Republican congressional candidate Casey Askar. (Photo: Casey Askar for Congress campaign)
May 15, 2020 by David Silverberg.
Why would a man making a great deal of money with a successful business in a specialized field want to subject himself to the expense, uncertainty and scrutiny of running for the Congress of the United States?
Ask Casey Askar, because back on March 20, just as the coronavirus pandemic was breaking, he waded into the warm, swampy waters of Southwest Florida’s 19th Congressional District as a candidate for the US House of Representatives.
Askar might have been counted as just one of 10 Republican contenders elbowing each other for a shot at Rep. Francis Rooney’s seat except that he decided to put serious skin in the game. In the first quarter of 2020 he gave his own campaign a $3 million loan on top of $506,230 in campaign contributions.
Askar might not have been considered a serious contender based on his personal profile, civic involvement or policy positions but that kind of money made him the best-financed candidate in the 19th District. It means he has to be taken seriously if only for the cash alone.
A television ad for Askar is now running on local TV stations, so voters are likely hearing his name for the first time.
So, who is Casey Askar, who is supporting him, what would he mean for Southwest Florida and what are his chances of winning?
Officially, Askar’s is an immigrant success story. He tells it in a campaign video and on his website.
At age 7 he and his family fled their home in Iraq because of persecution of Christians. Although he doesn’t give a year for this exodus, Askar does reference Saddam Hussein.
Saddam Hussein is gone, hanged after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, but it’s worth remembering his dictatorship to put Askar in context. Saddam was a brutal, absolute tyrant. An Arab nationalist, he promoted his interests first and on his own initiative mired his country in wars with Iran, Kuwait and the world’s countries, led by the United States. He divided Iraqis, oppressing Iraqi Shiites and at one point gassing Iraqi Kurds. So crushing was his tyranny that in 1989 an Iraqi dissident authored a book that summed up his reign in its title: Republic of Fear.
After getting to the United States, the Askar family opened a store, where Askar worked. At 18 he joined the US Marine Corps and when his father fell ill, as the oldest of four children, he became head of the household (although he doesn’t say at what age this occurred). He worked in the family store and saved up enough to buy a small gym. He was able to expand the gym and open up half a dozen locations around the country.
While his campaign biography does not mention his geographic roots in America, Askar’s base is Detroit, Michigan, which is home to a lively and active Middle Eastern immigrant population.
Oddly, he also doesn’t mention in his campaign biography that along the way he obtained a Master of Business Administration degree from Harvard Business School (perhaps as a veteran’s benefit?). He also never mentions his current age.
Early on, perhaps when he expanded the gym, Askar learned the magic of franchising. His fortune has been built on franchising and its associated specialty, branding. And its foundation was…pizza.
“I had a vast array of business and franchise experience from early on in my career. In 2006, I was given the opportunity to buy Detroit-based Papa Romano’s and I was instantly hooked on pizza concepts,” he told the website Franchise Chatter in 2015. “Pizza is consumed in the US on such a large sale, and we know it’s not going away any time soon – there’s tremendous staying power. Being involved in the pizza industry as a franchisor is a great opportunity because there are simple operational processes that allow you to master the system.”
After Papa Romano’s, his company, Askar Brands, purchased one new pizza “concept” every year until 2010 and expanded the ones it already had. By 2015 it had 200 pizza “units.”
It also shared its expertise with other small, regional pizza chains, helping them expand.
“Our biggest success story comes with Denver-based Blackjack Pizza, which we acquired in 2012. This was an attractive company to us because it was a successful, homegrown, regional brand,” Askar recalled in the interview. “We retained many of Blackjack’s original employees and have been able to apply our operational resources and expertise to turn Blackjack Pizza into one of the most popular pizza concepts in the western US states.”
Today Askar Brands, where Askar is president and Board chairman while his brother Sam is chief executive officer, lists seven restaurant chains in its portfolio: Papa Romano’s, Papa’s Pizza, Breadeaux Pizza, Blackjack Pizza, Mr. Pita, Stucchi’s and CJs Brewing Company. Most, though not all, are based in the upper Midwest, and Detroit, Michigan area.
