by Dick Price –
When classes end at Reseda’s Grover Cleveland High School, American History teacher Ferial Masry drives across town to a restaurant, changes her clothes in the ladies room, and begins walking the streets of the western San Fernando Valley, a traditional Republican stronghold she hopes to represent in the California Assembly as a Democrat.
Twice before she has fallen short of that dream, winning 34% of the vote in 2004 as a write-in candidate, then gaining 42% of the vote in 2006, each time losing to Audra Strickland, wife of former Republican Assemblyman Tony Strickland, who is running for the 19th State Senate District.
“But the district is changing. New people are moving in. The difference in registration between Republicans and Democrats now is just 13,000,” Masry says, describing an upscale district gerrymandered to cover Moor Park, Chatsworth, Ojai, Thousand Oaks, West Hills, and surrounding communities. “And there are 43,000 ‘Decline to State’ voters. So I’m putting all my energy with them this time.”
Working with short funds—her first campaign budget started at $147—and an all-volunteer staff, so far Masry has visited 9,000 ‘Decline to State’ homes, typically by knocking on doors until 7:30 or 8 p.m. after school each week night, before heading off to a meeting or speaking engagement. Weekends are filled with more precinct walking, more door knocking, more fundraising.
“I teach a full load of classes, so I’m often exhausted,” Saudi Arabia-born Masry admits. “But I’m not running to lose. I’m not running just because other Democrats don’t want to run in such a heavily Republican area. You have to have a vision and believe in it. I’ve devoted six years of my life to this. I’m running to win.”
Indeed, political consultants at the nonpartisan California Target Book have identified Masry’s 37th Assembly District as one of seven traditionally safe Republican Assembly seats that Democrats might take away in November’s election—and hers is the only one with a sitting Republican incumbent. Masry, not just changing demographics and the disastrous Bush Administration, is clearly the key to that calculation.
“Anybody who meets Ferial votes for her,” says Renee Lancon, a retired special education teacher who served as Masry’s campaign manager in 2006 and volunteers her time for this campaign as well. “You should hear her talk about what democracy means to her.” (Renee Lancon shown with Sidney Gold and Ferial Masry.)
Last election Lancon had Masry speak to local civics organizations like the Kiwanis and the Rotary Club. “She’s a Muslim. She speaks with an accent. She’s a woman. They’re most likely Republicans,” Lancon says. “That’s probably not the most receptive audience. But there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
Masry agrees that she sometimes finds a favorable audience among her district’s traditional mainstream Republicans. Strickland is a hard-right neocon, who has proven inaccessible to most voters—“other than land developers, the casino industry, and health care companies,” according to Lancon. (State Controller John Chang shown with Masry)
So far, Stickland has refused to debate Masry after faring poorly face to face last time.
Masry got involved in politics through the Iraq War protest movement. Her son Omar (shown left) served as a sergeant in Iraq, rebuilding hospitals and schools as part of the US Army’s Civil Affairs Unit. Nevertheless—or perhaps because of that—she felt the Iraq invasion was misguided from the onset.
“If we want to talk about democracy in the Middle East, we do it through our own example,” she says. “Not by force.”
Frustrated by the slow pace of progress with protests, Masry accepted an offer to run as a write-in candidate in 2004 by San Fernando Democratic organizations, which continue to provide her campaign with bedrock support. (The YouTube video shows Masry speaking at the Global Exchange Peace Conference this past May.)
“We could protest from here to eternity,” she says. “The solution was clearly to work within the system, within the Democratic Party.”
Masry’s campaign may get a boost from the recent release of her autobiography, Running for All the Right Reasons: A Saudi-born Woman’s Pursuit of Democracy, which she co wrote with Susan Chennard and which details her journey from Mecca to Main Street America.
If elected, Masry wants to be the Assembly’s ‘voice of the teacher.’ “Too often, people in charge of our educational system have no idea about the classroom,” says Masry, who was born in Mecca, Mohammed’s birthplace, before moving to Egypt for her education, to England and Nigeria with her husband, Waleed, and finally to Southern California. “I was educated in the French system, the English system, the Middle Eastern system, the American system,” she says. “I know how education is supposed to work.”
Masry is especially irritated at the focus on the failed end of education—California’s burgeoning prison system. “We’re spending $20 billion on prisons in California when our schools are broken. A quarter of our students drop out before graduating. The system doesn’t build today’s workforce. We’re teaching students to test, not to learn.”
“And we’re losing our status in the world,” Masry says, pounding on a topic that—along with healthcare—is obviously close to her heart as she marches down the sidewalk to the next house, the next doorbell, the next potential convert. “The only answer to the problems facing California—and America—is education.”
Lancon thinks Masry would make a superb legislator. “She’s passionate. She’s informed. She energizes people. She’s strong in the ways that count,” Lancon says. “My only worry is that she’s sensitive, too. She cares. She might—what’s the phrase—‘break like a little girl?’”
Miles of precinct walking, thousands of doors knocked, dozens and dozens of speeches—there’s probably not much chance of that.
Lancon urges supporters to send checks for $37 (or certainly more) to the Masry campaign and to join Masry on her District Walk Day, October 19th.
Editor, LA Progressive
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