Posted by Jesse Shayne on January 04, 2017 at 11:02 AM
Can Virginia’s only Muslim legislator help Democrats connect with Trump voters?
ROANOKE —Most everyone is seated with a paper plate full of chicken or ham rolls when Sam Rasoul takes his spot before the group, ready to start.
Sport coat tossed over a chair, in jeans and open-collar dress shirt, Rasoul has an out-of-town polish. But he grew up here in Roanoke. He’s the city’s delegate to the Virginia General Assembly, and these three dozen residents have asked for his advice.
They’re part of a grass-roots group looking to fight corruption in politics, an issue they believe should cut across party lines. But most are liberals, and Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election has left them feeling that many of their fellow citizens are alien creatures. They don’t even know how to talk with them.
So they turned to Rasoul. He made headlines after the election by scolding his own Democratic Party for losing touch with white, rural and working-class voters. Saying it was wrong for Democrats to demonize Trump supporters, Rasoul quit his leadership role within the Assembly’s House Democrats to draw attention to the issue.
It was brash and, seemingly, presumptuous. Democrats actually did deliver Virginia for Hillary Clinton, the only Southern state to back her. And who the heck is Sam Rasoul, anyway?
At 35, he’s only been in the General Assembly a little more than two years. But his background is unique. The son of Palestinian immigrants, Rasoul is the lone Muslim in the Virginia legislature. His Roanoke district is so disparate that Rasoul has joined both the Legislative Black Caucus and the Rural Caucus.
Like Richmond’s new mayor, Levar Stoney, Rasoul is part of a next generation of Democratic politicians in a state where their party has lost control of a legislature it dominated for most of the 20th century.
“I’m a big fan of Sam — I think he’s terrific. Young leadership,” Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) said in an interview. But he’s not a fan of his critique. Rasoul seems to be talking more about national party issues than Virginia issues, the governor said. “You know we won the state [for Clinton],” he said, a little testily.
But Rasoul won’t back down. As one of just two states to hold gubernatorial elections this year (the other is New Jersey), Virginia presents the first post-Trump test of whether the Democratic Party can reconnect with disaffected voters. Blue parts of Virginia got bluer during the presidential race, and red parts, more red. Urban and suburban areas are separating from vast rural areas. Like everywhere else in America, Democrats and Republicans are pulling apart.
The solution, Rasoul says, is something that’s always been precious to a Muslim kid growing up in Southwest Virginia: trust.
“This is the problem with liberals,” he tells the Roanoke group. “We have all the facts. We have all the figures. We know all the right answers. It doesn’t matter. You have to know how to build trust with people.”
Forged in the melting pot
Even within his party, Rasoul is a bit of an outsider. He had failed in earlier runs at Congress and for the mayor’s job in Roanoke. He won his seat in 2014 during a special election to fill a vacancy, then won reelection last year.
His district is drawn to be reliably Democratic, but it has become the frontier — the westernmost seat in the House of Delegates that is held by a Democrat. Thanks in part to redistricting, Democrats are vastly outnumbered in the House, 66 to 34, and Republicans control the state Senate, as well.
Rasoul lives in a heavily African American section of Roanoke, which has yet to overcome its legacy as one of the most segregated cities in the state. But his district is majority-white, and he seems comfortable in all its strata — whether he’s greeting a white business executive outside the old Hotel Roanoke, with its full-length portrait of Robert E. Lee in the lobby, or being hailed by hipsters at the downtown Mill Mountain Coffee.
“I heard you been stirring the pot,” a man calls out to Rasoul inside the coffee shop. This is Mike Wilson, 43, a commercial photographer who met Rasoul through the local Chamber of Commerce.
Describing himself as a lapsed Republican, Wilson says he’s anxious about the country’s deep political divisions. He sees chaos ahead.
“People like Sam who are just natural world-changers are going to be the ones who are strategic and pragmatic and get us where we need to be,” Wilson says.
Rasoul’s family emigrated to the United States from the Palestinian territories at the beginning of the 1970s. The oldest of four siblings, Rasoul was born in Ohio, but his parents had moved to Roanoke by the time he turned 3. His mother’s father had opened a convenience store there. “As the children of immigrants, you go where the business opportunity is,” Rasoul says.
The young family lived in a one-bedroom apartment downtown as his father opened a convenience store of his own in a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood called Hurt Park. A stray bullet once hit a soup kettle right in front of his father, Rasoul says; the shop’s next owner was killed in a robbery.
Roanoke had no mosque at the time. Rasoul’s parents were spiritual but not dogmatic and would pray in the homes of other immigrants in the region’s small Muslim community. Thanks to Boy Scouts and friendships, Rasoul spent more time in Baptist churches growing up than around organized Islam.
His parents worked hard to fit in. His mother got a college degree and completely shed her accent. His father built deep connections with his customers.
One family story holds that his father once recognized a young man who tried to rob the store. While his mother called the police, his father called the robber’s parents. Weeks later, his father gave the boy a ride to court and then testified that he was a good kid who made a mistake.
This made a deep impression on Rasoul. “What kind of experience did this person have — my father — to be able to see and empathize with someone like that?” he says. “It’s an education in itself.”
After high school, Rasoul went to Roanoke College, then got an accelerated MBA at Hawaii Pacific University. He came back home, sold medical equipment, opened a couple of video stores, got married. When he got the itch for politics, he turned to Google to figure out how to start a campaign.
