Saudi-American Woman Seeks Calif. Assembly Seat

High school government teacher Ferial Amin Masry (search) is doing more than lecturing about democracy. She is living it.

The mother of three has lived an immigrant-makes-good story that took her from a childhood in Saudi Arabia (search) -- where women at the time could not be educated, much less drive or vote -- to candidate for the California Legislature.

The 55-year-old Masry won the Democratic nomination for an Assembly seat last month in a last-minute write-in campaign. If elected in November in the suburban Los Angeles district, she would become the first Saudi-American to hold elective state or federal office in the United States, according to the Arab American Institute in Washington.

"For me to run, it's unheard of," Masry said, reflecting on the limited role of women in Saudi society.

"My mother was herself very ambitious but ... she didn't know how to read and write," Masry added. "I learned from her, `You just stay to what you want and keep doing it and believe in it and continue. You are going to get what you want."'

Masry is considered a long-shot. In her district, eight of every 10 votes in last year's gubernatorial recall election were cast for Republicans. She has little campaign cash.

She is up against Audra Strickland (search), the wife of a GOP assemblyman who is being forced out by term limits.

"It's going to be hard for a Democrat to prevail, irrespective of who he or she would have been," said Art Torres, state Democratic Party chairman. But Masry's story "is attractive not only to women, but to people across the board."

As a Muslim raised in an Islamic country, she sees herself as a sort of emissary bridging two cultures.

"I'm trying to get Americans to understand the Middle East," she said.

Masry is an unrelenting critic of the Bush administration's policies in the Middle East. She calls Saddam Hussein "a thug" but opposes the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. She said that in many ways, the country is to blame for the crisis in the Middle East through years of unsteady diplomacy and shifting alliances.

At the same time, she is the mother of a U.S. Army sergeant in Baghdad, Mohammed Omar Masry.

There are other Arab-American politicians, such as Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who has a Lebanese background.

Some say Masry's Saudi heritage may matter to little to voters on Election Day, since Assembly races typically turn on close-to-home matters such as taxes and schools, not foreign policy or national security.

Matthew Streb, an assistant professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University who has studied race and elections, said there is probably on a "small number of voters out there who would look at someone with a Middle Eastern background and not vote for them, given Sept. 11."

Strickland's campaign did not return repeated calls for comment.

Masry was born into a religious family in Mecca (search), the holy city of Islam, and might still be there except for the determination of her mother, who insisted her three daughters be sent to Egypt to be educated.

Masry lived in England and Africa before settling in the United States with her husband, Waleed Masry, a civilian engineer with the Navy, in 1979. She became a citizen two decades later.

She began to think more about politics after protesting against the Gulf War in 1991 (search). She said one thing she values about the Constitution is that it welcomes debate.

"It's like oxygen to fire," she said. "If you don't have people arguing, you don't have democracy."