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Saudi-Born Candidate Sets Sights on Firsts

Though a long shot in her Assembly district, Ferial Masry is breaking ground for Arab women in politics.

March 08, 2004|Daryl Kelley | Times Staff Writer

Ferial Amin Masry pulled off a rare double in last week's election, qualifying as a Democratic write-in candidate in the 37th Assembly District for the fall general election while winning a seat outright on the Ventura County Democratic Central Committee.

But if Masry's feat was unprecedented locally, it pales beside what the Thousand Oaks woman hopes to accomplish in November.

If elected, the 55-year-old U.S. government teacher would become the nation's first Saudi American to hold elective office in the U.S., according to the Arab American Institute in Washington. She'd become California's first Arab American woman to serve in the Legislature, and one of only a few in the nation to be elected as a state lawmaker.

As she pursues her long-shot candidacy in a heavily Republican district, Masry is equally occupied with thoughts of her oldest child, who has undertaken his own uphill climb: Mohammed Omar Masry, 24, is a U.S. Army sergeant in Baghdad, helping to rebuild Iraqi schools while explaining America's role in dispatches on Islam Online, the Middle Eastern equivalent of America Online.

The mother sees similarities between what her son is doing there and what she is doing here.

"He has a lot of conversations with people in the Arab world, trying to introduce them to the other side of America: why it's there and what it's trying to do," she said. "And in my campaign, I'm representing a lot of [Arab] women who don't have a chance. I'm giving a new dimension to people's understanding of the Middle East."

Omar Masry said his mother's campaign should break stereotypes.

"What my mom is doing is really opening up American and Saudi eyes [to] how things aren't black and white," he said in an e-mail. "Here is a woman, like others I've met here in Baghdad, who is saying, 'I want to combine the best of my values and modernity. I won't let extremists speak for or against me, and I won't let others define what I hold important.' "

Masry's campaign -- and her son's role in Iraq -- have made news in London, Cairo, Baghdad and Saudi Arabia.

"I was just talking with a reporter from Medina [in Saudi Arabia]," Masry said after her write-in success. "I've become the poster child for change there. They write about me because I'm a woman candidate from Saudi Arabia, where a woman cannot even have a driver's license, and because my son is in Iraq and publishing articles defending America."

Masry ran for office because an Ojai man who had intended to represent 37th District Democrats became ill and did not file candidacy papers. She then jumped in, needing about 1,200 write-in votes to qualify for the November ballot and receiving about three times that many.

Masry, an instructor at Cleveland High School in Reseda, now faces another government and history teacher, Republican Audra Strickland, 29, who prevailed Tuesday in one of the state's most costly primaries.

The wife of termed-out Assemblyman Tony Strickland (R-Moorpark), Audra Strickland is heavily favored to succeed her husband. That is not only because of her ability to raise money -- she spent about $550,000 in the primary -- but also because registered voters in the 37th District are about 46% Republican and 34% Democrat.

Darry Sragow, chief campaign strategist for the Assembly Democratic Caucus, said that Masry's rare success as a write-in candidate has brought her statewide attention. But now she will need to show she's an effective grass-roots candidate, with a solid contributor base, if she hopes to get much money from the Democratic Party, he said. And it'll take about $1 million to be competitive in November.

"She clearly has a unique story, and it may turn out to be inspirational to voters and to contributors," he said. "It could be one of those cases where the unexpected happens. She's already beaten the odds. So we'll watch to see how she does."

So far, Masry has raised only a few thousand dollars, most of it through a fundraiser last month featuring former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, a Greek American who tapped into his own unique ethnic roots to raise funds.

Masry said she'll depend on local Democratic clubs for volunteers and use the Internet, a la Howard Dean, to solicit small contributions from people of every stripe, including Saudis.

"I hope for help from everyone," she said. "I'm not far to the right or far to the left: I'm a centrist. I listen and I learn from everyone. I have a very good skill with people."

The Strickland camp vowed not to take Masry lightly. "We'll campaign 100%," Tony Strickland said.

But GOP strategist Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the Target Book that handicaps legislative races, said the 37th District was gerrymandered to be a safe Republican seat.

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