Is This Muslim Republican Mr. Right or the Big Cheese?
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.
Nevertheless, as Ali toured the district, he grew determined that he could represent it better. He hadn't lived in Beaver Creek long enough to earn a reputation on pressing issues like water, oil revenue or education, but he was certain that White had gone about fixing them all wrong. It was time to take the Western Slope's interests back, he told people he met along the campaign trail. And time to take the Republican Party back for the people and not the politicians.
He would do this, he promised, even if it meant using his personal investment fund to bankroll himself into a bloody primary with White.
That night, Ali was in high spirits. The Young Republicans event had gone well, even though it had turned out to be more Republican than young. A small group knocked back beers and pizzas, laughing that conservatives do too know how to have fun. Ali doesn't drink in public, saying that alcohol incites him to anger, so he hung out in the corner, practicing his swing dance moves for an upcoming Republican party in Denver. Late in the evening, he drove home through the pavilion-like checkpoint that separates Beaver Creek's mansions from the townhomes and apartments in Avon.
Originally from Pueblo, Ali began spending time in Beaver Creek at the age of eleven, when his multimillionaire father, Malik, a partially retired HMO executive, and his mother, Seeme, a longtime Republican activist, bought the 28,000-square-foot home. The ship-like mansion was commissioned by a Mexican gangster with a taste for ivory, and some of the Asian artwork he owned still graces the halls. The home boasts eighteen bathrooms and eleven bedrooms, a dungeon-like wine cellar, a pool and a sauna, a dining room with a gold chandelier and a painted-cloud ceiling, a gazebo, and two bronze greyhounds flanking the front door. A more impressive residence than their Pueblo abode, the Hasan family took to reuniting there when Ali and his sister Asma returned from boarding school near Boston for the holidays. Seeme and Malik traveled between homes in Colorado, Las Vegas and Southern California.
When Ali moved back for good last May, he first dove into a series of real-estate ventures with his mother and a friend. But as he got to know people in the area, he realized it might be time to act on his long-held desire to run for office. "I said, 'Why am I biding my time?' If it works out, it does. But if it doesn't, at least I'm not coming home at night feeling like I could do more with my life."
His mother urged him to take on White, who she felt had abandoned some of her conservative principles, and in mid-October, Ali filed paperwork. Like Seeme, Ali is moderate on social issues but considers himself a staunch fiscal Republican, imploring the party to return to its Reagan-esque roots of small government and accountability. Over the past fourteen years, the Hasans have become some of the United States' most prolific Republican donors, personally giving more than $725,000 to Republican candidates and causes, according to OpenSecrets.org, which tracks political donations. The family also vigorously raised money for President Bush, a man they say has done more Muslim outreach than any recent leader. In 2004, Malik attained Pioneer status, a label reserved for those who have raised at least $100,000. Today the family is still close with the president, and Ali considers him an "uncle" figure. Their mansion is spotted with photos of Seeme and Bush outside of his Crawford, Texas, ranch.
In spite of the family's monetary contributions, Malik contends that Seeme and Ali's activism — in particular with Muslims for Bush — has earned them a special connection with the president. "When Bush sees Seeme and Ali, he gets animated," he says. "Both want to work for him, not just with their money, but with their hearts." Ali even beseeched the president for advice on his state Senate run during a recent trip to Washington. "I told him, 'Mr. President, this campaign stuff is hard.' He looked at me and said, 'Yeah. You have to have a sense of humor.'"
As Ali continued on the campaign trail — at times facing questions about his inexperience from White supporters — Seeme and Malik were quick to remind him why they left Pakistan for America. There, they said, rampant cronyism would have prevented a newcomer from running for office. But in America, Ali was free to give it a shot, no matter what the Republican kingmakers, as Ali calls them, thought of him.
Malik grew up in India as part of a wealthy family and later moved to Pakistan to attend medical school. But he realized that "society there wasn't merit-based," and he decided to move to the United States with Seeme and their young daughter Aliya. The family went to Chicago in 1971, then relocated to Pueblo, when a medical firm recruited Malik, a neurologist, for his expertise.
