A race to replace Adam Schiff is being influenced by a foreign war, and it’s not the one you expect

The competition to succeed Representative Adam Schiff in the House has unfolded amid a tumultuous international conflict that erupted into violence last autumn, leading to continued backlash from key voters against the Biden administration.

The current turmoil in this district near Los Angeles is not being caused by the conflict in Gaza. Rather, it is a result of the intense tension between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

In September, a long-standing dispute reached a violent climax as Azerbaijan suddenly took control of Nagorno-Karabakh, a region that had been occupied by ethnic Armenians for many years. The swift attack, known as Artsakh to Armenians, resulted in numerous casualties and forced over 100,000 Armenians to flee their homes.

Armenian Americans felt a profound sense of betrayal and abandonment by the Biden White House as they witnessed what they considered to be an ethnic cleansing met with minimal response from the United States.

The emotions regarding this issue are particularly strong in Schiff’s former district, which is home to the largest population of Armenian Americans in the United States. However, this local election also holds significance for Armenian Americans in crucial swing states like Michigan and Nevada. In these states, the votes of tens of thousands of Armenian Americans could have a significant influence on the outcome of the presidential race.

In Michigan, a group of Armenian American voters actively participated in the movement to express their dissent towards President Joe Biden’s stance on Gaza. They joined forces with Arab Americans in casting an “uncommitted” vote as a form of protest. Their campaign garnered significant support, receiving over 100,000 votes, which accounted for 13 percent of the total votes in the primary held on Tuesday.

Ardy Kassakhian, a city council member in Glendale, the de facto capital of the Armenian diaspora in the United States, expressed his reservations about enthusiastically endorsing Biden due to his track record. Kassakhian pointed out that while Biden fulfilled a campaign promise by officially recognizing the Armenian genocide of 1915, he also seemed to overlook human rights abuses by Azerbaijan. This stands in stark contrast to Biden’s vocal support for Ukraine and Israel in their own conflicts.

When Adam Schiff announced his Senate run, it created a rare opportunity for a new candidate to fill his long-held deep-blue seat. This has led to a surge of hopefuls vying for the chance to succeed him. For years, local politicians have followed a tried-and-true method of appealing to the Armenian community, comprising 13 percent of registered voters. This approach involves acknowledging the 1915 genocide, making visits to Armenia, and winning over the extensive network of grassroots clubs, churches, television channels, and cultural groups that have made this community a formidable force in politics.

However, the recent clashes have introduced a new and challenging dilemma for Democrats. They are hesitant to take any actions that could undermine their party’s leader in such a crucial presidential year. Despite this, nine Democratic contenders have felt compelled to address the frustrations of the Armenian American community and have urged Biden to adopt a more assertive approach. Their demands include providing greater aid to Armenia, discontinuing military assistance to Azerbaijan, and taking on a more robust diplomatic role in the region.

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According to Alexander Galitsky, program director of the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), the community expects candidates to condemn Azerbaijan’s actions and also hold the Biden Administration accountable for its failure to impose consequences on Azerbaijan for its genocidal aggression against the Armenians of Artsakh.

‘Very, very complex’

In 2000, Schiff defeated incumbent GOP Rep. James Rogan, who was one of the House managers during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, in a purple district that leaned conservative. The high-stakes election was heavily influenced by the fierce competition for the Armenian vote.

After a span of twenty-four years, Schiff has transformed his role as a House impeachment manager for President Donald Trump into a campaign for a Senate seat. The district he represents is now firmly in the hands of the Democrats, with a significant 38-point registration advantage. This district includes vibrant communities like West Hollywood, which is known for its LGBTQ+ population, as well as the trendy neighborhood of Los Feliz and Hollywood’s Thai Town.

The district reflects the diverse makeup of American multicultural democracy, where different ethnic, racial, and identity groups play a significant role in shaping the candidates’ campaigns to secure their votes.

A multitude of candidates flocked to the rare open seat in a secure Democratic district, all following Schiff’s strategy of appealing to the Armenian American community. This voting bloc is known for its political engagement and sophistication, making investments in Armenian canvassers and bilingual mailers a worthwhile endeavor.

Armenian American voters make up almost 20 percent of the ballots returned in the congressional district, as reported by Political Data Inc., a campaign data firm. However, the overall turnout in the district, as well as the state, has been extremely low.

Assemblymember Laura Friedman and state Sen. Anthony Portantino, both Democrats, are the two most talked-about figures in the conversation. Currently serving as representatives for the region in the state Legislature, Friedman resides in Glendale, a city with a significant Armenian American population, accounting for up to 40 percent of its residents. Friedman’s political journey began in local government, reflecting her commitment to the community. Similarly, Portantino has prioritized community outreach throughout his career. His efforts have been recognized and appreciated, as he became the first non-Armenian in the Western diocese to receive a papal medal from the Supreme Patriarch of the Armenian Church.

According to Kassakhian, a supporter of Portantino, the state senator was the sole American official to visit the disputed region after the conflict escalated in 2020.

According to Kassakhian, who ran against Friedman in a previous legislative race, Friedman truly values the Armenian community and doesn’t take their support for granted. Kassakhian commends Friedman for his authenticity and sincere desire to do what is best for the Armenian people.

