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Blue-collar town elects a Muslim mayor

Residents of Granite Falls, Wash., are suspicious of any newcomers, let alone a Muslim native of Pakistan who moved here to open a bar. That didn't stop them from electing him mayor.
/ Source: The Associated Press

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

But 54-year-old Haroon Saleem 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, you know," 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 with a slight accent. "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. In the big scheme of things, all these qualities have made me, got me to where I am today."

Even closer after 9/11
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 U.S. in 1979 on a student visa. When the visa expired, he decided to risk staying in the country.

In Los Angeles, Saleem made a living driving cabs — a time, he says, in which he struggled with a gambling problem. While living in San Francisco, he married a girlfriend, then fled after immigration authorities moved to expel him. They divorced soon after.

In the 1980s, he was granted amnesty. He looked at restaurant management as a way to turn his life around. He also 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 after years hustling in big cities. He has found his niche.

In his cluttered office in the back, Saleem is still being congratulated by employees and patrons days after his election victory.

Meth town reputation
His 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. Just this past week, local TV news crews descended after the fire chief was accused of drinking on the job.

And, despite his popularity at the ballot box, not everyone is a fan of the balding man with a graying mustache.

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 that don't reflect good character to me, doesn't reflect good character to our government," says Debbie Taylor, a former city council member.

A Web site called went up during the election campaign. It put emphasis on the fact that Saleem lists his name as Sheikh H. Saleem in business licenses and court documents. Sheikh means 'chief' in Arabic, and it is a common surname for males.

"Why would you not use your real name?" the site says. After the election, the home page read: "OMG! What have we done?"

An administrator who runs the Web site declined to comment.

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 like hers.

"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. That's why millions of people have come here and want to come here," Saleem says.