In addition to brands, Askar built companies to support restaurant chains and franchisees and owned and managed commercial real estate.
In February of this year, using proceeds from fossil fuel investments he sold, Askar formed Southeast Enterprises Holdings to purchase 47 Dunkin’ Donuts (since re-named just Dunkin’) stores in the Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach markets in Florida. He also laid plans to expand the franchise throughout South Florida.
“As we did our research, our data really showed where Dunkin’ has been going and their trajectory continues to go up,” Askar told Laura Layden of the Naples Daily News.
Askar didn’t reveal when—or if—he moved full-time to Southwest Florida, although he has been characterized as a resident of Naples. He and his six children attend St. Ann’s Church and he is involved in a variety of schools and civic organizations, including Ave Maria University.
For all of his business success and philanthropic activities, Askar has no record of political involvement, legislative experience or even political donations of any kind.
So naturally, it made sense to run for Congress.
To fill in some of the gaps in Askar’s biography, on April 23, The Paradise Progressive submitted questions to Askar in an e-mail to his campaign.
- What is your age? (Does not appear on your website or Facebook page)
- Have you ever held an elected or appointed governmental position?
- Do you have any legislative experience?
- Are you a full-time Floridian and do you live in the 19th Congressional District? (If you want to be more specific about your place of residence that will be welcome—I’m refraining from asking your street address).
No response has been received—and none is expected.
When Askar filed his 2020 campaign report with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) for the first quarter of the year, it was impressive and not just for the $3 million personal loan he’d made to his campaign.
Clearly, he’d been busy. He had 270 donations that netted him $506,230. Some of these donors contributed to both his primary and general election races, so there were fewer donors than donations (i.e., the same person contributed twice). Also, members of the extensive Askar clan kicked in as well. Notwithstanding these factors, it was an impressive range of donations and even more impressive than the amount was the nature of the contributors.
Unlike some of his rivals, the majority—102, or 62 percent—came from Florida, which indicated some grassroots support that could translate into votes at the polls. Unsurprisingly, given his origin and business interests, the next largest portion—28 percent—came from Michigan. Of his Florida contributions, the vast majority, 65 percent, came from Naples in Collier County. There was little representation of Lee County, where only three donors were based in Fort Myers, seven in Bonita Springs and two in Estero.
Despite his newcomer status on the political scene, Askar had been laying the groundwork for some time among his business friends, franchisees and acquaintances.
There were some local A-list business types supporting Askar’s bid. Chief among these was Rocky Patel, the restauranteur, cigar entrepreneur and owner of the high-end cigar bar “Burn,” which has an outlet in Naples’ Mercato mall (currently closed during the pandemic). Not only did Rocky himself contribute to Askar, so did the top managers of his entire organization. Another standout name was Todd Gates, owner of Gates Construction, which has done extensive work in Southwest Florida.
It’s clear that Askar is the business candidate in the District 19 race. He’s also a Republican “Young Gun,” part of a candidate recruitment program run by House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-23-Calif.). It may have been this organization that recruited and urged Askar to run for Congress.
When he filed his FEC report Askar hadn’t spent much yet. He paid the state’s $10,440 filing fee to get on the ballot and he paid $12,916.21 to Winred, a national, online conservative fundraising organization also being used by other District 19 Republican candidates. There was no mention of staff salaries or consultant fees.
To clarify Askar’s candidacy, these questions were submitted to the Casey Askar campaign on April 23:
- I’ve reviewed your website and personal story. What, however, do you feel specifically qualifies you to represent Southwest Florida?
- Why are you a better a candidate to serve SWFL in Congress than any of the other candidates running?
No answer has been received.
When he first announced his candidacy, Askar was a simple, two-dimensional Trumper. His main plank was that he stood with President Donald Trump. He made no mention or had any apparent interest in local issues.