Over the next couple of decades, the Hasans became increasingly well known, and their influence expanded with their finances.
In 1985, shortly after the advent of managed care in the United States, Malik started his own Pueblo-based HMO called QualMed. He urged his friends and colleagues to invest in the venture, and those who did eventually made millions. The operation, in downtown Pueblo, grew as it acquired ailing HMOs around the country, and so did Malik's wealth. In 1991, QualMed went public, and Malik's investments soared to a market value of $67 million, according to Health Against Wealth, George Anders's book on managed care. A few years later, QualMed merged with a California company to create Health Systems International, Inc. Yet another merger earned Malik a spot on Forbes magazine's 1998 list of top paid executives; he had gleaned $28.6 million over a five-year period. (Ali won't disclose how much he or his family is now worth, saying he doesn't want to jeopardize their safety.) But in 1999, Malik and other executives sold QualMed, laying off employees in Pueblo and closing the downtown building,
Seeme first became politically active in Pueblo, reviving the deflated local Republican Party by urging registered voters to head to the polls. She also joined the board of the symphony, and says she received death threats when she ousted a conductor who was unpopular with the musicians. The Hasans also gave locally: the business school at Colorado State University at Pueblo bears their name, as does a lobby in the town's Sangre de Cristo Arts and Conference Center. In addition, Seeme started the Colorado Music Fest, a music-education program for underprivileged youth.
As a child, Ali had trouble in school, bouncing from one private elementary to another before landing in Denver at Graland Country Day School for sixth grade. From there, he went to a boarding school outside of Boston.
"People liked them or didn't like them," recalls Sandy Stein, a family friend who writes a society column for the Pueblo Chieftain. "I think there was a lot of jealousy. And I think the dad can be pretty aloof. Seeme is really likable and really personable. In the end, some of the people here are aggravated by them."
In mid-November, Ali and his team made plans to meet the district's influential Republicans. On a crisp morning, the group — which had grown to four with the addition of a redheaded publicist named Alison Miller and a new assistant named Tim Nottingham to replace Berckefeldt — gathered in Ali's home, waiting for the candidate to get ready.
Soon they would make the hour-long trek to Glenwood Springs, where the Garfield County Republican Party held its monthly luncheon.
Miller wandered around the "campaign headquarters," a small home office with a wooden desk stacked with local newspapers. After a near-sleepless night, Ali was running late again, and not even a prompting text message from Bartleson could urge the candidate to move faster. "Maybe he's blow-drying his hair," joked Miller. Ali eventually emerged from his bedroom — an apartment-sized annex with black, outer-space-themed wallpaper that he'd picked out years ago when his parents remodeled the mansion.
Though Ali decided early on that he wouldn't hold a job during the campaign, the traveling and public speaking had still taken a toll on him. Ali was a night owl, editing films or firing off e-mails at 4 a.m. It was a habit he'd picked up from his father, who was known to review his patients' files deep into the night.
Around noon, Ali and his entourage pulled up to the Buffalo Valley Inn, a log cabin-style restaurant on the outskirts of Glenwood Springs. Shirley Woodrow, an active member of the Republican group, was waiting in the lobby. "Can I give you a hug?" Ali asked, squeezing her into a sideways embrace and a cheek kiss, his signature greeting.
White — who was the event's guest of honor — was scheduled to speak in just a few minutes, and Ali was antsy. Though the candidates had met only a handful of times, the tension between them was growing. In the last few days, White and several local Republican leaders had warned Ali to back off of Senate District 8 and the bruising primary that was sure to come. They urged him to run instead in House District 56, covering Eagle, Summit and Lake counties, with a small population of 82,000. That seat had been recently vacated by Dan Gibbs, a Democrat chosen to take Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald's position as she focused on a run for Congress.
