesn’t ever want to put anyone in an uncomfortable position. He is very diplomatic and would never make you feel as though you didn’t fit in, even if you didn’t.”
The warmth between the Allens and the Mahmoods makes it seem all the stranger that what undid Allen’s seemingly inevitable Senate reelection campaign several years ago—and ended his hopes of a 2008 presidential run—was his use of a pejorative word to refer to a South Asian. At a campaign rally in 2006, Allen called a young man of Indian ancestry, who was working for his opponent’s campaign, a “macaca.” It became one of those “YouTube moments,” recycled endlessly on cable news.
Shaista Mahmood says she and Ray never believed Allen was biased against South Asians or any other group: “We never talked about it—we wouldn’t want to bring up something so awkward, but we also don’t see the need to pick up on the bad things.”
Shaista says she and Ray are staying on the sidelines of Allen’s 2012 Virginia Senate campaign, in which he’s running against another of the Mahmoods’ friends, former Virginia governor Tim Kaine.
Next: “It’s hard now to believe how good things were between our countries just a few years back”