Campaign 2012: A Look Through the Armenian-American Lens


By Taniel Koushakjian
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

WASHINGTON — We are now less than a year away from the 2012 elections and the campaign trail is already heating up. The race for the White House has catapulted various GOP candidates to the top, only to see them tumble from its peak. There have been historic debate gaffes, bold policy proposals and unorthodox candidates trying to distinguish themselves from each other, all in an effort to be the anti-Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee. But this election season is going to be unlike any other. Fresh campaign tactics, new technologies, redistricting and the latest player in the political arena, the SuperPAC, are all poised to dramatically change the way Americans vote in 2012. And these factors will impact not only the presidential race but congressional races.

So what does this all mean for the Armenian-American community?

In congressional elections, for decades Armenian-Americans have been active in raising Armenian issues and concerns, upon which politicians compete for the Armenian-American vote. In recent years, the small but growing Turkish-American community has followed suit. From its peak in the 110th Congress, the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues boasted more than 160 members; today it stands at 135. At the same time, the Congressional Caucus on Turkey and Turkish-Americans grew from just over 60 members in 2006, to 126 members today, a 200-percent growth rate.

So far this year, 17 House Democrats and 9 House Republicans have announced their retirement or will not seek re-election. The number of outright retirements can be attributed in large part to the redistricting process, a once-a-decade phenomenon. The announced retirement of Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), a strong leader on Armenian issues, is a prime example. Additional retirement announcements can be expected in the coming weeks.

As of this writing, the Armenian Caucus is set to lose nine members: Representatives Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), Dennis Cardoza (D-CA), Jerry Costello (D-IL), John Olver (D-MA), Barney Frank (D-MA) and Dan Kildee (D-MI) have all announced retirement. Kildee’s nephew, Dale Kildee, is a candidate for his uncle’s seat. In addition, three Armenian Caucus members are running for other office: Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA) is running for mayor of San Diego, Rep. Chris Murphy (D-CT) is running to replace Joe Lieberman (I-CT) in the Senate and Rep. Shelly Berkeley (D-NV) is also running for the Senate. As of this writing, the Turkish Caucus is set to lose seven members: Representatives Mike Ross (D-AR), Dan Boren (D-OK) and Geoff Davis (R-KY) are retiring, while Representatives Connie Mack (R-FL), Denny Rehberg (R-MT) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) are all running for the Senate. Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) is running for governor. Mack, Flake and Pence all sit on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where they voted against the Armenian Genocide resolution in 2007 and 2010.

Redistricting has resulted in some of the retirements, but it is also putting pro-Armenian incumbents in head-to-head battles and making re-election much more difficult for others. Looking at congressional champions of Armenian issues, Armenian Caucus Co-Chair Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ) and Armenian Genocide resolution sponsor Adam Schiff (D-CA) have not been adversely affected by redistricting. However, Armenian Caucus Co-Chair Ed Royce (R-CA) and Armenian Genocide resolution sponsor Robert Dold (R-IL) are not as fortunate. Redistricting has made Dold’s district favor Democrats more , and given his narrow victory in 2010, he is a top target for Democrats in 2012. Rep. Ed Royce has also been victimized by redistricting, putting him in a dual-incumbent battle with caucus member Rep. Gary Miller (R-CA). In New Jersey, reports indicate that caucus member Steven Rothman (D-NJ) has decided to challenge his colleague, fellow member Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) in the redrawn 9th Congressional district, setting up a costly dual-incumbent primary.

The most prominent tete-a-tete battle to result from redistricting has put two pro-Armenian (and pro-Israel) incumbents in the same district: House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Howard Berman (D-CA) and House Foreign Affairs member Brad Sherman (D-CA), both champions on Armenian issues. Berman has a decades-long record on Armenian issues, particularly the Armenian Genocide. Berman has a similarly strong record and as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in 2010, ensured the successful passage of H. Res. 252, the Armenian Genocide resolution. While Sherman has ratcheted up over 30 endorsements from House colleagues, Berman has the backing of three SuperPACs. A product of the 2010 Citizens United vs. FEC Supreme Court ruling, SuperPACs are independent expenditure only committee’s that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money.

In addition to working with supporters in Congress, electing Armenian-Americans is long overdue. This year a new face emerged, Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, who sought the Democratic nomination for the 1st Congressional district. Although unsuccessful, he was able to garner 22 percent of the vote in the primary, no small feat. As of this writing, only one Armenian-American has officially filed papers to run for Congress, while another is preparing to jump in: David Krikorian and Danny Tarkanian, respectively.

Krikorian unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-OH) in 2008 and 2010. Schmidt, the top recipient of Turkish PAC money, filed a complaint against Krikorian with the Ohio Elections Commission (OEC) after Krikorian accused her of taking Turkish “blood money” on campaign advertisements in the 2010 race. The OEC ruled in Schmidt’s favor. However, following the election, the House Ethics Committee began an investigation into the free legal services provided to Schmidt by the Turkish American Legal Defense Fund and the Turkish Coalition of American. Although the House Ethics Committee found no wrong doing on Schmidt’s part, she was ordered to repay the $500,000 legal bill and amend her financial forms to reflect this in-kind contribution. According to a December report in Roll Call, Schmidt “has yet to amend her financial disclosures or begin repaying the debt.”

Tarkanian is preparing to run in the new 4th district of Nevada. According to a December poll by the conservative Pubic Opinion Strategies, Tarkanian leads his primary challenger (73 percent to 9 percent) and when matched up with the Democratic front-runner, he holds an 11-point advantage. Tarkanian has not officially filed and has stated that he will announce his intentions in January.

Turning to the presidential race, President Obama deserves acknowledgement for his audacity to speak about the Armenian Genocide inside the Turkish Parliament, something no US president has ever dared, and for overseeing the signing of historic Protocols by Turkey and Armenia. However, his broken promise of employing the proper term, Armenian Genocide, in the annual April 24 statement, as well his policies toward Azerbaijan, from disproportionate military funding to Ambassador Matthew Bryza’s recess appointment, leaves many Armenian-Americans skeptical.

Looking at the GOP field today, there are front-runners: Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. Neither can be viewed as favorable through the Armenian-American lens. During President Bill Clinton’s second term, then-Speaker Gingrich built a leadership team that consisted of Dick Armey, Robert Livingston and Dennis Hastert, all of whom went on to lobby on behalf of Turkey against US reaffirmation of the Armenian Genocide. Romney has been endorsed by pro-Armenian officials, such as former Sen. Robert Dole (R-KS), Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and former Rep. Susan Molinari (R-NY). However, from a legislative standpoint, it is cause for concern that Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) is his Congressional liaison. In 2007, Blunt, then-House Republic Whip, was appointed by President Bush to the Foreign Affairs Committee the day before a vote on the Armenian Genocide resolution, in order to whip his Republican colleagues to vote against the bill. Recently, Blunt won a top post, securing his position within the Republican Senate leadership, and is working to rake up Congressional support for Romney.

It is too early to say what is going to happen between now and November 6, especially in the race to the White House. While the focus is on the Republican primaries, Democrats are activating their grassroots in what is likely to become one of the nastiest and most expensive campaign seasons ever. In politics, anything is possible and there is certainly a long road ahead. In the meantime, it is critical that Armenian-Americans know where elected officials stand, with whom they are associated and their record in support or opposition to Armenian issues.