The emerging political power of the immigrant population from Armenia
By Harout Harry Semerdjian
BA, MA, MALD
Ph.D. Candidate, University of Oxford
Governing Board Officer,
East Hollywood Neighborhood Council
Greater Los Angeles has been a mecca for Armenian immigration for more than one hundred years, as early as the Turkish massacres of Armenians in 1895-96 and the Armenian Genocide of 1915. In the last four decades, the city has attracted an increasingly large number of immigrants from the Middle East as well as from the former Soviet Republic of Armenia, which gained its independence after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
This complex yet vibrant community of “Hayastanci” - Armenians from Armenia proper – have been notably absent from politics and public service, albeit for understandable reasons. Emigrating from the harsh politics and government policies of a Communist regime, they learned not to rely on government for even to their most basic needs. Their presence in the U.S. has focused on rebuilding their lives and consolidating their presence through diligence and hard work. Embracing their freedoms in their newly adopted homeland, politics became a baggage of the past. Until late last year, that is. When one of their own decided to run for public office in East Hollywood, the show of unity and force became unprecedented for this community.
When Sam Kbushyan, a former Board Member of the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council and Executive Director of the IC Foundation, decided to run for L.A. City Council District 13, he registered thousands of Armenians in the District within several months. Perhaps even Kbushyan did not realize the far-reaching implications of his personal initiative, which became a powerful drive not only for voter registration but also for community empowerment and democracy-building. Even though Kbushyan lost in the primary election, he came in an impressive 3rd place to the surprise of residents and City Hall power-brokers alike. Kbushyan soon endorsed local candidate Mitch O’Farrell over newcomer John Choi, and his loyal Armenian supporters helped secure Mitch O’Farrell’s victory on May 21. About a quarter of the approximately 20,000 voters in the election were Armenians, mostly registered by Sam Kbushyan.
With the elections over, L.A.’s Council District 13 and its neighborhood of Little Armenia inherited a politically-energized and newly-registered immigrant population from Armenia proper - a victorious community that almost overnight gained the respect that it once did not have, even amongst its own.
The impact of Hollywood’s immigrant Armenian community on Council District 13 is quickly becoming a benchmark for other parts of Los Angeles, particularly in the San Fernando Valley, where large communities of Armenians reside. For many, the half a million-strong Armenian community in the greater L.A. area represents an electoral goldmine which could sway many local elections.
With continued community organizing and voter registration, the immigrant Armenian communities from Armenia could quickly become a powerful voting block within Los Angeles that will have national and even international implications.
The 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide is fast approaching, along with numerous important local, state and national elections. The newly empowered population of immigrants from Armenia may hold the key to the success of the highly regarded Armenian lobby in the United States, including their ability to further influence Congress as well as the President on critical issues such as the official recognition of the Armenian Genocide and a peaceful and just solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict grounded in the principle of self-determination for its native Armenian population. Already considered by many to be the second most influential ethnic lobby after the Jewish lobby in Washington D.C., Armenian prominence at the national level has serious potential to grow considering their new successes in California – the nation’s most populous and most powerful state.
Given the internal feuds amongst the different Armenian factions in Los Angeles and beyond – which once again surfaced during the May elections - the bigger question is whether Armenians will transcend their differences and the interests of a few personal fiefdoms to collaborate for the benefit of their national cause? This will serve as a test of the community’s maturity and fortitude during this significant time in the history of this ancient nation.
Harout Harry Semerdjian is a PhD Candidate at the University of Oxford. He holds advanced M.A. degrees from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the University of California, Los Angeles. He is also a Council Member of the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council.