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By Behrouz Bahmani
August 13, 2003
The Iranian

Part of being an Iranian or an Iranian-American is facing the dreaded "dilemma". You know the one. You dare not give your heart to America because you feel in doing so you will somehow betray your love for Iran. Even though she may have spurned you for the past 20 years, just like an obsessive one sided love affair, try as you might you can't give her up. You know you need to move on, but you can't.

This dilemma has kept many of my generation from actively participating in the American political process. Having gone through the 80's and the hostage crisis, we were justifiably scared away from anything that would bring up that ugly chapter of our history. We strived to keep the topic of the discussions with our American friends away from anything to do with Iran, if we had any American friends at all. We kept neighbors at a distance, and retreated to the comfort of Iranian restaurants for lunch on Fridays where we could forget, for a brief moment.

But things are starting to change. After 9/11 we have become more vocal. We're starting to come out of our collective shells, the discussions are getting more heated and we are engaging our American friends more as they start to "get it". Now state and local senators are taking more meetings with Iranian advocacy groups that are popping up on both coasts.

Another reason we are more vocal is through our increased exposure to a fresh generation of young and highly intelligent, skilled and street-smart Iranian-Americans who are free of the "dilemma", having been born and grown up outside of Iran. They are inherently more comfortable with the system, and embrace the opportunities before them with a hunger and enthusiasm that is nothing short of inspiring. The benefits of having parents who focused their energies on material success has allowed them the privilege to get some of the best education available and now they are ready to put it to use.

Case in point, in this year's San Francisco mayor's race, the leading candidate Supervisor Gavin Newsom who is running an unbelievably successful campaign (dast-be choob! trans; touch wood) has not one, but 2 Iranian staffers. Ahsha-Ali Safai, and Baha (Bahador) Hariri, as you will read, are two of the brightest stars, well-equipped and outfitted, ready and willing to take on the challenges the future will likely try to throw at them. They are definitely two to watch. I recently met them at the Newsom campaign headquarters in downtown San Francisco.

I would like to give special thanks to John Shanley the Press Director for the Newsom Campaign who so graciously provided me with a complete office tour and explained the processes of the campaign with such care and detail. It's always wonderful to meet someone so professional.

A bit of background on Ahsha. Born in Iran in 1973 he is an American Citizen and has been involved with politics since age 18. He looks, walks, talks and is every bit reminiscent of a hipper, cooler George Stephanopolis. Except he is better looking (because he is Iranian!). During college at Northeastern he worked in Massachusetts politics at the city and state level, establishing many mentor level contacts with big name politicians such as former presidential candidate Dukakis. In 1995 after completing his undergrad he went to work in the Clinton White House. When that term was complete he went back to college, this time to MIT, where he received his masters in Urban Studies and City Planning.

In 2000 he moved to San Francisco and immediately went to work for the Housing Authority. His function, unclog proposals and budget approvals and laws that were stuck in the system. Basically a swiss army knife. Find out why something is stuck, and go get it fixed. This involved frequent meetings with city council members and supervisors in order to advocate and educate and explain the benefits and reasons why an initiative was good and why they should pass it and get it going.

It was through this job that he met with and grew to respect Gavin Newsom. When it became clear that Newsom was going to run for Mayor, Ahsha joined the campaign as Deputy Field Director. This function essentially mobilizes the supporters for the candidate and coordinates activities in order to maximize exposure, and help the candidate meet and interact with as many people as possible.

Gavin Newsom is somewhat of an enigma himself. He has come from the best San Francisco has to offer. A local restaurant and wine businessman, he has a well qualified awareness of both the internal needs of the city as well as the important image San Francisco has, as one of the top ranked cities in the world. However, San Francisco has it's fair share of problems that you can tell Newsom intends to tackle with energy.

The first and many would say biggest issue, is the increasingly obvious homeless that traverse the streets. There doesn't seem to be any solution to the number of beggars and panhandlers in the best parts of the city. Frequent screaming and defecation is a constant eyesore to tourists, city dwellers and workers, who pretend to ignore it, and nothing seems to make it to implementation. Suggestions and solutions to the problem go unheard and it is getting worse.

When I was working in the city for 4 years during the dotcom boom (and eventual bust), fed up with stepping over no less than 8 homeless people on my way home each night, I sent in a simple plan that suggested that using a consensus team of conscientious volunteers, from shelters and drug and mental illness programs, residents, police, the bus system, high school and college students and even the national guard, it was realistically possible to sweep through the relatively small geography of San Francisco in 24 hours, document everyone who was obviously homeless, and place them into one of 3 categories and move them into programs to address their needs. Based on my years in the city, my daily exposure and observation of the problem was simple. If you are truly homeless you needed to get to a shelter. If you were mentally ill or addicted you needed too get to a facility. If you were a criminal you needed to be arrested.

Newsom however, looks to have the best chance to solve this and other city problems, and you can tell it is an important agenda item under his "CARE Not Cash" plan.

One testament of the success that the Newsom campaign has experienced, is in the signature gathering process. Any candidate can secure the minimum signatures necessary to qualify for a race. Basically this and the application fee gets you in. The Newsom campaign however set an early goal of 20,000 signatures, but with one difference. They wanted the so called "Hard Signatures". Anyone can drum up a signature of a voter who agrees the candidate should be on the ballot, but they may or may not vote for that candidate. The Newsom people were after the signatures of those voters who were going to vote for Newsom. A substantially harder accomplishment. The goal of 20,000 was set in order to beat the previous record, held by current Mayor Willie Brown and political veteran, of 17,500 signatures. They got over 23,000 hard signatures and a new record.

