Party Crasher

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

"They knew there was no reason for a trial," Zakhem says. "But they not only wanted to discredit me, they wanted to destroy me and my family. If any of them was subject to the scrutiny I was subjected to and baptized by the fire I was baptized in, he would smell, as my friend [Post columnist] Chuck Green said, like a dirty diaper in the sun."

Far from breaking him, the ordeal only further inflamed Zakhem's fevered populism. Sounding eerily like Charles Duke, he grumbles about the "Gestapo tactics" of the federal government and vows, "If God ever allows me to be in a position to make laws again, I will clip the wings of the IRS. They are an extra-constitutional agency."

His only regret, he says, concerns his relationship with Kennedy, whose firm, Western Monetary Consultants, filed for bankruptcy reorganization in 1988 and was already under federal investigation at the time Zakhem joined forces with him.

"The association didn't help me," Zakhem acknowledges. "I liked him. I thought he was a decent Christian. I was not aware of the problem he was facing or the magnitude of it. When I became aware of it, I cut my relationship with him."

It's difficult to gauge what impact, if any, the Freedom Task Force's efforts had on the Gulf War itself. Arguably, the Kuwaitis got much better value for their money when they paid $12 million to public-relations giant Hill & Knowlton to orchestrate a national saber-rattling campaign; that campaign included testimony before Congress about alleged Iraqi atrocities in occupied Kuwait that was provided by a young woman known only as Nayirah--later identified as the daughter of Zakhem's good friend, Saud al Sabah.

Still, it seems clear that Zakhem's lobbying made him a rich man. And despite his acquittal, despite his claims of vindication, the venture left behind a string of troubling questions about his business judgment and his influence-peddling that could mar his bid for the state GOP chairmanship.

Indeed, the timing of Don Bain's decision to run suggests some kind of preemptive strike, generated by officials' alarm at the prospect of Sam Zakhem leading the party faithful. Zakhem can't help feeling sandbagged by the move; he says he talked to Bain twice in December--in order to be sure the chairman was stepping down--before declaring his own candidacy.

"I hope people around the state will ask, 'What the hell is going on here?'" Zakhem says. "There's nothing worse than being pushed to volunteer. It behooves those elected officials, the bigshots, to realize they're not the masters. The biggies should not pretend like they're God and impose a state chairman on the rest of us."

Bain, though, says the timing was simply coincidental. Not wanting to face "relentless lobbying" by GOP leaders at an upcoming retreat at the Broadmoor, he decided it was time to declare himself.

"I've been hesitant," he admits. "But although I'd said no, I had not said hell no. I told Sam that. I think he either heard or interpreted that as saying I was absolutely not going to run, which is not what I said."

Bain's declaration complicates matters for Zakhem. Not only does he have to take on a popular chairman--someone who, Zakhem admits, "did a good job" steering the state party through the critical 1996 elections--but he must stave off the challenge of a popular county chair, 37-year-old Steve Curtis, who also represents himself as a "populist" seeking to embrace members of the party who've been neglected by the GOP elite.

"I see Bain as the status quo and Zakhem as an interesting character, part of the old way of doing politics, and myself, obviously, as the clear contrast here," says Curtis. "This last election, we took thousands of phone calls from Republicans feeling left out of the process...I was embarrassed to belong to a party that seemed so anemic. Personally, I don't think it's above a state chair to go out and talk to people."

Neither does Sam Zakhem. "What experience does Don Bain share with the people of La Jara?" he asks. "Or Costilla County, where I went and played volleyball with the kids and spoke to the farm bureau? What does he know about Saguache?"

Sam Zakhem plans to visit all of those places and more. It's the local party officials, after all, who have the ear of the central committee and will decide on the new chairman, not the party "biggies." And Sam Zakhem wants their vote.

"I'm going to go to Weld County," he says. "I'm going to go to Park County, to Fremont County, to Chaffee County. I'm going to go to Arickaree. I'm going to go to Limon, to Hugo, to McClave, to Wiley. I'm going to seek even the Democrats and change them into Republicans."

A Zakhem-led GOP would recapture the governor's office, he says. Not that Zakhem has his eye on such a post himself; the only public office that still interests him is the U.S. Senate, he says, where he could play an active part in shaping foreign policy. But the Republicans already have a waiting list for that seat in 1998--if not Ben Campbell, then Scott McInnis, Zakhem figures. In any case, "by winning the state chairmanship, I'll be taking myself out of that race," he says.

No sacrifice is too great, though, for Sam Zakhem. Sam Zakhem merely wants to serve his party, as it's served him these many years.

"I don't mean it to sound arrogant," he says, "but America doesn't have too many Sam Zakhems.

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