When it comes to voting, we count on the media to provide us with background on the candidates, including scrutinizing their credentials and histories. But that scrutiny is increasingly one-sided. That’s especially true in local races.
Take, for example, last summer’s race for Irving, Texas’s city council between Albert Zapanta and Shayan Elahi. Nonpartisan candidate Zapanta was roasted by the media for reportedly claiming to have a Ph.D. when he had not completed his dissertation. His opponent, Elahi, has a troublesome background of his own, yet questions regarding his history were never seriously discussed by local media outlets. Despite the controversy surrounding his credentials, Albert Zapanta won the election by a little over 100 votes.
Now Elahi is filing to run again for Irving City Council in 2019. Will the media show more scrutiny this time around?
The earliest public record of Elahi actively working as a lawyer in Texas is in 2015, when he made public statements against the Irving schools in support of Ahmed Mohamed, “Clock Boy,” a student in the Irving School District (ISD) who showed up to school with what he described as a homemade clock but what officials from the school believed to be a bomb.
At that time, Elahi described himself as “an Irving property owner and a civil rights attorney” and Irving as “a very diverse and cosmopolitan city,” “a great city,” where “[n]o other child should have to deal with what [Ahmed Mohamed] is dealing with.”
The Mohamed family went on to file lawsuits against the ISD as well as against multiple media pundits who had commented on the controversy. All of those lawsuits were dismissed.
This was not the first time Elahi had injected himself into a controversial situation. Before arriving in Texas, Elahi built his reputation in Florida. He graduated college from University of Central Florida. In 2011, he served as legal counsel for the Occupy Orlando movement. And in 2012, he launched an unsuccessful campaign against Joe Sanders for the Florida House of Representatives, District 49.
Perhaps more than any other campaign, Elahi’s efforts in 2009 as the lawyer for the parents of Rifqa Bary put him in the media spotlight.
Elahi’s campaign against her was shockingly brutal. The sixteen-year-old, who fled her Ohio home after her Muslim parents threatened her with death for converting to Christianity, was presented as a loose, troubled teenager who had been brainwashed. In a 2009 Orlando Sentinel editorial, Shayan Elahi wrote of the high school valedictorian:
The child was lured away interstate by people who met her on the internet. They spoke with this minor while her parents slept, sowing the seeds of their own prejudice about Islam into this child’s impressionable mind. They bought a ticket from her under a fake name and hid her from the authorities. Later on, opportunistic politicians hungry for the right-wing votes in 2010 coarsely inserted themselves in this family matter.
Unsurprisingly, Bary’s version of events was not even close to Elahi’s. In a 2015 interview with JoAnne Viviano of the Columbus Dispatch, Bary justified her flight from her family in Ohio by stating:
I simply wanted to worship Jesus freely and go to church and be a Christian and not be afraid that my faith would cost me my life.
Bary to this day remains out of contact with her family, and a 2015 Daily Mail article indicates that she still lives in fear of being killed by her family or fanatics.
So what to make of Elahi’s revisionist history, his smearing of Rifqa Bary as a “runaway child,” his smearing of the Irving school system, and his inexplicable move from Florida to Texas? More to the point, what to make of the lack of coverage of these newsworthy connections? If history is the determinant, such stories will continue to be overlooked by local media outlets, and locals will continue to endure elected officials whom we have no idea about before it’s too late.