Movies and TV have been successful beginnings for many modern political careers. Tareq Salahi began his bid for office with a slightly different tone — an announcement through TMZ.
Salahi came to two political science classes, a GenEd government class and a media and politics class, at JMU on Monday to talk about his campaign for governor of Virginia.
In November 2009, Salahi was finishing up shooting for the first season of “Real Housewives of D.C.” alongside his wife, Michaele. That same week, they were spotted at a state dinner at the White House. It was reported that the couple snuck into the event uninvited, the presses branding them as “the White House crashers.” The story broke in every tabloid in the U.S. and created both fame and infamy for the couple as their season of “Real Housewives” began.
Salahi decided to take advantage of this influence and his history in local Virginia politics to run for governor of Virginia.
“My record shows I’ve successfully worked with both parties, Republicans and Democrats together, and brought them together to create legislation and create policy for Virginia businesses — small or large,” he said.
As a vintner, he worked with the Virginia General Assembly to pass legislation to help farms and wineries thrive in Virginia.
As an independent candidate, Salahi emphasized his work with both parties. Republican Jim Gilmore, who served as governor of Virginia from 1998-2002, appointed him to the state agricultural board. Democrat Mark Warner then promoted him to a spot with the Virginia Tourism Authority.
“I’m the only candidate in Virginia running for governor who has a proven history of working with both parties and bringing them together to keep Virginia moving forward and on track,” Salahi said.
Salahi didn’t shy away from his controversial past. He based his campaign slogan and website — Crash the Vote — on his appearance at the White House. At the same time, he said that he did not “crash” the dinner illegally.
Communications professor Brian Kaylor noted this contrast after listening to Salahi in his media and politics class.
“On the one hand, it’s in his advantage to have that name recognition and clearly he has gotten more free media attention. On the other hand, it makes him seem like less serious of a candidate and that’s an interesting tension to play with,” Kaylor said.
Salahi describes this free media coverage as one of the greatest strengths of his campaign. He said that his status as a media figure — not a career politician — gives him access to attention that candidates would not normally receive.
“No matter how negative [the press] is, somebody will then go and look and try to find out for themselves what’s the real truth,” he said. “We don’t hide behind it: We go hand in hand with it.”
Salahi made it clear that he was motivated by his distaste of the Republican candidate for governor and current attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli. He claimed that Cuccinelli’s policies have damaged local businesses in Virginia, including his own winery, through unwarranted litigation.
He also attacked Cuccinelli’s well-publicized social stances.
“His probing issues … as women you should just be disgusted by that,” he said. “He’s trying to legislate your body? That’s just wrong.”
Political science professor Rob Alexander met Salahi at a restaurant in Charlottesville in December. Alexander stressed how important it is for Salahi to go beyond his celebrity for a successful campaign.
“You can use celebrity, but there’s this tradeoff where you lose legitimacy,” Alexander said. “So you then have this hill to climb where you have to get over if you want to be considered a viable candidate.”
To secure a spot on the Virginia gubernatorial ballot, Salahi needs 10,000 signatures from Virginia voters. Junior media arts and design major Jenny Schmit identified with Sahali’s fight for another voice in campaigns, but had trouble agreeing with his policies because of his past.
“It’s really hard for independent candidates to get on the ballot in Virginia, which I think is a problem,” she said. “I don’t think he’s credible enough to get anywhere with it, but I did believe in what he’s saying.”
Salahi ended a class by setting his goal for Virginia with yet another blend of television and politics.
“Like any other business, we need to have partners,” he said. “It’s like ‘Survivor,’ you have to outthink, outplay and outwin the other states. You gotta fight for your state.”
Contact Dylan Garner at email@example.com.