"My husband and I wrote [Ali] an e-mail and said, 'You need to strongly consider this,'" says Heather Lemon, a Vail broker and prominent Eagle County Republican. She told him he'd have a lot of support. "I don't know what the farmers in Senate District 8 think of him. If they know him, it's one thing. If they don't, they'll say, 'Who's this?' In House District 56, people are more open-minded and curious," she says.
Ali had thought about the advice, but he just couldn't let go of his interest in the more prestigious Senate seat. He sat down at the main table, placed his monogrammed leather notebook in front of him, and watched as older men and women began to trickle into the restaurant's conference room and seat themselves on red upholstered chairs. After a few moments, White stepped into the room, and Ali jumped up.
"I didn't mean to give you such harsh commentary in the Vail Daily," he laughed awkwardly, referring to a recent article in which he called White the "Western Slope exploiter" and himself the "Western Slope warrior." "I know you are a good guy."
White sat down at the head of the table and nodded icily, his eyes focused on the center of the room.
After a brief introduction, Ali — to his surprise — was invited to speak. "The last thing I want to do is represent people if they don't want me to," he began, standing. "The reason I would entertain a run for District 8 is that there are differences between me and Al White." Ali ran through them quickly: White wants to give oil revenue to the Front Range, not the Western Slope; White supported a Denver effort to take water from the Western Slope; and White worked to destroy the Taxpayers' Bill of Rights, a measure that limits government spending, by backing Referendum C.
"I am a warrior for TABOR. I am very young and kind of reckless," Ali said, oblivious to the waitress who had crept up behind him and was now trying to get his attention. "Can I get your order?" she interrupted, as the party members looked on. "Chicken fingers, please," he said, turning back to the audience to finish his point. "You have a choice between shrimp, schnitzel and the salad bar," the waitress said. "What would make me look tough?" Ali asked, laughing. After a long pause, he said, "I'll take the shrimp."
But when the shrimp came, Ali barely touched it. Instead he watched as White, flanked by his wife and campaign manager, rose to speak. "Muhammad has indicated that he has differences with me," he began. "He has misunderstood me. His differences are not really differences." White hadn't yet finalized a plan on oil revenues, he explained. He never voted to send Western Slope water to Denver. And yes, he did support Referendum C, but only because he wanted more money to go to higher education. The audience nodded with each point. "I appreciate what Muhammad is saying, but my question is, why, if he wants to give himself to public service, is he running for SD-8 when all of the Republican leadership wants him to run for 56?"
He then mentioned a poll Ali had conducted which predicted "devastating" results for Ali's Senate campaign. "Can you support Muhammad? I think he's a good person. It is in pursuing HD-56 that you can be put to good use," White concluded.
Back in the Suburban, Ali slumped into the passenger's seat. "I got my ass handed to me there," he told Miller, who was driving.
"No, no, no," she said. "Al White boldface-lied on certain things. He is a good speaker and an expert liar. You called him on his voting record, and he turned around and asked everyone to tell you not to run."
"I hate those fucking kingmakers," Ali pouted. "I am not going to listen to those fuckers. I am not going to listen to guys that don't mean well for Colorado."
But Ali was already wondering whether the House district was a better choice. He considered floating a proposal to White: If White was willing to publicly pledge to uphold TABOR and make sure that oil revenue returned to the Western Slope, then Ali just might, he emphasized, switch races.
Miller held Ali's hand while she drove, using her other to maneuver the car back toward downtown Glenwood Springs. Over the past few weeks, a romance had developed between the two. Miller, 26 and a mother of three young boys, originally joined the team as a publicist. But one night, after a Young Republicans debate, Ali found himself kissing her against her car. At first they'd kept things quiet and casual. "If there is one elected office I have held, it is 'Mayor of Commitment-Phobia-Ville,'" he says. "I told her, 'I'm a bad guy. I'm this womanizing mean guy who wants to be a politician.'"
