Sharia politics? A candidate’s name becomes an issue in Charlotte race

Republican Tariq Scott Bokhari is fielding questions not just about city council issues, but his name.
Republican Tariq Scott Bokhari is fielding questions not just about city council issues, but his name. AP

It’s an odd question for a Charlotte City Council candidate, but one Republican Tariq Scott Bokhari hears all too frequently:

Do you believe in Sharia law?

Odd because Bohkari is a Pennsylvania-born Presbyterian. His foreign-sounding name came courtesy of his father, a native of Pakistan.

But his name appears to be an issue for some voters, as does religion.

“People ask me how somebody with a name like Tariq Scott Bokhari is also a conservative Republican,” he said in a recorded message to voters. “It doesn’t offend me at all. I like to address things head on.”

Bokhari is running in council District 6, a heavily Republican district that covers much of southeast Charlotte. He faces Eric Laster in the Sept. 12 primary for the seat being vacated by mayoral candidate Kenny Smith.

While Bokhari fields questions from people who think he’s Muslim, Laster has a radio ad reminding voters he’s Christian with “a servant’s heart.” One mailer shows him standing in front of his church and includes a testimonial from his pastor.

Bokhari, who has twice before run for council, felt compelled to address his name on a recent mailer and in a recorded phone call to voters.

In both he explains that his Pakistan-born father left the family when he was 3. He says his maternal grandfather, a World War II veteran of Anglo heritage, became “a father figure” who taught him how to be a “true Southern gentleman.”

Bokhari, who grew up in Virginia, said he formed his values “in the Presbyterian Church on Sundays and at Montreat Church Camp each summer.”

‘Dog whistle politics’

Laster, CEO of the construction company Edifice, is pictured in front of Christ Lutheran, his church and one of dozens that his company has built.

“There’s no subliminal thing,” he said. “It’s just communicating to the voters of District 6 that I’m a regular church-goer.”

Laster said it’s “deplorable” for people to assume anything because of Bokhari’s name.

“He’s American just like I’m American,” Laster said. “He’s got a great story. That’s deplorable that people are questioning that about him.”

Intentional or not, Laster’s advertising could send a message to voters, according to UNC Charlotte political scientist Eric Heberlig.

“The real challenge of ‘dog whistle’ politics is that the message can be totally legitimate and totally innocuous,” he said. “But people with … biases hear a different message than other people do.”

He said candidates always seek to draw contrasts with their opponents whether it’s based on policy or biography.

“Particularly in Republican primaries where all the candidates have similar conservative positions, they often (focus) on how faithful they are or what church they go to. But in this situation the contrast is more distinct than if he were running against, say, Patrick McHenry.”

The name factor

Names have factored into elections before.

In 1972, N.C. voters faced a choice of Republican Jesse Helms and Democrat Nick Galifianakis for the U.S. Senate. The GOP campaign used the slogan “Jesse Helms. He’s one of us.”

In 1986, Illinois’ Democratic Party backed a woman named Aurelia Pucinski for secretary of state. She lost to Janice Hart, a Lyndon LaRouche supporter later disavowed by the party.

And in 2010, unemployed veteran Alvin Green won South Carolina’s Democratic U.S. Senate primary over Vic Rawl, the party’s preferred candidate.

“People vote for candidates whose names are recognizable to them or seem recognizable,” Heberlig said, “even if people don’t actually know the candidate.”

Bokhari said some consultants urged him to list his name as “T. Scott Bokhari.”

“I said ‘I don’t mind saying my whole name,” he said. “There’s a certain point where you can’t compromise who you are.”

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill