Is This Muslim Republican Mr. Right or the Big Cheese?

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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.

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Naomi Zeveloff