But then one day Bartleson caught them making out in between interviews for a campaign assistant, and Ali decided to go public with the relationship. Miller transitioned into a volunteer role to avoid a conflict of interest. And she stopped eating pork because Ali, who keeps a halal diet, said he could taste it on her breath when he kissed her. Although Ali says he was a little embarrassed at first about the planetary wallpaper in his bedroom, it hasn't kept Miller from repeatedly spending the night there.
Ali also began telling their story to warm up the crowd at each campaign stop. "This has been the best part of the campaign," he says. "You find love when you are not looking for it. I had given up on love. I said, 'I just want to have fun.' She walked into my life and definitely made an improvement."
That evening, however, Miller went home, and Ali returned to the Beaver Creek mansion about 9 p.m. He walked into the kitchen, a basement room set up like a restaurant, with pots and pans hanging from the ceiling and stainless-steel countertops where the family chef creates their meals. Seeme sat at a wooden table down the hall in a room decorated with paintings of fruit and photos of Ali and his two sisters in ski clothing. She wore a brown and red tunic dress, eating onion rings with grilled cheese and drinking water from a cut-glass goblet. "Good Morning Pakistan" was showing on a mounted television with a clip of Benazir Bhutto, the former Pakistani president who would be assassinated just weeks later.
Before Ali could sit down, Seeme asked him for the full report on his day. Ali admitted that he had debated White, even though Seeme had warned him against it so early on in the race.
"Why won't you listen to me, Ali?" she asked in her thick Pakistani accent. She glanced at the television and back at her son.
"I didn't know what to say," he said. To make matters worse, nearly everyone at the luncheon seemed to support his opponent, Ali explained. One quiet older woman who attended all of his events implored Ali to switch races, saying he would burn bridges with the state Republican Party if he didn't.
"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.
That same year, Ali's older sister, Asma, came out with her second book, Why I Am a Muslim. In the book, Asma, who refers to herself as the "Muslim Feminist Cowgirl," draws parallels between the principles of Islam and the founding ideals of the United States, and claims that the Hasans are direct descendants of Genghis Khan. A lawyer, Asma also faced criticism for her book and her support of Bush. She recently filed suit against a vocal critic who made sexual comments about her in his own writing.
Despite their frequent references to Islam, the Hasans aren't outwardly religious. Ali calls himself a Sufi but acknowledges the inherent dilemma in running for office, since Sufis are expected to abandon all worldly desires and focus on a life of prayer. Ali doesn't pray the requisite five times per day, and he recently celebrated Christmas with his family in their Las Vegas home. "Jesus is our favorite prophet, and he is a prophet in Islam," he says.
In graduate school, Ali weighed in on another issue affecting Muslims when he partnered with Seeme to create Rabia, a film about a female suicide bomber. Rabia is loosely based on the life of Wafa Idris, a Palestinian who separated from her husband after she couldn't bear him children. In the film, scenes of Rabia preparing to blow herself up on an Israeli beach are spliced with flashbacks from her childhood and troubled adult life. Seeme produced the film, and the family spent between $20,000 and $30,000 on it. For one market scene, Seeme bought $1,000 worth of fruit from the local Costco. Ali later gave it away to the crew.
And Seeme has continued supporting her son. Back at the kitchen table, Ali mentioned that White, it seemed, had somehow gotten his hands on Ali's poll. Seeme knew that the survey wasn't as flattering as her son had hoped. Even so, the $3,500 study wasn't meant to be public. Seeme suggested a "mini-lawsuit" to rectify the situation. The two continued talking late into the evening, wondering if the poll had been leaked, and who besides White may have gotten their hands on it. The betrayal, they reasoned, could have gone all the way to the top of the state's Republican Party. "I'd hate to sue the party and the leadership," Ali said. "I want to know what they know about this and if they are involved."
A few days later, Republican state chairman Dick Wadhams said he'd never seen the poll, nor did he know anyone who did. He wouldn't comment on whether Ali had talked with him about a lawsuit, but he cautioned that it would be "unwise" and said that it "wouldn't make me feel good about him."
