BY GAREN YEGPARIAN
The subject of this article was inspired by a friend who called to convey concerns about it, just as I was wondering what the heck I would write about this week.
The issue is the paucity of Armenians who have been elected to federal office who are products of our ‘farm team”, to borrow a term from baseball. The term refers to a lesser team (associated with a well-known team) where players get exposure and an opportunity to test and prove their mettle. Our farm team consists of those who have gone through the various Armenian-organized programs available in Washington, DC.
It is easily possible to expand this to high appointed offices, but let’s stick to the legislature, the House of Representatives and Senate. There have been ZERO Armenians elected to the Senate, and only six to the House, four of them only half-Armenian (two of whom were half Assyrian, interestingly enough). They are, chronologically Steven Derounian (NY-R, 1953-1963), Adam Benjamin (IN-R, 1977-1982), Chip Pashayan (CA-R, 1979-1991), Anna Eshoo (CA-D, 1993-present), John Sweeney (NY-R, 1999-2007), and Jackie Speier (CA-D, 2008-present).
This may seem like a lot, but it is not, considering we have had significant Armenian settlement in the U.S. for something like a century and a half. But it’s not even a matter of simple numbers, but the routes to office these people took. It has been over four decades since the first Armenian internship program in Washington, DC. was established. More programs have appeared since then. Yet, not one of those who have gone through these programs has been elected to the House or Senate. I’m not even aware of any of them running.
This is not to say that the programs our community has put in place to help our youth become involved in D.C. are bad. Quite the contrary, they are excellent. But somehow, we have not generated electeds. Even the numbers of Armenian congressional staffers are miniscule. I went through a directory of House staffers with more than 9200 listings. I found roughly 0.3% Armenian names, plus an additional, again roughly, 0.25% that MIGHT be Armenian names. So I can’t make the argument that our DC participants are still making their way through the pipeline, earning their stripes and getting exposure and training, especially since I don’t know what percent of these staffers are products of our programs.
This is also not to say that we haven’t had success at lower levels of government – state legislatures and city councils, especially in California and Massachusetts. We have also done fairly well in Rhode Island. At one point, we had four Armenians in the New Hampshire House of Representatives, if I remember correctly. But that legislative body, of a relatively small-population state, has 400 members! So four members is not such a big deal. There have also been other Armenians elected to office from Arizona to Florida. Efforts are also in place to build political teams, often referred to as machines, which “reproduce” younger office holders. But again, these very positive activities have not been products of community’s political-electoral infrastructure, rather the efforts of individuals acting alone or as groups.
This is not even to say that individual Armenians haven’t made occasional, and often quite valiant efforts to get elected to congress, e.g. David Krikorian battles again Jean Schmidt in Ohio. Then there are those who have run on minor-party tickets, which have almost no chance of success. In addition, many quixotic, and often embarrassing, runs for office are in evidence.
So what’s missing?
Why haven’t the people we’ve been training been aspiring to elective office? Or are they trying and we’re not aware or helping enough, financially or otherwise?
Are we reaching out to and managing to recruit the “wrong” type of person for this field of endeavor, i.e. electoral politics?
Is it a cultural/parental/social problem we confront? Are we still brainwashing our community’s youth to believe that only “professionals” (doctors/engineers/lawyers/pharmacists and more recently technology, meaning the internet/software universe, etc.) and “businessmen/entrepreneurs” (shopkeepers, artisans/tradespeople, merchants, and wheeler-dealers) can make a decent living? That these are only the worthwhile fields to enter? That service (to nation, country, community, church, etc.) is for suckers and fools?
I suspect the biggest culprit is the last one. Someone else has observed that this factor might be behind the disproportionate number of electeds our community has who are children of mixed, Armenian and non-Armenian, parents.
What do you think? Are you guilty of perpetuating this problem? Are you ready to change your tune and encourage future generations to enter fields such as acting, the arts, news reporting, politics, public policy, teaching, etc.?