Party Crasher

Back from the abyss, Sam Zakhem campaigns for the forgotten man: himself

Sam Zakhem casts a hungry eye on the milling bodies in the halls of the State Capitol. The press conference room is filling up nicely, but the crowd is mostly made up of well-wishers and business associates. Where are the cameras?

"Are any of the TV stations coming?" Zakhem asks.
An aide replies that she called them all. They were certainly invited to come. Zakhem nods.

"We'll give them another couple of minutes," he declares.
It's a metaphysical problem: How can you hold a press conference without the press? True, the media have other weenies to roast, including the legislature's first full day of business and the strangled child beauty queen in Boulder. But that doesn't quite explain why a man like Samir Hanna Zakhem--former state legislator, former U.S. ambassador to the Middle Eastern emirate of Bahrain and one of the most enduring political figures in the state--should be stuck in an existential farce, Waiting for Pujo. Or, at the very least, for Ernie Bjorkman.

The seconds tick by. No Pujo. No Bjorkman. Nobody even from the daily newspapers, for crying out loud.

Oh, they were all eager enough to write about Sam Zakhem four years ago, in the terrible summer of 1992, when he was indicted on twelve counts by a federal grand jury; everybody wanted a piece of him then. Having taken a princely sum from the government of Kuwait to lobby for American military intervention in the Persian Gulf, he was accused of failing to register as a foreign agent; accused of bilking the Kuwaitis out of millions; accused of cheating on his taxes. The bizarre case eventually fell apart--Zakhem was acquitted on two charges, and the rest were dropped--but not before it knocked him out of the race for the U.S. Senate. And now no one, it seems, has much interest in what Zakhem does--not even if he's about to launch the boldest political comeback bid in the state.

If any of this distresses the former ambassador, he gives no sign. He strides into the conference room beaming his Cheshire Cat grin. "Okay," he says. "We're going to announce the big thing."

Taking the podium, he's suddenly as solemn as if he's announcing the outbreak of civil war. "Ladies and gentlemen," he says, "I come before you today to announce my candidacy for chairman of the Colorado State Republican Party."

For several minutes Zakhem ticks off his qualifications for the job. He also takes a couple of jabs at Don Bain, the current state Republican chairman. Back in November Bain announced he wasn't going to run again, Zakhem notes; but only yesterday, on the eve of Zakhem's formal announcement, Bain declared that party activists had persuaded him to seek a third term in the post.

Unlike Bain, "I'm not being pressured into this position," Zakhem boasts. "I'm seeking it willingly, wholeheartedly, vigorously...I have what in the Marine Corps they call semper fidelis. Always faithful! Despite the doors being blocked in my face by members of my own party, I never wavered."

The reference to blocked doors is the closest Zakhem will come on this day to acknowledging the personal baggage he brings to the race for party chair: He wants those doors open again. The 1992 indictment cost him not only considerable time, money and personal agony, but also the goodwill of many of his colleagues. The affair wounded him deeply, by calling into question the one quality that the proud, flag-waving Lebanese immigrant had always offered to voters as his essence: his patriotism. Only a return to the good graces of his party, even in a voluntary, thankless post such as state chairman, can heal such a wound.

But, as the scantily attended press conference makes clear, not every Republican is enthusiastic about Zakhem's quest. Even before his indictment, Zakhem had his detractors within his own party. Despite his long record of service, he is regarded in certain quarters as a liability, if not an embarrassment. "He's not exactly their man of the year," quips one veteran lobbyist.

Although Bain denies that his decision to run again was prompted by Zakhem's candidacy, he readily admits that local and national party officials are concerned about who's going to be steering the ship the next two years, during what promises to be a volatile period of campaign reform, term limits, and the 1998 gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races. They "twisted his arm" to get him to reconsider, he says.

"My arm has been broken in more places than Ben Campbell's after he fell off his motorcycle," Bain jokes. "I've been praying that someone would emerge who would be acceptable to the central committee and the leadership of the party. But at this point, that does not appear to be the case."

Zakhem's candidacy perplexes Steve Curtis, the Denver County Republican chairman, who's also seeking the state post. "It just bewilders me that he's running," Curtis says. "I don't have anything personally against the guy. I barely know him. But since ethics is such a hot issue right now, I just can't imagine it's the best thing for the party to have [Zakhem's case] dragged up again. There's a responsibility there that's maybe not being addressed, to do the right thing for the party."

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