Lately he and some partners have opened a consulting firm to help businesses with change and leadership issues, but he says it’s not generating much income yet. He spends more time being a politician. His meeting with the anti-corruption group, for instance, takes three hours on a Sunday night.
Walking in others’ shoes
It’s not hard to see how his parents’ drive to fit into their adopted community influenced the way Rasoul thinks about politics, which he lays out for the group in an elaborate presentation with slides, games and lists.
For political leaders to be effective, he says, they must register as genuine and connect with people on an emotional level. When Donald Trump said he’d restore the coal industry, for instance, it hit some in a visceral way that carries more weight than the literal truth of Trump’s words.
Rasoul repeats a line from an opinion article that makes his point: “Democrats are speaking to the mind, Donald Trump was speaking to the gut,” he says, jabbing at his stomach.
Regaining that connection involves concepts that Rasoul says carry some risk.
One is what he calls “radical empathy.” Truly understanding someone else’s position takes time and can be unpleasant, he says, and you run the risk of appearing to share beliefs you don’t embrace. But it’s important to make the effort.
The key is remembering that a person in Appalachia may see the world differently from someone in downtown New York, he says. Neither is wrong, within their own sphere of experience.
And to reach a deeper understanding of others, don’t view them through the filter of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or other characteristics — something Rasoul calls “bucket thinking.”
“As your resident brown-skinned Arab terrorist-looking guy here in Southwest Virginia,” he says, smiling, “I want you to forget about that [identity] and speak to me on a values level.”
In a red-blue context, that means getting past stereotypes about people who support Donald Trump. Some Trump supporters are racist, he says. Some Democrats are, too, he adds. “You can’t put them all in one bucket.”
This all strikes a chord with Chris “Mac” McGowan, 37, who retired from the Army on disability after serving in combat in Afghanistan. “The left doesn’t speak to rural America,” he says. “We don’t ever speak to them from their perspective.”
Rasoul nods. “White, rural — they feel the same economic injustice we feel in the inner city, in Roanoke city,” he says.
Rocking the boat
Rasoul’s message has caused some chafing at high levels of his party. When he quit his House leadership role and criticized Democrats, it seemed as though he was diminishing the fact that Clinton won the state.
More recently, Rasoul announced that he’s forming a leadership group to train young politicians and community activists. It is a provocative step, implying that others have failed to do this.
McAuliffe pointed out in the interview that all five statewide offices — governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and two U.S. Senate seats — are held by Democrats. He conceded that there are economic and cultural issues dividing Virginians, such as jobs, education and the opiate addiction problem.
“The things Sam talks about I think are great,” McAuliffe said. “I love when people throw issues up there to talk about. [But] I say let the results speak for themselves.”
Told of the governor’s comments, Rasoul smiles. “I enjoy working with the governor very much,” he says. “But when I’m one of 34 in the House, out of 100, it doesn’t feel like we’re winning Virginia.”
In his eyes, the party is one election away from near-irrelevance. “If we lose the governor’s election next year, what do we really have as far as Virginia is concerned?” he says. The House, Senate and Executive Mansion would all be Republican. “We don’t have a firewall,” he says. “This is the one race that prevents us from having this disastrous legislation we saw in North Carolina.”
“I’m proud that we delivered for Hillary Clinton,” he says. “But we certainly are not bringing all of Virginia along in this conversation.”
Susan Swecker, chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party, said officials made repeated trips to rural parts of the state throughout the presidential campaign — bright-red areas that were never likely to go for Clinton.
“I have one foot in really, really deep blue and one in really, really deep red,” said Swecker, who grew up on a farm in rural Highland County. “Did we do very well in those [red] places? No. . . . Maybe we need to listen a little harder. But you know what? As long as I’m party chairman we’re not going to forget about people out there.”
For all of his confidence, Rasoul has yet to demonstrate that his theories can deliver results. He hasn’t been in office long enough to have amassed much of a record. But he did manage to get elected in a place where not many people look like him, and where he faced predictable attacks.
“The first time he ran [for Congress], he went through some of those lies. There was a lot of, you know, ‘that Muslim group,’ or he’s connected to somebody, or they questioned where he got his money,” says Robin Barnhill, 69, a retired health-care worker who is politically active in Roanoke. “But he overcame that by being who he is. . . . There’s a lot of faith and trust of Sam broadly in the community.”
He won’t talk of any ambition beyond running for reelection to the House next year. If he has dreams of, say, the state Senate, he’ll have to work even harder to connect with rural voters in the mountains around Roanoke.
For now, he is focused on the city. Grover Price, 36, turned to Rasoul for advice in starting a community service project called the Hope Center last year in Hurt Park, which distributes food and offers job training and social activities. Rasoul counseled him not to depend on donations; he told Price to start a business that could help fund the center.
Specifically, a juice and smoothie shop. Rasoul’s legislative intern helped with the business plan, and in November, Price opened the Cup of Hope Cafe.
Now Price has dreams of running for City Council one day, inspired by Rasoul. But also, it turns out, by someone he otherwise disagrees with: Donald Trump.
“I definitely respect what Trump did. Was I happy that he won? No,” Price says. “But he came from a place where nobody expected him to be able to do what he’s doing. At the end of the day, he gives me hope I might be able to pull off something like that myself.”
Which is, after all, the kind of connection Rasoul is talking about.