Frustrated GOP Supporter Hedges His Bets

(Washingtonpost.com) This story was written by Krissah Williams.
James Esshaki pilots his black Mercedes down the main strip of what's left of the high-end shopping district here, coming to one of the 11 buildings he owns. "Esshaki Properties for Lease" posters hang in the windows where mannequins modeling the latest fashions should be. For three months, it has been like this. No major stores, it seems, want to take a chance on Maple Avenue anymore.

"When you make a cold call to a national retailer and you mention you're in Michigan, they shut down," he said, turning the corner and eyeing a plot where he'd like to build, if the economy ever picks up.

As is the case for many businessmen in Michigan, a place that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney says is going through a "one-state recession," prospects are not good for Esshaki. The state's unemployment rate has risen to 7.4 percent, the highest in the nation, and an estimated 70,000 homes in nearby Detroit have risked foreclosure in the past two years.

In many ways, those are the least of the worries for Esshaki, a Detroit-born Iraqi American who has lost relatives to the war tearing through his ancestral homeland. As much as he wants an end to his state's economic hardships, he wants the war to stop and some semblance of order to return in Iraq.

"Things will change with a new president," he said. "Things will change."

Esshaki (pronounced e-SAH-key), 43, has been a Republican all his life and a staunch party supporter for a dozen years, giving more than $10,000 to local and national candidates. But this year, none of the Republicans running for president is speaking to his concerns. Iraq rarely comes up in debates or on the campaign trail, he said, and candidates began to talk about the economy only last week, after an exit poll in New Hampshire showed it to be the most pressing issue on voters' minds.

"I'm frustrated," Esshaki said, as talk of the New Hampshire primary's outcome buzzed on the flat screen in his spacious office. "All of the Republican candidates are just lacking something."

For months, social issues, illegal immigration and anti-terrorism efforts were the dominant issues in the campaign. For those same months, Esshaki watched his expenses mount. Oil hit $100 a barrel, and gas prices crept above $3 per gallon. The value of the dollar declined, and his global buying power shrank. As automakers laid off more than 100,000 workers over the past two years, he felt the sting of yet more bad news.

If Michigan's economy is not righted, the value of Esshaki's $30 million real estate portfolio - which he built by taking a loan against his mother's house 22 years ago, then leveraging his life's savings with each subsequent purchase - could be in jeopardy. Last year, his rental revenue sank 15 percent.

Some of Esshaki's tenants in the downtown district of designer boutiques here watched their sales dip. They responded by threatening to leave his buildings for cheaper spaces. He made concessions, offering free rent for a month.

"I'm working harder," he said. "Five years ago, if a client called and wanted to see a space, I'd send the maintenance guy or the secretary to open the space," he said. "No more. I'm going out there. I know I can close the deal."

He's less sure that the Republicans running for president can close the deal. Esshaki has not heard anything that leads him to believe that they have plans to keep the country from going into a recession, and he has been dismayed that they haven't focused more on the economy.

Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani proposed a tax-cut package. Romney promised to restore jobs lost to globalization. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) has pledged to extend President Bush's tax cuts.

"Tax cuts are not a solution," Esshaki said. "They are only one part."

He doesn't know all the answers; he just knows he hasn't heard them yet.

Esshaki's parents immigrated to Michigan from Baghdad in the 1950s, and he was raised in one of the city's tightknit Arab American enclaves. He can speak a little Arabic and networks regularly with other Iraqi American businessmen. His family is Iraqi Chaldean, a Christian group that has settled among the 1.2 million residents of Oakland County, where Birmingham is located. They are mostly are well-to-do Catholics who tend to vote Republican and for the most part are allied with the party's fiscal and social platforms.

Esshaki has always sided with Republicans because of their business stances: lower income taxes, smaller government and tax breaks for business owners. On foreign policy, he enthusiastically supported Bush's effort to bring down Saddam Hussein, whom Esshaki viewed as a threat to the world. When weapons of mass destruction were not found, Esshaki felt deceived.

"The war in Iraq started with a lot of facts. As they unraveled, these facts are no longer facts. It's almost a fabricated war," Esshaki said. "We have lost faith in [President Bush] as a community, as Chaldeans, as Arab Americans. We have members in our family that have lost lives, that have been hurt."

Chaldeans made up about 6 percent of Iraq's population before the war, but the community has since been almost entirely killed or chased from the country, according to news reports. One of Esshaki's elderly aunts and an uncle died in the midst of the fighting.

Esshaki puts the blame on Bush, rather than the Republican Party as a whole. He is not sure the GOP will retain the White House, but he is not voting for a Democrat. He doesn't agree with the Democratic Party's economic priorities or its calls for a swift move to exit an already destabilized Iraq. So he has been searching for a Republican to back.

Playing pundit along with the suits on his television, he parsed the front-runners.

"McCain's going to run out of money. ... I don't think Mitt Romney is passionate. I need to see that. ... He almost looks like a movie star that's playing the role of a president.

"[Mike] Huckabee seems honest and humble," Esshaki went on, though he later said the former Arkansas governor's proposal to eliminate the income tax and replace it with a national sales tax is crazy.

Esshaki favors Giuliani, with some apprehensions, because of his tenacity. "He was a prosecutor. His track record speaks for itself. He broke up the Mafia in New York," he said. "That's tough."

Esshaki, who volunteers once a week as a sheriff's deputy and dreamed as a kid of being a police officer, thinks it will take a tough guy to stick it out in Iraq and ensure that an effective government is restored. Giuliani, who has built his candidacy on fighting terrorism, makes him believe that.

"Everything becomes, do you believe they can do it?" Esshaki said.

Giuliani is barely competing in this state, and Esshaki thinks the candidate's strategy of skipping the first primaries could cost him the nomination. Many in this corner of Michigan, only a few miles from the big lakeside homes of Bloomfield Hills, where Romney grew up and went to high school, lean toward Romney. They know the Romney name because his father was governor of Michigan from 1963 to 1969.

The Giuliani campaign sent Esshaki an invitation to a donor's banquet Monday in Detroit, about 30 minutes south of Birmingham, but the candidate has held only five campaign events in the state. Romney and McCain have held four times as many.

"Should I jump ship? Everyone wants to bet on a winning horse," Esshaki said. "My problem is I'm so loyal. You watch your guy and hope it works out."

He will vote for Giuliani, but he is spreading his donations around. This month, he wrote $1,200 checks to Romney's and Giuliani's campaigns.

Because Esshaki thinks there is a good chance they could both sink, he wrote a check to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), too. She is the only Democrat on the ballot in Michigan because of restrictions placed on the state by the Democratic National Committee. Last summer, Esshaki gave her campaign $1,000, and he went to a donor's banquet and shook her hand. In an 8-by-10 photo leaning atop his cherry file cabinets, Esshaki and Clinton are standing side by side. That image is surrounded by photos of Esshaki grinning with Bush years ago.

Esshaki is hedging his bets this time. He made the decision to give to Clinton when a Democratic business associate called and asked him to write a check to her campaign. He figured he would help a friend and still come out a winner if his team lost.

"I'm a businessman," he said. "Whatever you do ... you need to diversify at some point."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company


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