Though Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe are the far-and-away frontrunners in this year's Virginia gubernatorial race, the other candidate in the race discussed his own campaign with Hotline On Call late last week: former White House party crasher and "The Real Housewives of D.C." cast member Tareq Salahi.
Salahi, an independent candidate, arrived at our offices at in the Watergate complex in a white limousine (which he says he owns) featuring a campaign banner with his name on it plastered to the side. He bluntly declared that his campaign is "not just a publicity stunt."
Accompanied by two staffers and a videographer recording the interview as part of a documentary about the campaign, the vintner and businessman revealed that his campaign has collected more than 7,000 ballot signatures out of the 10,000 required to earn a spot on the general election ballot in November. He plans to turn in the first set of 10,000 signatures by the middle of May, roughly a month before the June 11 deadline.
Independent Green Party of Virginia Executive Committee member Carey Campbell, however, disputed Salahi's claim that he is close to reaching 10,000 signatures. Campbell wrote in an e-mail that he met with Salahi on March 9 in Alexandria, telling the first-time candidate that it "would be very difficult, if not impossible to get enough signatures by the June deadline." He then claimed that he suggested Salahi run as an Independent Green candidate in an unspecified House of Delegates race.
"According to Salahi last Saturday he had 3,000 signatures," wrote Campbell. "He should be at about 10,000 now."
Campbell added that Salahi "could still make the ballot statewide" but it's "less likely everyday. He is a first time candidate, and simply doesn't know what he doesn't know. He is a talented guy. I hope he stays in the Independent Green Party of Virginia."
Even if Salahi is able to qualify for the ballot, few seriously think he has a chance to attract significant support. But with Cuccinelli and McAuliffe deadlocked in early polling -- the most recent poll in the commonwealth showed the two major-party candidates tied at 38 percent -- Salahi's wild-card candidacy introduces a difficult-to-predict variable.
Salahi said he would begin fundraising in earnest once he makes the ballot. He ended 2012 with only $276 cash-on-hand. His goal is to raise $20 million, which could be tough since he may not be able to self-fund given his past bankruptcy filing. Collecting signatures for a candidate without a statewide campaign infrastructure led Salahi to focus his attention on large-scale events.
"If we go to a 2,000-person event and get 10 percent (to sign petitions), we deem it a success," said the businessman.
Salahi said that members of the Independent Green Party of Virginia offered support in the form of an additional 5,000 ballot signatures. However, the Independent Greens more recently asked GOP Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling to join the race just before he opted not to run.
"I didn't know they were also working with Mr. Bolling," said Salahi. "One time, they're you're friend, the next time, they're supporting someone else."
As for the campaign itself, Salahi rarely refers to McAuliffe, saving most of his fire for Cuccinelli. The GOP nominee sued Salahi last year for fraud involving tours for his winery.
Salahi claimed that he won the case when they settled out of court. He did not provide the details of the settlement other than to say his name was cleared.
"We won," declared Salahi, adding that there was "zero fault" on his end and "no financial loss" as part of the settlement.
Salahi took issue with Cuccinelli's social conservatism, saying that it could have a negative impact on job growth. "If a business is owned by a gay person or a lesbian individual and they hear they're not welcome in Virginia," said Salahi, then the business owner would be less likely to create jobs in the commonwealth.
On the issues, Salahi mostly spoke in generalities.
For instance, he said that he would like his Cabinet to feature new faces from outside politics but added that there are some "experts" that should stay around. When asked to identify any potential holdovers from Gov. Bob McDonnell's administration he would like in his own, he replied, "I'm not going to give any names to you," later adding that there are some "commissioners" who he thinks do a good job.
"It's way too early in the stage" of the campaign for specifics, he said. "We don't want to start that."
Salahi supports the creation of an infrastructure bank to fund transportation and energy projects in the state. He also backs increased funding for mass-transit rail lines, including bringing rail out to areas it currently doesn't exist, and is in favor of uranium mining, provided that it is performed safely. Even though he said he would have signed the transportation bill into law, he is against higher sales taxes within it.
Yet he repeatedly deferred to his campaign staffer, Andrea Ross, to explain answers when it came to nuts-and-bolts questions about taxation and transportation, such as the questioned constitutionality of increased regional sales taxes in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
He proposed a co-opt, public-private partnership for state-run ABC stores, which sell liquor, to be run out of grocery stores, like a Starbucks operating inside of a Safeway. That would be applicable for areas of the commonwealth "where there's not an existing" ABC store.
Salahi backs Virginia's one consecutive four-year term rule for governors. He also said he voted for President Obama in 2008 and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012 and mentioned that one of his target groups are young voters. "There's no question they did a bad job focusing on the youth and the minority vote," said Salahi of Romney's campaign.
When asked if that means his support of Romney puts him out-of-sync with the group he's counting on for support, Salahi demurred. Instead, he charged that there are areas of the commonwealth that Cuccinelli and McAuliffe are "going to ignore, especially in the minority communities," pointing to portions of Henrico County.
Cuccinelli carried the county as a whole during his 2009 race for attorney general while losing African American-heavy precincts overwhelmingly. McAuliffe won the county in the 2009 Democratic primary, coming in first or second place in all but one of the precincts with the heaviest concentration of African American voters. Black voters made up a key demographic group in McAuliffe's unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination four years ago.
The backstory to what makes Salahi an unusual character in a race dominated by two distinctive, alpha personalities goes far behind his incident at the White House and reality TV show.
Prior to his infamous "party crashing" moment in 2009 (which Salahi denied at the time, saying he was invited), Salahi made a name for himself among the Virginia wine community as the owner of Oasis Winery in Hume (the winery's Website is inactive and its existence has been called into question, given its bankruptcy). He's also worked with a friend who runs a separate Australian vineyard.
Salahi is a life-long resident of Virginia whose former wife left him and began dating Journey guitarist Neil Schon. When asked how often he hears Journey puns thrown at him, Salahi replied, "It happened again today, even on air."
Friday morning, prior to his interview with Hotline On Call, Salahi appeared at local rock radio station WWDC-FM's "Kegs and Eggs" bash at the 9:30 Club, where he offered a toast. The radio station's morning show host, Elliot Segal, billed his friend Salahi as "the future governor of the state of Virginia."
"You've just got to smile," said Salahi about the Journey jokes. "You hear it all the time."
Salahi then relayed a story from last December, when his limousine pulled into the FedEx Field parking lot in Landover, Md., for a Monday Night Football game between the Washington Redskins and New York Giants, next to a group of tailgaters.
"As soon as we get out of the car, they play, 'Don't Stop Believin'," recalled Salahi, referencing Journey's 1981 hit song.
Moments later, Salahi closed the interview with a quote about self-reflection in the wake of his personal tribulations.
"If I can't make fun of myself, then that's an issue," said Salahi.