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"So they like you, but they are concerned that it will hurt you to run in this race," said Seeme. "They want to keep you on as a leadership person. If you run in the primary, it will make Al White supporters mad."
"I was told, 'Everyone in that room loves you,'" said Ali. "'Nobody wants to see you go through a primary.' The grassroots love us. The grassroots see no difference between the House and the Senate."
"Then the grassroots don't recognize that Al White is not following conservative policies," said Seeme, her voice growing louder.
"I think I underestimated his popularity."
Seeme called brusquely for a Coke, and after a few moments, a young female servant appeared from behind a wooden partition painted with roosters to hand her another glass goblet. "I am a Republican, and if you have a Republican candidate, then he should represent the views of the party," she continued. Her son's "mission statement" she said, was to hold White accountable for his liberal voting record, the very record that Ali tried to bring up at today's debate. "You can cry or you can bow down. The grassroots doesn't know the truth. Al White will be four years in the Senate following these liberal policies. Do you want to send this man to the Senate?"
"I am trying to be intelligent about this," Ali said quietly. "I don't want to disappoint you."
Ali often refers to Seeme as his personal hero. She gave birth to him on July 4, 1980, exactly one year after she was sworn in as a citizen of the United States, and frequently brought her "Yankee Doodle Dandy" of an infant along with her to her various volunteer posts around Pueblo. "He would stuff envelopes and put in signs," says Seeme. "He'd fall asleep. But I'd never let him take naps. His entire life has been spent fighting for this cause or for that."
Unlike his sisters, Ali did poorly in elementary school, and his mother suspected that he had a learning disability. He had trouble reading at first, and he and Seeme now sponsor a program to provide newspapers to Pueblo elementary students. The papers arrive with a little booklet that includes a photo of the mother and son.
"I didn't make it easy for him. I lectured him. I spanked him. I knew he had the potential to make it," Seeme says.
In spite of Ali's poor grades, he followed his sisters to Groton, a prestigious Massachusetts boarding school with a tuition rate comparable to private universities. And his mother continued to keep a close eye on his progress, lambasting him when he graduated last in his class. "She said, 'It might not embarrass you that you get bad grades, but it embarrasses me,'" Ali remembers.
Ali was also diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder during his senior year. By the time he enrolled at Occidental College in Los Angeles, he had learned to pick up audio books and spend extra time with his professors. He created his own major there, combining environmental science, film, and teaching. As an undergraduate, he taught for a year and a half in an impoverished Los Angeles school, an experience he likes to trumpet on the campaign trail.
Shortly after September 11, Ali was contacted by a TV booking agent looking for Muslim students to appear on ABC's Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. Ali agreed, thus beginning his brief career in political commentary.
The two-part show played out as a shouting match between Maher and his visitors, with the host needling the four young Muslims on stage when they blamed the United States for interfering in Middle Eastern politics and worsening their countries' woes. The other guests grew defensive, but not Ali, exclaiming instead that the United States should do even more and "embrace" the people of the Arab world.
On the second episode, Ali wore a black-and-grey suit with his hair in spikes, and when Maher introduced him, he said "Yeah!" and made the "rock on" sign with both hands. "Obviously an American," said Maher. "And proud!" replied Ali.
"Let me ask you this question," Maher asked early on in the show. "Say things were reversed. Say the Muslims were ascendant now. Say they had the power to do whatever they wanted, because certainly America has that power. If we wanted to drop a bomb on every Muslim and kill them all, we could do that. What would the world be like if right now the Muslims were in charge?"
"There is a difference between Prophet Muhammad, who was a peaceful businessman, and Osama bin Laden, who was some bloodsucking jerk," answered Ali. "Now, if we had a world that was ruled by men like Prophet Muhammad, who were good, capitalist men, who believed in charity and believed in business, this would be a great world."
In 2004, Seeme and Ali started Muslims for Bush, and the TV calls kept coming. "He wanted to show his Americanism and his willingness to be involved in the political process," says Carole Chouinard, an agent who booked Ali on CNBC's The Dennis Miller Show during the 2004 election. "He is canny enough to see a situation that he could use for genuine purposes. It's like he thought, 'I can get some mileage from this.'" While Ali says he was applauded for backing Bush on television, he also drew criticism from American Muslims, 93 percent of whom voted for John Kerry in 2004.