Editor and Journalist Mahtesian to Receive Mirror’s 2012 Award of Excellence


By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

WASHINGTON — Charles Mahtesian is Politico’s national politics editor and has his own blog on the Politico website. An expert on American politics frequently appearing on major radio and television shows as an analyst, Mahtesian also has a deep interest in and commitment to his Armenian heritage. He will be receiving the Armenian Mirror-Spectator’s 2012 Award of Excellence on May 24.

Mahtesian grew up in Haverhill, a suburb of Philadelphia, and confesses that he was not that interested in politics as a youth. He said, “I was a political science major, but was mostly a dumb jock playing baseball and soccer until halfway through college.” He completed an internship on Capitol Hill while studying at Catholic University in Washington, DC, and soon enough found his true calling. He explained, “I think it is the

clash of forces, the high stakes that interest me in politics. Discovering all of the forces that drive American politics fascinated me, and in particular trying to understand the cultural, social, economic and political forces that drive the processes and make politicians do the things they do.”

He knew he did not want to be a politician himself, but preferred to observe and analyze. He said, “The ideological component never really appealed to me. I’ve always been something of a contrarian thinker.” Furthermore, “One of the things that I have learned is that on any given issue, both sides are probably right about some aspects of it. American politics is so much grayer than people think, and I have appreciated the grayness of it.” Mahtesian prefers not to characterize himself as left or right, but as an independent, and finds that one reason he has been able to succeed in his field is his detached viewpoint.

After college, he began to work at the Congressional Quarterly, clipping stories from 125 daily American newspapers, then covering elections and redistricting, as well as con- tributing to the books, Politics in America and Congressional Districts in the 1990s. He then became a national correspondent for Governing magazine, traveling all over the US and writing about state legislatures, governors and urban politics for eight years.

It was in this period that he had a type of early, not mid-life, crisis that led him to rethink his career path. He said, “It seemed that the most interesting people that I was interviewing had their law degrees, even if they were not practicing. I was frustrated with the reactive nature of journalism but thought that with a law degree I could be more proactive in the future, no matter what job I held.” He decided to earn a law degree in the evenings at American University’s Washington College of Law while continuing to work full-time. After graduating, he worked briefly for a small firm but realized that he missed journalism and went back with new analytical skills and perspectives.

He went from Governing magazine to work for five years editing three volumes of the National Journal’s venerable biennial, the Almanac of American Politics. Yet despite all his accomplishments, Mahtesian said, “I began to be frustrated with the limitations of print media. I felt that the speed, the pace and the sophistication of political operatives had bypassed the ability of traditional publications to cover them. As journalists, we were wedded to a lot of outmoded ideas. It was an industry ripe for disruption.”

This led to his move to Politico, based in Arlington, Va., in 2008. Politico disseminates its journalistic products not only in a newspaper which it owns, but through other media such as television, radio and the Internet. Politico itself is owned by a larger corporation, Allbritton Communications. Mahtesian said that the advantages of Politico, compared to traditional newspapers, include “the speed at which we can operate and move, and the voice that we can use (not just blogs but story forms — you don’t have to seem to write in the austere voice of God that we were taught to write in as young journalists).” Furthermore, it was a publication or outlet that was not for a broader audience but specifically for people who are extremely interested in politics, though good stories would reach broader audiences too. Mahtesian added that for at least for him, “to be able to write for an audience like that, and to be able to write with some edge, to be able to write for a very ambitious publication was a great opportunity.” Mahtesian’s commentary is also in demand by National Public Radio, MSNBC, Fox News, C-Span, CNN and the BBC.

It is exciting to be on the cutting edge of changes in the industry, experimenting on how to make the Internet work and so far, Politico seems to be succeeding economically. Having just started his Politico blog, titled “Charlie Mahtesian on the American Political Landscape,” Mahtesian says “I’m still trying to find my voice as a blogger while continuing to oversee national political coverage.” Like most journalists, he would love to write a book some- day, but for now outside of his daily work, his priority is his family and two young children.

He wants his children to understand who they are and the values he wishes to impart to them. He said, “In many ways, I explain to them the Armenian experience and the lessons hand- ed down to me, the things my grandfather and father told me. I tell them and hope these things sink in.” Mahtesian finds that “the uniqueness of the Armenian experience is important — the ability of the Armenian to endure over time was part of the Armenian DNA. There is something about the Armenian character that makes us different.”

Mahtesian’s grandfather came to the US from Sepasdia (today Sivas, Turkey) after the Armenian Genocide and Mahtesian was fortunate to have known him. His parents sent Mahtesian to the Armenian Sisters’ Academy in Radnor, Penn., until high school. His father felt very strongly about it, and his mother, though not Armenian by background, was very supportive of it as well. Consequently, Mahtesian learned to read and write Armenian, though he did not speak it at home. His mother was Catholic and the family went to St. Mark’s Armenian Catholic Church in Wynnewood as a sort of compromise.

When Mahtesian moved to Washington, his education and then work did not leave much time for socializing in Armenian circles, but he has given talks recently to Armenian organizations on American politics, including the Armenian National Committee in California. Mahtesian said that in general, “I have been very impressed by the energy and growing sophistication of the Armenian political community. Part of this is generational. My parents’ and grandparents’ generations had a different focus, to establish themselves here and raise their families. The younger generation is able to commit to their cause in a very different way.”

He feels that if there were no organized Armenian lobby organizations, the situation could be even more frustrating for Armenians. His advice: “You need to be vigilant. The chal- lenge is to familiarize each member of Congress with the larger issues, which are at stake. It is a matter of convincing members without many Armenians in their districts and showing how Armenian values relate to the American experience.”

Though Armenians are relatively few in num- ber, they do have some cards in their hands. Mahtesian explains: “When you look at the closely-divided nature of Congress at the moment, and the divisions in the political arena, one of the things you understand from all these closely-contested elections is that every vote matters. Sophisticated politicians understand this and respect communities that organize and are effective in presenting their arguments.” In this context, Republican or Democratic Party affiliations are not that important.

When asked about the upcoming presidential campaign, Mahtesian commented, “I think the best that Armenians can hope for is a candidate who is familiar with the issues and understands the community as more than just another organized interest. I think there is a certain moral imperative to the issues that matter to the Armenian community that makes them different. Levels of funding are very different from acknowledging a genocide.” He also felt this was an advantage in comparison to the undoubtedly well financed and effective Turkish lobbying in the United States.

Tickets to see Mahtesian at the Mirror- Spectator’s 80th anniversary benefit banquet on May 24 at the Royal Sonesta Hotel, and more information about the gala, may be obtained by calling (617) 359-0413.