News & Politics

Putting Mayor Gray Between Rock and a Hard Place

Will Rock Newman back Andy Shallal in the mayoral race?

Rock Newman and Andy Shallal showed up at Mayor Vince Gray’s office in September to talk politics. From Shallal’s telling, the 90-minute session boiled down to this: Newman—a DC political operative and entrepreneur who’s made millions as a boxing promoter—said he was ready to back Shallal’s campaign for mayor. But Shallal, the owner of the restaurant Busboys and Poets and a progressive activist, would not run if Gray announced for a second term. And both would support Gray.

Gray declined to commit.

Shallal has e-mailed Gray a few times since to get a sense of the mayor’s political plans. “I got the same, canned answers,” Shallal says.

The next few days, according to Shallal, may determine whether Shallal runs, with Newman as chair of the campaign. On Friday, November 8, Shallal will pick up petitions to gather signatures to get on the April ballot. On Saturday, Gray will be a guest on Rock Newman’s radio show, broadcast on WHUT and run out of Shallal’s restaurant on 14th Street, Northwest.

“Will he run?” Newman asked on his Facebook page.

It is highly unlikely that Mayor Gray will choose Newman’s radio show as the platform to answer a question he’s been dodging for months, but Newman, perhaps better than anyone, can turn up the heat for Gray to announce. Newman helped elect Marion Barry to his fourth mayoral term, he co-chaired former mayor Anthony Williams’s campaigns, and he continues to have deep ties to DC’s political networks. Newman would bring immediate street credibility to Shallal’s campaign.

If Gray demurs on Saturday, Shallal says Newman will officially become his campaign chairman next week. “I will not get out once I’m in,” says Shallal, who announced his interest in the race a few months ago. “People see me as a restaurateur and activist, but I have been involved in politics for years, as well.”

Shallal, 58, would be a long shot, to say the least. He has no deep history in DC politics, no base, and low name recognition. But he would be an attractive alternative to the three City Council members already running: Muriel Bowser, Jack Evans, and Tommy Wells.

His campaign would boil down to ABT: Anybody But Them.

“I will stand out from the rest of the field,” he tells Washingtonian, “against the business-as-usual candidates inside the Wilson Building.”

Reta Lewis is running as an outsider, as well, but she doesn’t have nearly the same political cred in DC as Shallal.

Born in Baghdad, Shallal moved to Northern Virginia with his family at 11, when his father got a job as ambassador to the Arab League. Shallal found his calling in the restaurant business when he created the Busboys and Poets mini chain, which now comprises five restaurants.

What makes Shallal think he can run a city with a $10 billion budget?

“I am the only candidate who’s run a business, created jobs, and had to balance the books,” he says. “I know how to create jobs and inspire people. Those elements of leadership are universal.”

Every campaign season, DC’s political class searches for “candidate X,” someone beyond the usual suspects. Shallal could fill that bill by appealing to the progressive left. His political mentor was the late progressive historian Howard Zinn, for whom he named a room in his latest Busboys, in Hyattsville. He can attract luminaries like Cornel West, Marian Wright Edelman, and Barbara Ehrenreich to his restaurants for special events. The question is, will that translate to votes in the District’s retail political market?

If Mayor Gray remains coy and Rock Newman commits to Andy Shallal, the answer could be yes.