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According to Manuel Magpapian, president of the Southern California Armenian Democrats, Friedman has proven to be an exceptional ally on both domestic and international matters that are important to the Armenian community.

According to Magpapian, what distinguishes Laura Friedman is her approach to Armenian issues in California. He highlights that in California, Armenians are like any other group, with concerns about housing costs, affordability, and the overall cost of living.

Although several influential community groups have expressed their support, including the Southern California Armenian Democrats for Friedman and the western regional branch of the ANCA, the national arm of the ANCA has chosen to remain neutral in this matter.

Mike Feuer, a third Democrat in the race, described the political dynamics between local groups in Armenia as a “very, very complex” mixture of ideology, personalities, and affiliations with political parties.

Feuer, who has experience as a state legislator, Los Angeles City Council member, and city attorney, emphasizes his deep connection to the community, which dates back to his time working in legal aid.

Feuer emphasized that no candidate can assume they have the Armenian vote in their pocket. Instead, all candidates must actively work to earn the support of the Armenian community. Feuer deliberately used the word “earn” to highlight the need for effort and engagement in securing this important constituency.

Several other Democrats running for office have also integrated Armenian outreach into their campaigns. This includes candidates like Nick Melvoin, a board member of the Los Angeles Unified School District, Sepi Shyne, a member of the West Hollywood City Council, and G. “Maebe A. Girl” Pudlo, a progressive trans activist who previously ran against Schiff in 2022.

Two Armenian American candidates

Jirair Ratevosian, a former State Department official and public health advocate, is another Democrat who appears to be perfectly suited to connect with the district. With his background as a gay, Armenian American who grew up in the area, Ratevosian emphasizes that it takes someone from the Armenian community to genuinely prioritize their concerns.

Ratevosian emphasized that he had released a comprehensive five-point plan to improve U.S.-Armenian relations, which he believes sets him apart from the other candidates. He criticized his opponents for merely attending Armenian events and using a few Armenian words in an attempt to win support.

Ratevosian, however, lacks the endorsement of major groups like the ANCA. Local Armenians in the district believe that while Ratevosian shows promise, his relatively unknown status in comparison to established politicians hinders their confidence in his ability to represent their interests effectively.

Ratevosian has taken advantage of the twin crises in Nagorno-Karabakh and Gaza to shape his campaign. He has skillfully drawn connections between these two conflicts and has been the first candidate in the race to advocate for a cease-fire.

“You cannot effectively advocate for the interests of the Armenian people without supporting a cease-fire at this moment,” he expressed. “As Armenians, we understand the anguish of losing our homeland and the devastating impact of mass displacement. I deeply empathize with the struggles that Palestinians are currently facing.”

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As Ratevosian goes door to door in the district, he frequently encounters discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In contrast, other candidates report that this topic arises less frequently in their conversations with voters.

Another Armenian American candidate, physician Alex Balekian, is running as a Republican. The Republican Party has a significant connection to the Armenian community, with former President Ronald Reagan being the last to acknowledge the Armenian genocide before President Biden’s official recognition. Additionally, former California Governor George Deukmejian was the son of Armenian immigrants. While older Armenian voters often lean conservative, the majority of Armenian Americans typically align with the Democratic Party.

Balekian, a self-proclaimed “Deukmejian Republican,” has gained attention for his active participation in the parents’ rights movement in Glendale. This movement has aimed to voice concerns regarding specific LGBTQ+ curriculum being taught in public schools.

However, following Azerbaijan’s attack on September 19th, Balekian urged for a focused and concise military intervention from the US. He also emphasized the importance for Armenian American voters to reconsider their loyalty towards Democrats, including Schiff.

‘A deep unease’

According to Magpapian, the president of the Southern California Armenian Democrats, there has been a noticeable shift among Democrats regarding their support for Biden. It seems that some Democrats are considering leaving the presidential race empty on their ballots.

According to Magpapian, there is a sentiment among Armenians that they are not fond of Trump, and although Biden has taken some positive actions for the Armenian community, it is still perceived as insufficient.

Requests for comment from the White House and the Biden campaign went unanswered.

According to the top Democrats vying for the position, they believe that Armenian American voters are expressing their disappointment towards the international community as a whole, rather than solely directing it at Biden.

According to Friedman, there is a palpable sense of unease as the world witnesses a humanitarian crisis unfold in the region. He highlights the plight of tens of thousands of refugees who are forced to abandon their belongings and walk away from Artsakh.

All the leading candidates expressed their call to the White House for stronger action following the September attack. Portantino and Friedman joined forces by signing a letter that urged President Biden to take decisive steps in providing aid, relief, and peacekeeping. Feuer saw the attack as a chance for the United States to assume a more assertive role in the region.

Portantino believes that it is possible to support Biden’s presidential run while also urging him to take a stronger stance on the Armenian-Azeri dispute. He emphasizes that these two actions are not mutually exclusive.

Portantino, a Democrat and supporter of Biden, made it clear that his allegiance to the party does not equate to blind agreement with every action taken by the U.S. administration. Expressing his opinion, he believes that the United States should go beyond its current efforts and take more substantial action.

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