Part of the success of the signature goal was thanks to the efforts of Baha (Bahador) Hariri who took over the internship program that Newsom had planned for. The program drafted college students studying public policy as well as a diverse range of other majors to come and intern for the campaign during the summer. Baha was able to recruit some of the highest caliber interns who brought not only a high degree of expertise to the campaign, but an incredibly diverse and enthusiastic energy that has contributed to the campaign's overwhelming success so far. We're talking interns from some of the best schools in the US.

This largely in part because Baha himself is finishing his Masters of Public Policy when he returns to Harvard in the fall.

Baha, younger (but taller) than Ahsha, was born in the US in 1980 and has been back to Iran once when he was 15. He grew up in a traditional Iranian-living-in-the-US home, taught to respect and cherish his roots. He is the quintessential proud young Iranian, a bit tentative because he is young, but clearly unafraid of anything. Why he is unafraid is possibly due to the fact that he is (deep breath) Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Berkeley, he has worked for California Senator Barbara Boxer, and he is now the only Iranian in his class at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard no less, and the Vice President of the JFK School Student body.

So yes, these 2 guys are huge.

I asked Baha what he felt was an example of good strategy in the Newsom campaign.

Baha: "Basically the approach here is to not take anything for granted. We take it at the goal level. We set small attainable goals and once we have achieved the goal move on to the next one."

Ahsha: "Another is that believe it or not this campaign hasn't promised anything in return for votes. So the standard practice of working with key community leaders and wooing them based on their influence is not what we are about. There are community leaders who are angry that we haven't gone to them for help in the campaign. But we say vote for Newsom if you think he is the best man for the job, not if you expect favors."

Baha: "Another thing I like about Newsom is his commitment to "Best Practices" solutions. Take a problem, find what is the best practiced solution others have found for it and implement it. It's simpler and better than the more common political compromise approach."

As we walked around the office I was introduced to various members of the staff and the volunteers who do everything from make posters and banners, to call donors for money. The Newsom campaign is about operational efficiency. Things get done on time and are done well. The interns have been an unusually successful part of the campaign and one aspect is the proliferation of digital cameras which has allowed the documentation of every major event to be completely captured and recorded. This allows Newsom to take many pictures with many voters and be able to send them a signed thank you picture. Something that goes a long way, and is a trademark of the personal touch people feel when they talk to Newsom.

The interns also use an ingenious device for getting signatures and mobilizing themselves. They use an ironing board as a standing table. It folds up quickly, is lightweight, and they can move on to the next venue quickly. I think it also adds a nice touch of grassroots symbolism which people have obviously responded well to.

All of this operational ingenuity and efficiency lends itself to a healthy financial support base as well. Staffers man the phones day in and out constantly trying to get the donations of up to $500 per donor, the maximum allowed. So far the campaign has very quickly raised 2 of their set goal of 4 million dollars. The money is used for events, and some staffers like Ahsha are paid. However, a majority are unpaid volunteers.

The process is that based on whether the candidate wins or not, as a staffer or volunteer, you may be invited to stay on and hired. It's all based on honor, how well you work, and whether you are right for the positions. Ahsha who already has extensive experience in government, if Newsom is elected, may well be given a job. Baha, although going back to finish school, may also have a home when he is done as well. Politics when it comes to this area is extremely fluid and there are reasons for everything.

I asked them what they felt was possible for the Iranian-American community based on their knowledge and experience and what personal aspirations they have.

Ahsha: "We have to find a small point on which to build consensus. That is the first step. It doesn't matter what the point is. Look, Iranian-Americans don't have anymore difficulties than other cultures do. It's about finding the common areas of agreement and starting with that.My goal is to help the Iranian-American community harness our collective power so that we can control the direction of our own political fate in this country."

Baha: "My goal is to kick down doors, and have other Iranians follow."

Then I asked, "So why are you so involved? I mean, people my age have spent the past 20 years trying to forget being an Iranian and get on with their lives, hard as it has been to do so. But what is it about being an Iranian that is so important to you?"

Ahsha: "I once read somewhere that "what the father chooses to forget, the son chooses to remember". I am very proud of being an Iranian-American and I can't imagine not being proud of who I am."

Then the $64,000 question, "What could we have done about the Feinstein bill?"

Ahsha: " Had we been better organized, the bill would never have seen the light of day. With the strength of our community in California, we never should have allowed a bill that directly targets Iranians to happen."

And finally, "What is your secret of success?"

Ahsha: "I have absolutely no interest in getting credit for my efforts in helping a campaign or fighting for something."

Baha: "You have to want to work hard to fix something."

We stopped. I thanked them for their time. As I left the office and walking back to my truck, could not help but wonder where these two incredible young men were headed and what their futures would hold.

I will be watching them with interest. I suggest we all do.


To Contact Ahsha-Ali Safai Click Here

To Contact Baha Hariri Click Here

To visit the Newsom Campaign website Click Here

To meet Supervisor Gavin Newsom and Ahsha Ali Safai and Bahador Hariri on August 14th, please visit the Iranian American Chamber of Commerce website Click Here

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By Behrouz Bruce Bahmani





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