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Wendy Block

Wendy Block

Posted: October 28, 2010 08:18 AM

Surprised Political Legend

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Ferial Masry would be an arrow rushing through the air if she were not a person. Her bull's-eye would be a magic button that when pushed, manifests reinvigorated jobs in a green energy economy with first-class public schools.

Next Tuesday Masry hopes to make that scenario real by beating Jeff Gorell for the open seat in California's 37th Assembly District (Ventura/LA County). If she wins, her victory will also be a victory for millions of people half a world away.

No Illusions

An irrepressible visionary housed in a levelheaded package, Masry is the progressively Democratic candidate for her for her two-thirds Caucasian, majority Republican district, gerrymandered to look Texasish. This is her fourth run, and she's under no illusions. All three prior match-ups were with Audra Strickland, who replaced her husband Tony, the termed-out incumbent.

Seasoned Ventura County Democrats recruited Masry from the party's grassroots. They were impressed with her warmth, her powers of persuasion on a range of issues, and her unwavering support for democracy in practice, especially when it was threatened.

Defied Tradition

Democracy is something Masry appreciates each day. She was born without it, in 1940s Saudi Arabia, when girls attended only religious school. Her mother defied tradition by sending her to Egypt, where she graduated with a BA in Journalism. She followed her mother's tradition -- thinking for herself and encouraging others to do the same.

Masry, her Egyptian-born husband, and three U.S.-born kids moved to California in 1979, settling in Newbury Park where she earned high school teaching credentials. Now she teaches American history and government at a San Fernando Valley high school, working to motivate young minds and helping students appreciate the civil liberties that are their birthright.

First, Famous

The first Saudi Arabian to run for office in America, she is famous throughout her native country and the Arab Middle East.

Masry entered politics in 2003 after the U.S. invaded Iraq, which she considered immoral. (Her eldest son, who'd joined the Army National Guard six years earlier, was suddenly activated and sent to Iraq with his unit.)

Wowed Them

She joined weekly street corner anti-war demonstrations until she realized that protesting would not end the occupation. She and friends began attending Democratic club meetings, where she wowed those seasoned local pols. They convinced her in early 2004 to run, and together they began building her campaign.

The filing deadline for the primary election had passed, but her supporters inspired 37th AD Democrats to write in Masry's name, and she won. This created a sensation throughout the Middle East, which sent its electronic and print media to profile Masry and interview her about how this victory would affect Arab-American relations. Europe heard and dispatched its reporters.

Media

The new candidate was featured on major TV and radio broadcast and cable networks. Leading newspapers and magazines also covered her.

Yet in her predominantly Republican area she had little name recognition. She and volunteers would have to reach out to her entire district to compete with her opponent's opulent war chest.

The Democratic Party provided no support, financial or otherwise. They viewed the 37th as securely Republican. All they wanted was to have a Democratic name appear on the November ballot.

Triumph

Masry had to wage an entire mini-campaign to get her opponent to debate. Like her own party, the GOP did not rate Democratic 37th AD candidates sufficiently important to bother with. As Masry persisted, Strickland finally agreed and they appeared before an auditorium full of wealthy conservative suburban retirement village residents. Here's the LA Weekly's take on Masry's triumph.

On election eve, one of her GOP supporters called, telling Masry her opponent's team was leaving voicemails linking Masry to terrorism. (Strickland's husband often smeared his opponents just before elections.)

She lost, but amassed 42% of the vote, topping all prior Democrats in the 37th. Considering that she'd been selected just months before and that her contest itself was celebrated far beyond her district, Masry recouped quickly.

Followed Clinton

In 2005 she was honored to speak at the Jeddah Economic Forum in Saudi Arabia, addressed the previous year by Bill Clinton. Young professionals told her she represented hope for restoring the American/Saudi friendship, and that she inspired young women to enter traditionally male careers. Reporters asked how she'd broken the barriers and dispelled stereotypes sufficiently to advance in American politics.

In the two elections following 2004, the challenger whittled her opponent's victory margins to just 4.2%. This is an obviously tough year for Dems. Masry receives mostly individual and service/progressive group donations. Her opponent's contributors include oil companies, insurers and Chambers of Commerce.

With women in Saudi Arabia still lobbying to drive, Masry's achievements are legendary. As is she.

 

Follow Wendy Block on Twitter: www.twitter.com/WendyJDec