LAS VEGAS (AP) — George Harris is handshaking his way across his upscale Mexican restaurant, showboating for campaign contributions and votes under the blare of a Mariachi band, when someone hands him a shot of tequila.
Harris, a candidate for Las Vegas mayor and the self-professed leader of a loosely organized, tea party-like movement for Hispanics called the Tequila Party of Nevada, swallows the drink with a quick cheer. "Is that Alien Tequila?" he asked. "I like it."
The Tequila Party messiah, it turns out, is a tequila peddler.
In a quintessential tale of Las Vegas showmanship, Harris' campaign to become Las Vegas mayor and a spokesman for the nation's millions of Hispanics is a flashy cocktail of tequila, politics and impulse, served with a hearty splash of guerrilla marketing for good measure.
Harris, the founder of Alien Tequila Spirits Co. and a former Republican operative, said he wants to heal the nation's immigration wounds and promote Mexican culture. And if he happens to move some tequila or get bodies into his downtown Las Vegas Mexican restaurant in the meantime, so be it.
"When people ask me I say, 'well, I'm a self-promoter,'" Harris said when asked about his bid to replace Las Vegas' famed Mayor Oscar Goodman, a martini-swilling aficionado of gin and showgirls. "I'm promoting my restaurant. I'm promoting my tequila. If I'm doing a good job, just think about what I am going to do with the city of Las Vegas."
It's hard to tell just how much Harris' political aspirations and business interests overlap.
More than two months after Harris and his business partner, Irma Aguirre, submitted paperwork signaling the start of the Tequila Party, the budding organization has yet to spawn a single political rally or any other flicker of movement that might underscore its legitimacy. At Harris' campaign kick-off party in Las Vegas this month, where Hispanic waiters dressed in "Mayor George" T-shirts passed trays of bite-sized quesadillas and tacquitos, there was no sign of the tequila party. Bottles of Harris' tequila, however, decorated the bar.
Critics said Harris stole an idea that had been considered, half in jest, by Democratic Hispanic activists in Las Vegas who were ruffled by the stalled national debate on immigration reform.
A handful of Harris' friends said the idea preceded Harris, but he made it real.
Conservative Republican activist Chuck Muth said he called Harris after he heard about the Tequila Party idea from a Las Vegas Democrat.
"Why don't you go ahead and file the Tequila Party?" Muth recalled telling Harris, a longtime friend. "He immediately said, 'that's a great idea.'"
But Harris said he had mulled the notion for months. As a former county GOP chairman and state GOP finance chairman, Harris, who speaks little Spanish, said he tried for years to pull Hispanics into politics, to little success.
Aguirre, a former GOP organizer, said many politically-unsophisticated Hispanics were wary of Republicans.
"It was too much of a distraction to try to convince people, 'no, really, we Republicans are concerned about these issues,'" she said. "They always felt like you were just being disingenuous."
The Tequila Party's constitution in many ways reflects Republican principles. "We are concerned citizens who have had enough of government waste, corruption and intrusion into our daily lives," it reads.
The seven-page document refers directly to Hispanics twice: "We believe political education and information is needed to allow Hispanics to make more informed political decisions" and "We believe Hispanic families should have the right and means to choose the schools that are best for their children."
Harris announced he was running for Las Vegas mayor last month, just two months after founding the Tequila Party. The non-partisan, 18-candidate election includes a handful of city and county officials and the wife of the incumbent, who is term-limited.
"I think it kind of started out as a lackadaisical idea, someone thought, 'oh, this will get us some publicity,'" said Larry Scheffler, a Las Vegas printer who has worked with Harris on multiple political campaigns. "And then it became, 'you know what? If I win, I think I will do a good job.'"
In his three terms, Goodman became somewhat of a national jester, issuing mayoral proclamations with sequined women and an oversized martini glass in tow.
Harris said he is Goodman's natural successor: a crude visionary with a penchant for stiff drinks.
"I'm going to be the tequila mayor," he said.
His platform is job creation in Las Vegas, where unemployment is at 14.9 percent, one of the highest rates in the nation.
"They all spend like drunken sailors," Harris said of elected officials.
The rhetoric is a throwback to Harris' days as a GOP operative, when he helped elect a Republican-majority to the state's executive offices and both of Nevada's congressional seats in 1998 and joined in lawsuits against the state over free speech rights and proposed tax increases. He founded an anti-tax group, Nevadans for Sound Government.
Harris' resume is also littered with a string of unsuccessful businesses: a media company, a Mexican restaurant called La Madonna, and a handful of souvenir shops, including The Alien Store at the Stratosphere hotel and casino on the Las Vegas Strip, which evicted him in 2001.
He filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in May. At the time, his assets totaled $316,960. His liabilities came to $2.25 million. Harris said he got kicked hard after some unwise real estate investments, describing the beat-down in terms more commonly heard on street corners and in locker rooms.
At least two of Harris' business partners expressed concern that his constant stream of projects may keep him from focusing on making at least one a success. His current Mexican restaurant, Mundo, brings in roughly $5,000 on a good day, a fair, but not stellar performance.
But former Republican State Senator Bob Beers said Harris' evolving interests show unshakeable passion.
"It's very George-like to not be limited to thinking you can only do something if you've done it before," said Beers, who is Harris' campaign manager.
A few years ago, Harris showed Beers an image of an alien-shaped tequila bottle he had sketched on the back of a cocktail napkin. Soon after, Alien Tequila was born in 2007. The Mexican-made tequila promises "an abduction in every bottle."
"After two shots, you will be seeing stars," Harris said.