Before Ali retired for the night, he wandered through a guest bedroom and came across a family servant (one of five who typically staff the mansion) who was getting ready to leave. He greeted her warmly. Should I stick with SD-8, he asked in a pleading voice, or go into HD-56? Stick with 8, she said. I know you'll do fine.
It was the first time anyone had said that all day.
The next day, Ali was in a brighter mood. He had taken the morning off and showered in the late afternoon, buttoning his large torso into a pastel checkered shirt with ribbons down the front. At dusk he traveled to Glenwood Springs with Nottingham and Miller, where the Young Republicans group he founded was hosting a mock presidential debate. He was supposed to play Rudy Giuliani but had barely had time to practice his role. Miller, on the other hand, was in a frenzy: The Democrats she'd scheduled had canceled at the last minute, leaving her and another young Republican to act as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Other Republicans had deserted, too. Ali's Giuliani would be joined only by a Montrose woman posing as Fred Thompson. Miller asked Ali if he'd prepared for the debate, and he whipped out his iPhone to scroll though Giuliani's web page.
The team arrived at Sacred Grounds in Glenwood Springs, a spacious brick coffee shop that doubles as a Segway rental store. Ali and Miller checked the microphones, and Nottingham pulled a video camera out of a bag. The debate yielded more than a dozen audience members, and though Ali was the only mock candidate who didn't bring notes, he was the loudest in each point he made, tapping his foot quickly until it was his turn to speak again. At the end of the debate, Ali stepped up from his stool.
"I admire everyone who is here," he said to the assemblage, switching out of Giuliani mode and growing more animated with each word. "When I started running in SD-8, I thought I would get support. Then I got phone calls saying that I should sit down. My mother said, 'I am going to call the state party.' She said, 'Chairman Wadhams, I didn't leave Pakistan so that we couldn't have a primary. Can you tell your people that a primary energizes people?' I am excited. I filed paperwork for this district. It is important that we send a message to Denver and D.C.: We don't need to listen to the kingmakers!"
The audience clapped and cheered. Ali smiled and then walked toward them to shake some hands.
That night, as the team prepared to leave Glenwood Springs, Nottingham realized he couldn't find the keys to the Suburban. He'd given them back to Miller, he said. But she couldn't find them, either. Ali looked concerned. "Nobody is in trouble," he said.
"You're sure you didn't have them?" he asked Miller, who was busy emptying her purse on the sidewalk outside of Sacred Grounds.
They returned to the coffee shop to look under chairs and couches. After a few minutes, Ali dialed a roadside assistance company to ask about having a new key made. "If I don't have OnStar, I'll buy it," he said into his iPhone. "It doesn't matter how much it costs." Ali later decided to have the car towed to a dealership.
Sacred Grounds was closing, so Ali and his entourage walked down the street to the Hotel Denver to wait in the lobby, a wooden foyer with old quilts folded neatly into the rafters. After hanging up, Ali sprawled on a couch, his head resting in Miller's lap. "Do I work well under pressure?" he asked, looking up at her. "This was simple compared to filmmaking." The couple then meandered off hand in hand, disappearing for what Ali later admitted was a brief interlude in a hotel bathroom.
An hour later, a family driver arrived in Ali's Lexus SUV. It was nearly midnight when they returned to Beaver Creek, and Ali became thoughtful for a moment.
"Do you think I have an ego?" he asked Nottingham.
"I've never met a person whose ego makes them lovable," Nottingham replied.
"There's a beauty behind my ego," said Ali. "I end all my messages with 'peace and love.' I am deeply in love with myself. I think I have amazing emotions and thoughts and gifts. I love myself so much, and I know that I see myself in other people. My mother always reminded me that the money could come and go. With interacting with people on a day-to-day basis, I learn to love everyone."
Then the car was quiet again. Miller had fallen asleep.
As the weeks went on, Ali's insistence on the Senate seat began to fade and his anger over the leaked poll diminished when he realized that the state Republican Party wasn't involved. White backtracked on his earlier statements about the poll, saying he'd been bluffing about having seen the results.
