If Farouk Shami believes the polls that show him getting stomped in Tuesday’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, he’s not letting on.
From the moment his red cowboy boots touched the tarmac as he emerged from his private plane at San Antonio International Airport, the Palestinian-born businessman was on message and on parade — and, at one point, even on the dance floor.
“I’m a positive thinker. If I wasn’t sure of winning, I would not have put my foot in,” Shami said in his signature bullhorn tone, pressing his BlackBerry against his ear. “Hello? Hello? You’re speaking to the governor here.”
Confidence aside, Shami’s chances on Tuesday are miniscule. The latest polls show Shami — who made his fortune selling hair products, including a ceramic flat iron affectionately called the “CHI” — trailing former Houston Mayor Bill White in the Democratic primary by more than 40 percentage points. Yet the eternal optimist believes his business acumen, nontraditional campaign and immigrant roots will propel people who don’t normally vote to the polls.
“The polling numbers, I don’t go by that,” Shami said dismissively. “We’re not a campaign of political career people. And we’re not reaching for regular political voters.”
When asked what differentiates his campaign strategy from Kinky Friedman’s failed 2006 bid — which relied on the same premise, courting unlikely voters — Shami flashed a tight-lipped smile and made a thinly veiled slap at Friedman. “We are an organization, and we have our issues,” he said. “But without naming names, we know what we’re doing. We’re serious people.”
Shami started his own whirlwind Thursday at the polls, voting early “for myself, and for the people who are right” — though he wouldn’t say who those people are. By the time he hopped into a packed car heading from the airport to his San Antonio campaign headquarters, he was already preaching his core message: jobs, jobs and more jobs, particularly for minorities.
“This is my new job, to create jobs,” he said, describing the hair care product factory he’s opening in one of Houston’s poorest neighborhoods, and his plans to build manufacturing plants in the Rio Grande Valley and along the border. Shami has said he will create 100,000 new jobs as governor — or else he’ll quit and donate $10 million to the state. “I don’t believe anyone can create jobs as much as I can.”
As he bounded from the car at his campaign office, he greeted a young Hispanic woman in the parking lot. “Are you going to vote for me?” he implored.
“I don’t know, are you going to give me a job?” the woman asked. “Or at least a CHI?”
Shami says his success marketing his popular products almost assures his success in the governor’s office. “Running a business, what you do is market yourself. Here, that’s called campaigning,” he says. The campaign will cost him nearly $15 million of his own money, he says, but he has no regrets, “because I am winning.”
Shami won’t consider any losing scenarios, including the prospect of endorsing White if his campaign ends on Tuesday. While he lent financial support to White’s brief run for the U.S. Senate, he doesn’t think the former mayor would be an effective governor. “He was a failure in Houston,” he said.
Not long after arriving at the office, Shami was joined by his Hispanic evangelist — former Tejano singer and Latino variety show host Johnny Canales. Canales, who lives in Corpus Christi, strolled in wearing ostrich-skin boots, an emerald green satin shirt and a cropped, sequined vest, along with a “Farouk for Governor” pin on his belt buckle.
“You’re a movie star. Look at you. You look lovely,” Shami cheered. “Green is the color of confidence.”
Canales, whose last political tour was with then-presidential contender Bill Clinton, said Shami is the only statewide candidate he can remember who has worked so hard to connect with Hispanics. “On a radio show in Houston, I heard someone say, ‘If Farouk loves Hispanics that much, he should run for governor of Mexico,’” Canales said. “When you hear that … well, here we’ve got this candidate who’s talking about equality.”
Before long, the entourage was on its way to the euphemistically named Royal Palace Ballroom for a Latino senior citizens dance. As campaign staffers doled out long-stemmed carnations to women shuffling in house dresses and mini heels, Shami worked the room, shaking hands with wrinkled vaqueros swilling Miller Lite and dodging couples dancing a cautious cumbia. Ever the gentleman, Shami took a few obligatory spins on the dance floor himself before Canales introduced him using his signature bandstand line: “Amigo, Farouk Shami, you’ve got it — take it away!”
At the microphone, Shami made his strongest appeal: He’d bring factories and thousands of jobs to the border, steal manufacturing business from China and Korea and fight discrimination at every turn. For J.A. Hernandez, a 79-year-old at the dance, the message worked — mostly. “He’s trying to help Hispanics, and Texas is full of Hispanics,” Hernandez said. “He’s not Hispanic himself, but I think he is someone who won’t discriminate.”
Shami tells potential voters that he’s not just running against White — he’s running against the establishment. He said that as recently as two months ago, the Texas Democratic Party was pressuring him to drop out of the race and run for lieutenant governor instead. (Kirsten Gray, a spokeswoman for the party, said that’s “absolutely not true.”)
And Shami blames the media for “exaggerating” the public defection of two sets of his campaign staffers. “It was just competition among my strategists,” he said. “We had too many chiefs.” Two of his comments that have made headlines — his suggestion, following the lead of Republican candidate Debra Medina, that there might be a government conspiracy involved in the 9/11 attacks; and that white people don’t want to work factory jobs — have also been the subject of “media twists,” Shami said. He said he didn’t even know what reporters were asking him about 9/11. “And [Caucasians] don’t like to have factory jobs, starter jobs,” he said. “Eighty percent of factory workers are minorities.”
Outside the dance hall, Shami attracted a crowd as he went toe to toe with an elderly Hispanic man who was adamant that all politicians are liars. The man said he’d believe Shami’s campaign pitch when he found employment.
“If you don’t have a job, come to my factory right now and I’ll give you one,” Shami pledged, to a roar of applause. Then his handlers hustled him into a waiting Cadillac Escalade.
For Shami, the experience was simply another affirmation that he’s headed for the Governor’s Mansion. “For an immigrant with an accent to be supported this much — I represent the will of the people,” he said. “My life is for Texas now.”