Civil engineer Wael Odeh had been campaigning for months in his effort to win one of the two open seats on the Temple Terrace City Council on Nov. 8 when his candidacy became a national story last week, thanks to an anonymous letter designed to sow doubts about his character because of his Muslim beliefs.
The 56-year-old Odeh was born in East Jerusalem in the Palestinian territories and moved to the U.S. at the age of 18, where he attended college at Youngstown State University in Ohio. He left before finishing his studies there, relocating to Temple Terrace, where he received both his undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
Odeh has been running on his background in transportation as a civil engineer, arguing the city needs a good master plan with proper zoning. Then, a stunning anonymous letter was distributed to households in the relatively small town of 25,000 citizens last month. After Odeh spoke with the Tampa Bay Times Paul Guzzo last week, he made clear if anyone had any issues with his candidacy, religion, or background, they should reach and talk to him directly.
There have been no takers as of yet.
“But I’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback, from people sympathizing with me, and understanding my platform,” Odeh said in a phone interview Monday night.
The anonymous letter criticizes Odeh on a number of fronts, some utterly silly. The letter writer asks why a mailer for Odeh fails to list where he is born, and questions why — if he is married (which he is, with four kids) — isn’t his wife shown in the ad? It also asks why Odeh made a mass mail distribution, rather than have his mailers delivered door to door.
It goes from the silly to the insidious quickly though, beginning with an attack on CAIR (the Council on American Islamic Relations, which has endorsed him) and then segues into whether or not he had a relationship with former USF professor Sami Al-Arian, and whether he would push for having Sharia law enter into the Temple Terrace legal system.
“I’m not running on Sharia law,” Oden makes clear. “I’ve been living in America for more than 38 years and I’ve been abiding by the rules of America, and I’ve been a good citizen and I never had any issue in the U.S.” He also goes on to note the obvious — that as one member of the five-member board, it’d be pretty difficult to pass anything unilaterally.
“In a year where CAIR Florida has documented a 500 percent increase in hate crimes and hate incidents targeting Muslim Americans, it is troubling that Wael Odeh, a Temple Terrace resident and public office candidate, was anonymously attacked for his faith and ethnicity,” says Laila Abdelaziz, legislative and government affairs director at CAIR Florida. “This is an act of Islamophobia and is contrary to the principles of equality, justice, and religious freedom.”
“I never crossed paths with Sami at USF,” says Odeh, emphasizing that he was in the civil engineering program at the university, NOT computer engineering. He said the two men attended different mosques, but Al-Arian did get in contact with him “to create a street for him for civil engineering. That’s the only time I ever did anything with him,” he says. “I didn’t even know the guy personally. I never went to his house. He never came to my house.”
Odeh says his agenda is focused intently on his ability to fix things. “My background is infrastructure for the whole state. My background is doing bridges, roadways, interchanges, shopping plazas. That’s what I’ve been working on.” Those include many projects with the Florida Department of Transportation.
Odeh says he enjoys canvassing with the voters and says he’s been getting lots of good feedback.
There are six people on the ballot vying to win the two city council seats open in Temple Terrace: current Mayor Frank Chillura; retired firefighter Phil Armiger; retired law enforcement officer Andy Ross; Gil Schiller; a retired former chief financial officer; and Duane Zolnoski, a retired telecommunications director.
Temple Terrace has a substantial Muslim population, but Odeh maintains he’s not running as the “Muslim candidate,” despite the hate-filled letter that relegates his entire persona to his religion.
“I’m running as a resident of Temple Terrace. I need you to understand that I will be representing the rich and the poor, blacks and whites, business and the students,” he says about his appeal to all parts of the population. “You have to be ethical in your presentation of people,” he adds.
Odeh said he intended to attend the Temple Terrace City Council’s weekly meeting Tuesday night that was originally scheduled to introduce a resolution signal support with the Islamic community in the city. That’s been changed, however. The Times’ Guzzo reported Tuesday the resolution has been altered to embrace all religions without mentioning any of them.