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Mr. Patel Tries for Washington

I saw him first out of a corner of my eye, a small man handing out pamphlets at a carwash in Woodland Hills.

I figured he wasn’t a panhandler because he was dressed in neatly pressed slacks and a white shirt and tie, so when he approached me I took one of the pamphlets.

It was the kind of day in the San Fernando Valley when you’d rather be at the ocean. The heat was oppressive and the smog eye-smarting, but the little man in the shirt and tie seemed uncharacteristically cool and pleasant.

People at carwashes are not a chummy bunch. Everybody is worried that a serious splotch of dirt will be overlooked on their beloved vehicles, and that puts them on edge. Clean that hubcap! Wipe that grille!

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I don’t care that much about cars as long as they’re reasonably clean and running so I was pleased to be distracted by the pamphlet. It said across the top, “An independent candidate for Congress. M. ‘Mayer’ Patel.” On the bottom, “Needs YOUR signature to get on ballot.”

He handed out the pamphlets first and then followed up by holding out a clipboard and asking if they’d sign a petition that would qualify him to run.

Some ignored him, others signed. One man mumbled that he wasn’t a registered voter and avoided eye contact with Patel by staring at the guy wiping his Jaguar. When Patel asked if he’d like to register right there, he said no in an angry tone, as though Patel was somehow challenging his right to remain uninvolved.

I signed the petition and we talked.

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I have a weakness for people out there who are trying hard to achieve a goal they’re unlikely to attain.

Mayur Patel falls into that category. He wants to be the next congressman from the 24th District, a post being vacated by incumbent Anthony Beilenson, and he’s got $15,000 to spend to get him there.

This is a race in which millions will be blown by the leading candidates, Brad Sherman and Rich Sybert, and a half-dozen others already in the contest, but that doesn’t bother Patel one bit. Money isn’t everything.

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He’s in it not just to win but to be a part of one of the world’s great, free democratic processes and to say thank you for being an American.

I felt a cold shiver when he said that and looked him over carefully to assure myself I wasn’t being conned by a guy wrapping himself in the flag to win support.

But the small man with neatly parted hair and a trim mustache was the real thing. You could tell by his bearing and by the proud way he spoke. He meant it. He loved this country with a passion few are willing to express.

Patel was born in India 42 years ago and came to the United States in 1975 looking for the kinds of things we’re all looking for, the right to be free and to pursue whatever goals we choose, however unattainable they might seem.

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Married and the father of three, he has bachelor of science degrees from Gujarat University in India and Cal State Northridge and works as an engineer for Rocketdyne in Canoga Park.

Patel became a citizen in 1983, but citizenship wasn’t enough. He wanted to play a greater role in the society that was holding its torch increasingly higher over dark places in the world.

So he decided to run for Congress.

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As I listened to him I couldn’t help thinking about the March primary when only about 42% of the state’s registered voters bothered to cast their ballot. The figure was 37% in L.A. County.

We’ve had this thing handed to us, a big glowing magic wand of freedom, and we don’t even bother to use it. We’re too busy or not interested, like the man with the Jaguar who was exercising his peculiar right of remaining aloof.

And then there’s Mayur Patel, undauntingly optimistic, riding buses to carwashes, malls and marketplaces, going door to door in his spare time, alone and proud, ennobling the process by which we remain free.

I don’t mean to pontificate and I’d rather die than mount a podium, but I was touched by Patel’s effort, a lonely and impossible quest rooted in a show of participation increasingly rare in a jaded society.

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He’s a part of the process that has thrilled and inspired the world for more than 200 years, and his quest is a message whispered into the future, that if we want to keep what we’ve got, we’ve got to work for it.

Patel needs almost 10,000 signatures to qualify for the November ballot, and I hope he gets triple the number. Sign if you see him. He’s the little guy in a white shirt and tie who manages to stay comfortable in the glaring heat of the Valley by walking in the cool shade of a shadow cast two centuries ago by Thomas Jefferson.

Al Martinez can be reached through Internet at al.martinez@latimes.com


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