Ali didn't quite believe him, but he decided not to sue him, either, thinking he'd take the pollster, Vitale & Associates, to court instead.
Company president Todd Vitale insists he didn't leak the poll, saying, "There is not a shred of truth to it. That would go against anything I stand for and is contrary to my profession. And it is certainly not true."
Meanwhile, Ali's would-be constituents kept giving him the same message — go for the House — and White refused to take the bait on the TABOR pledge, saying "I have been a legislator for eight years. I don't have to sign a pledge to anyone for anything."
In late November, Ali got a phone call from an assistant to House Minority Leader Mike May. The influential lawmaker wanted to meet with Ali. Though Ali was skeptical, he invited May over to his Beaver Creek home, where the two dined on steak and potatoes. The evening turned into a formal invitation to run for House District 56 — with the promise of full backing from the state Republican Party.
"It is my job to recruit candidates, and he and I hadn't met," May explains. "I had heard several people talk to me about him through Young Republicans. And they say great things about him.... He is a young guy. Those senators are old guys who take naps in the afternoon. The House is an energetic and dynamic place. I thought he would fit well in the House." May also reasoned that Ali wouldn't need much help with fundraising. "He probably has some of his own connections."(So far, Ali says he has spent $5,000 to $10,000 of his own money to pay for his campaign staff, food, and transportation. He is scheduled to file campaign finance forms with the Secretary of State's office during the third week in January.)
Ali considered it. House District 56 is full of ski areas and small businesses. The constituents are wealthier, and almost half are independents, meaning it would take a door-to-door kind of effort, just the type of thing that Ali was in the bargain for. And Senate District 8 was wearing on him. "I knew we had the resources to win it, but I was concerned that I would go into the state Senate as the guy who likes to play dirty and just purchases races. The work we did on the grassroots level might not get recognition."
He would come around, he told May, but only if a group of Front Range representatives came to the Western Slope to talk about local concerns. "You have to promise that the pine beetle, severance tax" — oil revenue, that is — "and education become issues," Ali says he told May. "I was shocked that he agreed."
So Ali announced his switch and set up two town hall meetings in Breckenridge and Avon. He and Miller designed stickers for the new race, red rectangles with the words "HASAN for State House/ Holding Denver Accountable" bordering a rustic cabin scene. Ali took to telling people that the cabin represented his Beaver Creek home.
And instead of highlighting his differences with a fellow Republican, Ali, who would likely run unopposed in a primary, began to think about a Democratic challenger. (Summit County School Board president Christine Scanlan was later appointed to replace Dan Gibbs, and she planned to run again in November.)
Republican Party chairman Wadhams voiced his support as well. He had nudged Ali to leave the Senate race for the House early on, saying, "I try to avoid costly Republican primaries wherever I can." Talking about Ali, he said, "I think he will run a very aggressive and effective campaign, and I look forward to watching that develop."
Ali also garnered his first endorsement. Fabulous and Gay — a shaving cream company owned by a gay family friend — pumped the candidate and his fashion sense on its blog, but mistakenly wrote that he is running for Congress.
In spite of his excitement, Ali knew that by switching districts he wasn't living up to the "Hasan way," the notion that "when you start something, you finish strong. You don't make a promise and then not keep it." Neither Seeme nor Malik appeared for Ali's announcements at Breckenridge, Avon and Leadville coffee shops in early December. "Mom and Dad, who are my biggest advisors, still want to hold Al White accountable," explains Ali. "We are going to debate the best way of going about that. We may not do anything. We are not going to endorse him, not until he comes clean."
Seeme said in an e-mail that she and Malik were in Washington, D.C., on the day of her son's announcement. "We are happy that ALI is running for the house seat, as usual, whatever he decides we go along with him," she wrote. "Also, we have not attended any of the campaign trips or events by choice, because the focus should be on ALI, not his parents or sisters. Everyone in this family is very accomplished, and we do not want to overshadow ALI in any way at any event."
