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On a sunny afternoon last fall, Muhammad Ali Hasan walked into a diner in Meeker, a farming town in Colorado's northwestern corner. It was the thick of hunting season, and the Meeker Cafe, an old brick building dotted with mounted deer heads, was filled with men who had just come off the chase, many still sporting orange vests over their flannel jackets.
Muhammad — or Ali, as he is known — had spent the morning on a chauffeured tour of the oil-rich Roan Plateau, Colorado's most contentious drilling site.
The 27-year-old Eagle County Republican was entertaining a run for state Senate District 8, a 175-mile-long region that spreads southeast from the Wyoming and Utah borders and includes both Meeker, in Rio Blanco County, and the Roan Plateau. Though he had ventured out of his Suburban to climb the hills around the plateau hours earlier, his thick black hair remained coiffed in a spiky pompadour. He wore a tight-fitting button-down shirt with tiny skulls on it, a belt buckle with the American flag, jeans and a new pair of suede cowboy boots. Ali picked a table in the middle of the diner and sat down with his campaign manager, Jeff Bartleson, and assistant, Jonathan Berckefeldt.
It was the tail end of Ramadan, but Ali, a Muslim, ordered a burger, explaining that travelers are exempted from the holiday's fasting requirement. Bartleson and Berckefeldt did the same. Next stop on the campaign trail would be the Vermillion Basin, another politically important oil-drilling site. Then it would be back over the mountains to Avon for a Republican Central Committee meeting and, finally, a Young Republican get-together at Pazzo's Pizzeria, where they'd eat again.
The burgers arrived, and Ali chatted loudly — his voice half President Bush, half Valley Boy — about his plans for next summer, when his campaign would "heat up" with fliers and yard signs. A first-time politician, Ali chose to run in District 8 despite the fact that it has already been spoken for by veteran legislator Al White, and despite warnings from the state's Republican leadership that he should first consider a House seat.
At an adjacent table, a group of older hunters gawked at the candidate. Ali finished his meal, and one of them piped up. "Are you from the People's Republic of Davis?" he asked. "No," Ali answered, standing up from his seat to introduce himself and smiling broadly. "I'm from the People's Republic of Eagle County!"
It's easy to confuse Ali for a California boy. His larger-than-life charisma — replete with hair gel, designer sunglasses and an iPhone — makes him seem more Hollywood than hinterland. And before last summer, when he moved back to the $10 million Beaver Creek mansion he shares with his parents and two older sisters, Ali had spent nine years in Los Angeles, first as a political commentator on network TV when he was still in college, and later as the director of Rabia, a film about a female suicide bomber that he produced for his graduate program at Chapman University.
In California, he'd also started Muslims for Bush — now called Muslims for America — a nonprofit aimed at defeating John Kerry in the 2004 election by asserting that the president had done more for Muslims than the Democratic candidate. The organization earned him a degree of fame and more spots on national television.
Back in Colorado, Ali regularly put in long days traversing the district, and the day's lunch was a kind of campaign stop, too. He kept up the exchange with the hunters, asking the men how early they'd risen that morning, and whether they hunted with bows or guns. For his part, Ali had fired a gun for the first time just a few weeks earlier, in practice for a "shootout" he'd sponsored at the Hogue Ranch in Routt County. The event, a fundraiser for the local Republican Party, was his mother's idea, and he'd hit a clay pigeon on his first day. After chatting a little more, Ali surveyed the room a final time and interjected with a warm "Hi!" to anyone who made eye contact.
The youngest child of extremely wealthy and outspoken Pakistani parents, Ali couldn't be more different from the oil workers, ranchers and hunters of Senate District 8, a five-county region with only 144,000 residents. Early on in his run, he opted to be frank about his background, resisting advisors who told him to campaign as "Al Hasan." One voter referred to Islam as the "religion of Satan," but questions about his faith have been few and mostly mild, Ali says. "I have a deep faith that this is not a racist district. I want to show that people here are not racist."
But Ali's heritage and his California swagger had been the least of his problems.
White, a four-term state representative from Hayden, is well known on the Western Slope. In his eight years in House District 57, he earned a track record for promoting affordable housing and tourism, as well as for negotiating a proposal for how the state's cut of oil revenue should be distributed. Now, with the blessings of the state Republican Party and District 8's retiring senator, Jack Taylor, White planned to step effortlessly into the Senate seat. He saw Ali as nothing less than an imposter.