Judging by the campaign signs in El Paso, you’d think Democrat Farouk Shami was on the fast track to the Texas Governor’s Mansion. Everywhere there’s a cluster of signs — which is a lot of places this time of year — at least two or three read “Farouk for Texas Governor." “He’s caught fire here; it’s been beautiful,” says Joe Lopez, the campaign’s paid organizer in El Paso.
Shami is in a seven-way contest for the Democratic nomination, and former Houston Mayor Bill White seems to have a lock on it. But Shami, a Palestinian immigrant who made a fortune in hair-care products, has made very public overtures to Texas Latinos — like saying, during a televised debate, “Without Mexicans, you know, it'd be like a day without sunshine in our state.” And he's drawing some of his most significant support from Hispanic Democrats throughout the state, particularly in the Sun City.
At a time when polls statewide put Shami’s percentage of the vote in the teens, an El Paso Times poll released last week showed nearly 28 percent of Democratic primary voters in the city would back the Houston millionaire. The city’s Tejano Democrats have endorsed him. The Texas Mexican American Democrats have endorsed him. “They connected a lot more with Mr. Shami with respect to his feelings on immigration, on how to bring jobs to the state of Texas,” says Steve Salazar, a Dallas city councilman and chairman of the Mexican American Democrats.
Lopez, CEO of Lopez Marketing in El Paso, says he initially hesitated to get involved when Shami campaign spokeswoman Jessica Gutierrez called him. Then he went to visit Shami’s hair product manufacturing plant in Houston. “His whole plant was very diverse, all the way from the leadership to the factory workers,” Lopez says. “I was very impressed with him.” Shami told Lopez he wanted to create manufacturing jobs, like the 1,200 he brought to Houston, across the rest of the state. He even wanted to start a solar panel manufacturing plant in El Paso. “He’s so pro-everybody,” Lopez says. “Usually El Paso is totally forgotten.” Lopez agreed to take charge of Shami's El Paso effort, and he says the support has been “fantastic.”
Blanche Darley, a leader of the Tejano Democrats in El Paso — and former state Rep. Paul Moreno's sister — says Shami has paid more attention to the city than White has. White, she says, has taken for granted voters in the Democratic stronghold. “Why should we be stepped on for these people to come in and think we’re going to support them all the time?” she says. Darley says she was disappointed that White’s campaign took months to respond to the Tejano Democrats’ request for him to support their annual banquet. The Shami campaign, she says, agreed right away, buying two tables at the event and sending two goodie baskets worth $500 apiece for the group’s auction. Darley says the group uses the money to pay for get-out-the-vote programs. “Time is changing, you know," Darley says. "You have to have a little respect, and lack of respect kills votes."
Darley says she was also impressed that Shami visited colonias in the rural areas around El Paso, handing out Cokes and food and taking time to talk with people living in third-world conditions. “I think he understands where people, especially in the border area, are coming from, what they deal with coming into this country without any money,” she says.
Gutierrez, Shami's spokeswoman, says the polls and the media have missed how much support he has in minority communities throughout the state, where his rags-to-riches immigrant story resonates. He’s lived in the “ugly” parts of town, she says, and unlike other politicians, he's willing to visit people there. “He goes to parts of the state where nobody would even go to because he’s about them and bringing them up,” she says.
But White’s campaign says it has plenty of support in El Paso and other communities across the state. White, his staffers say, has shown his ability to work for and with diverse communities as mayor of Houston. Campaign spokeswoman Katy Bacon says White has campaign staff on the ground all along the Texas-Mexico border, and White’s daughter Elena has spent a lot of time campaigning in El Paso since last summer, even before her father announced he would run for governor instead of for the U.S. Senate. She’s been phone-banking, block-walking and working with grassroots groups to spread her dad’s campaign message. Since December, her father has visited El Paso four times, and he planned a trip to the border city this past weekend. “He’s shown in Houston that he’s been a voice for every community of the city, and I think he’ll do the same statewide,” Elena says.
Jeanette Walker, a Democratic activist and retired social worker in El Paso, says she met White during a grassroots petition effort to support health care reform. She was impressed with his grasp of policy issues, especially environmental concerns, and with his record of creating jobs in Houston. Walker describes herself as a “flaming liberal” and says White is a little conservative for her taste, but “for Texas, he has the right attitude,” she says. “He has a conservative bent, yet he doesn’t forget the people.”
Karen Walker, retired from the retail sales business, says she also met White in El Paso at a health care reform event. She was struck by White’s intellect. “He was well-read and informed, and he wasn’t interested in posing for the cameras,” Walker says. “He wanted me to know what he thought.”
Despite the Shami signs and greater support in El Paso than elsewhere, the Times poll still shows White ahead in El Paso County, with 42 percent of Democratci primary voters. "It helps to have campaign material out there, but we’re also talking about a group who is pretty in tune with what’s going on politically,” says University of Texas at El Paso political science professor Greg Rocha. “White has a pretty good reputation.”
Jerry Polinard, a political science professor at UT Pan American in Edinburg, says that while he heard Democrats in the Rio Grande Valley express support for Shami, “I certainly haven’t had any sense there’s any groundswell.” Most folks, he says, are just amused by Shami’s unconventional campaign. “People find more entertainment value in his candidacy than they do political value," Polinard says.