White, for his part, was relieved. "I felt Muhammad was a threat, because primaries tend to be damaging to whoever the prevailing candidate is," he says. "You know, he cast his spurs against me. If that happens long enough and loud enough, people start to question me. "I think he just analyzed or assessed the two different districts and came to the realization that he had a better chance in 56," he continues. "The Senate district is a significantly different district than 56, from a political standpoint. Moffat, Rio Blanco and Garfield Counties are more conservative in their outlook, and I don't think they would have looked kindly on a 27-year-old newly-moved-from-Hollywood-registered-in-Eagle-County-in-April guy. I don't think that would have played well." (Hasan actually registered in Eagle County in October 2006.)
In early December, Miller sat on a couch outside of Ali's bedroom while the candidate picked out clothes for the afternoon. The town hall meetings were scheduled to begin in just two hours, and the couple still had to drive to Breckenridge and set up the microphones and chairs for the Front Range representatives.
Miller waited, furiously buffing her nails. Things had been tense between the pair ever since Ali's dachshund, Deelya, attacked Miller's guinea pig, Pepsi. But today the two were simply excited. Ali came out of the bedroom wearing a silvery shirt unbuttoned to show his chest hair and a black belt with a winged skull on the buckle.
"I'm the Western Slope warrior, and I'm tough," he said. Plus, the belt matched his shoes, black cowboy boots with red uppers — the color of Miller's hair, he cooed.
When the pair arrived in Breckenridge, Ali's new campaign manager, Callie Carey — Bartleson left the team when his wife became ill — was waiting for them in the coffee shop. She helped Ali secure his body mike and then ordered him a hot chocolate, which he dribbled a bit onto his shirt. Carey dragged him into the bathroom to clean up.
At noon, Ali and Carey greeted five Front Range legislators as they arrived, including Amy Stephens of Monument. "We're here to get this guy elected!" she said to a small audience inside. "Let's do it!" May came later with Colorado Springs representative Stella Garza Hicks.
"I am touched that the legislators are here," Ali said when everyone was settled. "You see, these Front Range legislators are pushing us around. You are trying to take our water," he joked, pointing at one. "You are trying to take our severance tax," pointing at another. "And you, you started the pine-beetle epidemic."
The legislators then took turns talking about what they had accomplished during the past session — and what they hoped to do for Ali's future district in the next one.
"We have to put pressure on the people in Washington," said Jefferson County representative Jim Kerr about the pine-beetle epidemic.
The legislators fielded a few more questions, and then Stephens spoke up again. "You can tell that Ali is thinking a little differently," she said. "We are attracted to candidates who think outside of the box. I am convinced that you have something that people are attracted to."
"I'm not old and white," Ali replied. "I have brown skin and I have a strong Muslim background. I'm not from the Front Range. These guys say, 'We see these things as advantages and not disadvantages.' The fact that you came here shows me that you are not afraid to promote me. It says that you accept these things about me. I'll do my best to win 56. People will say, 'This is the party of open-minded, inclusive people.'"
The audience clapped wildly, and an older woman in the foyer wagged her finger in excitement. "Yeah! Yeah!"
As the crowd broke up, Ali stayed behind to shake hands with the legislators, two of whom would follow him to Avon that evening for another town hall meeting. It had been a "notch" morning in his words, a day that he gained legitimacy with the Republicans — and didn't compromise himself while doing it.
"I want to change the Republican Party," he said later. "And it's easier to do that when the Republican Party is supporting you."
After the New Year, Ali planned to kick of the campaign in style by knocking on doors throughout the district. He also promised to fund what he called a "War on Pine Beetles" study. But for now, he had a second town hall meeting to conduct. Ali and Miller held hands as they walked back to the Lexus SUV. She made a U-turn out of her spot, heading the wrong direction on the one-way street. A man drove past her in another SUV and mouthed "One way," lifting his pointer finger into the air.
"Don't you point at my girlfriend," Ali joked as Miller turned the car around. "I'm the next fucking state representative."
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