Since then (and following questions from The Paradise Progressive, below), Askar and his campaign consultants have filled out some of his policy positions. He’s pro-Trump but otherwise his policy positions are standard, conventional, conservativism.
He’s also bought television air time and his ad campaign not only expresses support for Trump, he also makes a point of blaming China for the COVID-19 outbreak. In the ad, while a blot of red spreads out from China across the globe, Askar intones, “China unleashed the Wuhan pandemic on the world, costing trillions, costing jobs, costing American lives.” Then he appears on the screen and says “This crisis proves that President Trump is right” and expresses support for all of Trump’s positions. The ad is called “China must pay, America must rebuild.”
On other issues he decries government spending. “Washington’s problem is not that it taxes too little, but that it spends too much,” his website states. He’s anti-choice; pro-gun; pro-border wall; pro-lower prescription drug prices; pro-veterans; anti-China; pro-Israel; and pro-religious freedom.
His only mention of a local issue is water quality where he calls for full funding of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan and completion of its projects. Weirdly, he calls for “completion” of the Everglades Agricultural Area, which is not a project but a special area south of Lake Okeechobee established by Florida in 1948. (This reference may be the result of ignorance, carelessness, bad staff work or all of the above.)
To clarify Askar’s political positions, in its April 23 message to the Askar campaign The Paradise Progressive posed the following questions:
- What do you regard as the primary interests of Southwest Florida vis-à-vis the federal government?
- Do you believe that climate change is induced by human activity?
- What committee assignments would you pursue in Congress?
- If you were in Congress right now, what specific actions would you take to serve SWFL regarding the Coronavirus pandemic?
- When the 117th Congress takes office in January 2021, the United States is likely to be in the midst of a deep economic downturn, even a depression. As the member of Congress from the 19th Congressional District, what would you specifically do at the federal level to support, sustain and improve the economy of Southwest Florida?
- What specific actions would you take in Congress to advance CERP and ensure that Florida and SWFL receives its full, contracted appropriation?
- What specific actions would you take in Congress to prevent oil exploitation off the Southwest Florida coast?
- What specific actions would you take in Congress to advance work done to date to prevent harmful algal blooms?
- If the election is held as scheduled, there is a high probability that you would serve in a Democratic House of Representatives. What specific actions would you take to work with a Democratic majority?
To date no answers have been received—and none are expected.
So what are Askar’s chances and what would his election to Congress mean for Southwest Florida?
The crumbling crust
The only thing that makes Askar a credible candidate in the 19th Congressional District is his cash; otherwise he would not be a factor in this election.
The fact that the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown has stopped all forms of in-person campaigning means that campaigns are now almost completely reliant on digital or broadcast media, with the latter being more powerful. However, it is also very expensive.
In the past Askar’s lack of a public profile, endorsements, political networks, field organization, volunteers and infrastructure might have crippled his campaign. Now he has to be considered the front runner if only because he has the potential means to blanket the airwaves. That, plus the cost of consultants and paid campaign workers, is going to make this a very expensive project for him.
But as COVID-19 has given to Askar with one hand, it may have also taken away with the other. One has to wonder about the state of a business empire built on casual, seated dining, which is the kind of enterprise most impacted by the pandemic lockdowns. And this is especially true for pizza, where Askar’s dining-in restaurant chains are up against dedicated take-out “concepts” like Domino’s. What is more, the lockdowns are especially stringent in Michigan, where the majority of Askar’s businesses are based. The pandemic has also completely disrupted the restaurant supply chain and delivered a blow against the kind of commercial real estate and rental holdings in his empire. Keeping what he’s built is going to take care and attention. Of course, only his accountant knows for sure.
These factors are also going to affect his donors, some of whom are restauranteurs, reducing their future donations.
Right now his investment in South Florida Dunkin’ franchises looks like prescient move—but he may also regret making that $3 million campaign loan, which could have been used to save jobs and keep units functioning.
The bottom line is that Askar may not be as rich a candidate as he was when he closed his FEC campaign books on March 31. And he has to ask himself whether pursuing a $174,000 annual salary as a member of Congress is worth turning away from a business empire it took him a lifetime to build and which needs his management now. Then again, he’s got plenty of relatives to look after it.
