Pakistani-Born Mayor Repairs, and Wins, Texans’ Hearts

July 30, 2012 7:05 pm 1 comment Views: 236

PARIS, TEXAS — This charming, droopy city needed new fire trucks not long ago, but, like many American municipalities today, couldn’t necessarily afford them. The mayor, a small-government Republican, dithered: to buy or not to buy? He turned to the natural choice for advice on running a Texan city: Pervez Musharraf, the exiled ex-president of Pakistan.

Mr. Musharraf may seem an unlikely adviser to the mayor of a Southern town where crickets chirp shrilly and the leafy streets are dominated by places pledging to fix your truck. But even more unlikely is the man he advised: Mayor Arjumand Hashmi, a Pakistani-born cardiologist who has become one of the United States’ most improbable politicians.

He is like the opening line of a joke: “So a Texan, a Muslim, a Republican, a doctor and the mayor of Paris are sitting at a bar …” Except that he is, by himself, all of the people in the joke.

America seems to be an ever more divided, bitter country. Lost amid those divisions is the story of how a down-on-its-luck town in Texas struck its own little blow for unity. A little more than a year ago, this city of 25,000 — overwhelmingly white and Christian — made a Muslim outsider their mayor. (Dr. Hashmi had campaigned to be one of seven city councilors and, having won, was voted mayor by the council.)

The mayor swept into office with an immigrant’s zeal: planting hundreds of crepe myrtle trees on the loop around the city; surprising local agencies with impromptu visits during his lunch hour; interrupting the “brother-in-law deals,” as they’re called in the South, that gave contracts to the wrong people; using tax abatements to lure businesses to Paris.

All this while serving as a cardiologist and leader of a local hospital catheterization laboratory that is often the only thing standing between the chicken-fried steaks that patients keep on eating and the deaths they nonetheless wish to defer.

Which is why Dr. Hashmi, who is in his early 50s, wakes up at 3:30 a.m. most days. He prays the first of his customary three daily prayers. (He maxes out to the prescribed five when he can, but says he’s pretty sure Allah wouldn’t want him stopping to pray when he’s got a catheter up someone’s groin.) Then he alternates throughout the day between doctor and mayor, doctor and mayor.

At 10:53 a.m. on a recent morning, wearing a muscle T-shirt and cowboy boots and clutching two phones, he rushed into a hospital lounge and dictated a report. His next patient wasn’t ready, so he got in his BMW (he’s also got a Bentley and a Lamborghini and many other cars) and drove to his mechanic to check on the black S.U.V. he plans to use to host visiting dignitaries. Ten minutes later, he was again at the hospital, pumping dark dye into a sedated woman’s heart, searching for blockages. Fifteen minutes later, he was inspecting Paris’s water plant.

When he was first running, the town erupted with all the predictable whispers: that he was trying to drive Christianity out of Paris, that he was a rich doctor trying to buy the town, that he would build a mosque, that he was a terrorist.

Today he has won over much of the city. (His first council election was 4-3 in his favor; he was re-elected this year 7-0.) Local citizens speak of him variously as a blood transfusion and a breath of fresh air, even though some in the old guard retain their anxieties.

Part of his strategy has been to embrace his newness to the city, where he arrived in 2006 after many years in Tampa, Florida. He says that, because he is an outsider, no one in Paris is his cousin or classmate, and that he is thus free to govern by reason. He says he is trying to save the city from the cronyism that he has seen strangle his own country: “In most of third world countries, yes, there are rules and laws and regulations. But it ends up that related people get things done,” he said. He saw that same phenomenon afflicting Paris. “I have lived it personally and seen why it doesn’t work,” he said.

U.S. politicians are wont to conceal the complexity and worldliness in their backgrounds — as with Mitt Romney’s ability to speak French or President Barack Obama’s early years in Indonesia. Dr. Hashmi takes a different approach, speaking Urdu to friends or family in front of his colleagues, answering the phones with “Salaam aleikum” at times and at times with “How ya doin’?” His Pakistani accent remains strong.

Just after 11 p.m. that same night, after a full day’s work twice over, he was sitting on a sofa at home with his family and some friends, nibbling on flaky cookies specially bought in Lahore.

His beeper sounded. A middle-aged man was at the hospital with chest pains, and the emergency room doctor wanted his advice. He asked for an electrocardiogram to be texted to his iPhone. When he saw it, he concluded that the man needed him. He told the doctor to prepare the catheter, and he drove away down a dark country road into his Paris.

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