BY RAFFI HAMPARIAN
When 11 Italian Americans were lynched in New Orleans in 1890 simply for being immigrants, few could have imagined that, within four decades, their kinsmen, the great Fiorella LaGuardia, would be elected mayor of New York City.
When, once again Italian Americans were targeted by Literacy Tests in 1917 and National Origins Acts in 1921 and 1924, it would have been hard to foresee that, in just over half a century, an American of Italian heritage, the pioneering Geraldine Ferraro, would serve on a national presidential ticket.
Today, by virtue of the service and sacrifice of generations of Italian Americans, this proud community constitutes a vital and vibrant part of America’s political landscape. Dozens of Members of Congress proudly trace their roots to villages and towns across Italy – including the former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, as do leaders across the Executive Branch, among them Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
This is a story of Italian perseverance and pride, but, at its core, it’s also a great American story. It’s the story of the American immigrant experience, one that speaks powerfully to me as an Armenian American and to tens of millions of my fellow countrymen across our nation.
When returning World War II veteran Sam Kalfayan returned to Fresno, California he was told, while still wearing his U.S. Army uniform, that he could not buy a house because of his ethnicity. The bitterness of this discrimination burned heavy in his heart. Yet, within a few decades, he lived to witness the election to the U.S. Congress of Chip Pashayan from Central California. Today, two Armenian Americans serve in Congress – Anna Eshoo and Jackie Speier – and a third, Brad Avakian from Oregon, is seeking to become the third.
Armenian-Americans, like so many immigrants from around the world – from Asia and Africa to Latin America and the Middle East – have made contributions to every aspect of American society, and are, today, vocal and vibrant players in American civic and electoral life.
Armenian-Americans in the State of California, having elected a governor and members of Congress, are set to take their level of impact and influence to new levels. With a demographic profile that stretches far beyond Los Angeles and San Francisco – Armenian Americans constitute a voter base that is well-informed, well capitalized, and motivated to deliver their votes and volunteer hours to candidates and incumbents who respect the Armenian community and the issues central to this increasingly powerful community.
The politicization of the Armenian American community is primarily the result of great work by the Armenian National Committee of America. The ANCA has educated the community about elections – local, state and federal – to the point where the community often over-performs in turnout on election day.
Armenian-Americans, while well represented across the political spectrum and among the major parties, are highly motivated on Armenian issues. As a swing vote, they hold strong views on all the challenges facing America, but have shown a willingness to cross party lines when candidates deliver real results on issues impacting Armenia, Nagorno Karabakh, and our communities here in America.
In 2012 the Armenian American voter will take center stage across a state facing the upheaval and uncertainty of legislative redistricting. With 80 State Assembly Districts, 40 State Senate Districts, and 53 Congressional Districts currently facing wholesale restructuring, Armenian American voters will become a valuable and highly courted political commodity. The community’s impact at the Congressional level will be magnified in state and local races, especially in Southern California, where Armenian Americans will be an essential voting bloc in 2013 as a long list of mayoral candidates vie to lead Los Angeles, America’s second largest city.
As Armenian Americans grow in power, respect, and influence and take their rightful place as a meaningful force in American civic life, so too does the responsibility of each and every Armenian American to support, sustain and strengthen this involvement. Nowhere will this be more crucial than in the 2012 election cycle.
Raffi Hamparian is a former Congressional aide and a longtime political activist. He currently serves on the National Board of the largest Armenian-American advocacy organization in the United States, the Armenian National Committee of America.