Joining the sad parade
The likelihood is that Askar was recruited by Rep. McCarthy’s Republican Young Guns. One can almost hear the pitch: “You’re an attractive candidate with a biography of business success and military service. You’ll have an easy run in a safely Republican district, backed by the Republican National Congressional Committee and its donor network. You’re from the Midwest and so are most of the voters who will vote in the primary. All you have to do is win the primary, which is decided by a few old people who automatically vote Republican. You’ll be able to buy them with some TV spots. It’ll be a cakewalk: no muss, fuss or mess.”
Of course, the nine other Republican candidates running might beg to disagree.
But unconsidered in this are the interests of Southwest Florida. With Askar the region and its people would get yet another rich but untutored congressional representative, an alleged “outsider” with no knowledge of Congress, legislation, politics or government. (To read the full history of the 19th Congressional District’s representation in Congress, see the article “A tale of two swamps: Why Southwest Florida can’t keep its congressmen.”)
Askar would join a sad parade of wealthy Southwest Florida businessmen who ran as outsiders, ignorant of government and proud of their ignorance, who foundered once they arrived in the nation’s capital.
Thinking that they’d be treated like imperial CEOs, these men discovered they were really just foot soldiers and cannon fodder. When the heady buzz of election victory and the novelty of putting “Rep.” in front of their names wore off, they faced tough choices and the real pressures of governing. Their reactions were to withdraw from their congressional duties into absenteeism and retirement and not promote the region’s vital interests.
In the end, the real losers were the people of Southwest Florida.
The tragedy of Casey Askar
Despite these considerations, Askar has a relatively good chance of winning his primary—certainly as good, if not better, than his Republican competitors. But to at least get past the primary he’s got to win over the hardcore Trumpers in the District who are certain to vote in that primary regardless of plagues, hurricanes or infirmities. That means Askar has to continue to prove his total and undying loyalty to President Donald J. Trump.
And therein lays the tragedy of Casey Askar.
Casey Askar is an immigrant who thrived and succeeded in America and served her in uniform. He’s proud of his success and hard work and entrepreneurship as well he should be. Now he has a shot at reaching a new pinnacle in life by being elected a member of the United States House of Representatives.
But to do that he has to pledge his loyalty and vow to implement the program of a man dedicated to making sure that no one like Casey Askar will ever rise again. Trump is a man who despises immigrants like Casey Askar, whether they come to the United States legally or illegally, seeking a better life or just asylum.
If Donald Trump had been president when Casey Askar and his family left Iraq, they would have been shut out of America. They were coming from a largely Muslim country; they were poor; and they were fleeing a strong man, an autocrat, whom Trump would have likely admired. They would have been forced to wait for acceptance in some other country and the children might have been separated from the parents. They might have even been put in cages.
There’s no indication from any of his public sources that Askar is thinking deeply about the implications of what he’s doing and saying. There’s no sense that he’s pondering beyond just the next step in his campaign. What he does—what all candidates do—in the quest for public office has a profound effect on the future of America, whether they’re running for dog catcher or president.
Casey Askar, an Iraqi immigrant, is running to bolster the rule of a man who is profoundly anti-immigrant, instinctively anti-democratic, and deeply racist; a man who plays Americans off against each other and is driven by, to use his own words, “hatred, prejudice and rage.”
It is this man’s program that Askar is pledging to implement. If Askar wins on his current platform he will have a historic role in turning the open, tolerant America that welcomed and nurtured him into a closed, isolated society dominated by a single tyrant. He will be an accomplice in turning history’s greatest republic of reason into a third-rate republic of fear. Askar fled such a place before—it was called Iraq. Now, while celebrating his own success as an immigrant, he is running on a platform that will encourage, embolden and enable an American Saddam Hussein.
Is this what America really needs? And is this what Casey Askar really wants?
Liberty lives in light
©2020 by David Silverberg