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An old mining town elects a Muslim mayor

Haroon Saleem gets a hug from Mary Narte as Jan and Jerry Fletcher collect a campaign sign in Granite Falls, Wash.

Seattle Times

Haroon Saleem gets a hug from Mary Narte as Jan and Jerry Fletcher collect a campaign sign in Granite Falls, Wash.

GRANITE FALLS, Wash. — Granite Falls residents are suspicious of any newcomers, let alone a Muslim native of Pakistan who moved to this rugged, blue-collar mining town to open his own bar.

But Haroon Saleem, 54, has thrived, winning over the town with hard work and an easy smile. He has become so popular that, on Nov. 3, he won the mayor's job in a landslide, getting 61 percent of the more than 800 votes cast — a result that residents say would have been inconceivable not long ago.

"In the old Granite Falls, there were no minorities. It was a rough, rough, logging town. Any outsider, whether a minority or somebody from Everett, was the same. It was very difficult to be accepted in this town," said Sharon Ashton, a close confidant of Saleem.

Saleem said he was nervous about being accepted, and hired a white assistant manager to ease local concerns when he opened his bar in 2000.

"I was kind of scared," he says.

But he was embraced virtually from the start.

"That tells you how good and great of a community Granite Falls is," he says. "They didn't care … I am who I am, and people love me for that, and I just love people. People know that I am smart, I am a businessman."

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Saleem said community members reached out, letting him know he was one of them. No one seems to notice that his wife, Bushra, attends social events in a traditional shalwar dress.

Perhaps it helps that he owns one of the local watering holes, Saleem laughs. He admits that running the Timberline Cafe, with beer ads plastered everywhere, is not exactly a pious following of Islam, which forbids alcohol consumption. But Saleem's story isn't typical.

He emigrated from Rawalpindi, a city next to Islamabad, Pakistan's capital — where his father's business tanked and family feuds were a constant worry — to work in Iran as a seaman and then to the United States in 1979 on a visitor visa. When the visa expired, he risked staying in the country.

In the 1980s, he was granted amnesty. He looked at restaurant management as a way to turn his life around. He accepted an arranged marriage, and now has an 11-year-old daughter. For years, he worked at Jack in the Box and Shari's restaurants before deciding to open his own place. He found a quaint saloon in Granite Falls, and says he fell in love with this old mining town.

Saleem's challenges as new mayor are just beginning. Rolling Stone magazine in 2003 labeled Granite Falls as a methamphetamine town, an image that lingers. There are tense relations between Saleem and the police chief.

And, despite his popularity at the ballot box, not everyone is his fan.

Supporters of the defeated mayor, Lyle Romack, contend Saleem ran a dirty campaign and question his integrity, pointing to liquor board citations at his saloon and his time living as an illegal immigrant.

"I'm extremely disappointed by the decisions he's made in the past," says Debbie Taylor, a former city council member.

A Web site went up during the election campaign attacking him. Saleem said he didn't mind the attacks, calling the attention to his name the "only thing they could come up with."

Barbara Webster, who runs a hair salon near Saleem's bar, sees him as someone who wants to help small businesses.

"He's always really been kind to me. I really didn't think of him as being Muslim. Some of the people in town — some of the older people in town — probably do, but I think for the most part, he overcame that," Webster said.

"To minorities, America's a great place, you can achieve whatever you want to. That's the American dream," Saleem says.

An old mining town elects a Muslim mayor 11/21/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 20, 2009 6:27pm]
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