BY ARDASHES “ARDY” KASSAKHIAN
Last week I wrote about an important race for Congress taking place in Massachusetts’s 5th district with Middlesex County Sheriff Pete Koutoujian as a very viable likely frontrunner for the seat vacated by Ed Markey when he was elected to the Senate. This week we move south along the coast to another important showdown and one that could have great importance for the future of Armenian-American issues but also for the state of New Jersey where there is one of the largest populations of Armenian Americans outside of California and Massachusetts.
New Jersey boasts one of the largest and most active concentrations of Armenian-Americans in the U.S. and it has even experienced a recent resurgence as more Armenians from the former USSR have moved to New Jersey and nearby metropolis New York. So this can end up being another key race where Armenian-American voters can play a critical role in the outcome of the election sending a strong message to Washington DC insiders who are already planning their strategy for the 2016 Presidential Election.
What makes New Jersey particularly interesting and important on a national scale is that it was an unplanned Senate election in the wake of Democrat U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg’s death a few months ago. When Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts passed away, many referred him to the Lion of the Senate. If anyone was worthy of inheriting that title after Kennedy’s passing, it certainly was Lautenberg. A World War II veteran who was born and bred in New Jersey, he was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1981 and was always a stalwart supporter of Armenian issues such as the proper reaffirmation of the Armenian Genocide. But he was also a fighter for the rights of working class American families. Lautenberg was the oldest serving member of the U.S. Senate who had come out of his 2001 retirement to take the seat that was vacated by the US Senator from New Jersey who was caught up in an ethics scandal. No, not Corzine – but that’s an excellent guess. This was to replace Robert Toricelli who resigned after it came to light that he had received illegal campaign contributions including a very expensive watch as a gift.
Now, the 11th largest state in the U.S. (by population) is facing a critical Senate race to see who will inherit the mantle of the fighter from New Jersey. Early from the onset, way before Lautenberg had even announced that he was thinking of retiring, Newark Mayor and media darling Corey Booker had made his intentions to run for Lautenberg’s seat publically known. Of course, that’s not very hard since Corey Booker is a prolific user of social media tweeting everything from what he has for dinner to challenges and bets to members of the public who follow him on the Internet. Booker doesn’t have a track record on issues such as a position on the Armenian Genocide or aid to Artsakh that I could find or dig up. But lucky for many Armenian voters in New Jersey, another person announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate and is a familiar name to many in the community – Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr. Many recognize the Pallone name because along with retired Republican John Porter of Illinois, he co-founded the Congressional Caucus on Armenian issues and grew it to become one of the largest ethnic issue caucuses on the Hill.
Pallone is facing a tough challenge. Most of the polls have him in second place behind the Newark Mayor. But there are some twists that can make this race interesting not the least of which is the underestimated Armenian-American vote in New Jersey. Some figures put the population of Armenians in the Garden State anywhere between 50-150,000. I think that figure is probably closer to the 100,000 mark but that’s just anecdotally based on my experiences in NJ and knowing how active the community is through the Prelacy and Diocese churches. Armenian-Americans are not known to voting in great numbers but New Jersey has some history of Armenians in public office and even the notorious case of Chuck Haytaian, the former Republican Speaker of the Assembly who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate seat against – you guessed it- Frank Lautenberg.
Pallone has to raise money and doesn’t have the national base that Corey Booker has developed by speaking at the Democratic National Convention in 2012 and by being all but sworn in by the media as the next Senator. But Pallone earned the official endorsement of the Lautenberg family who compared the veteran Congressman from Long Branch to the late Senator in their work ethic and commitment to Democratic party values.
If Pallone is elected to the U.S. Senate, and that can happen if he wins the primary in the Democrat leaning state, he will become a champion in the U.S. Senate for issues of concern to Armenian-Americans the likes of which have not been seen since Senator Bob Dole of Kansas retired. But that can only happen if the Armenian vote can come out in full force this coming week and help him keep this race close, within striking distance and help overcome the perceived Corey Booker momentum.
In politics, there are no guarantees. I know this from the races I’ve worked on and the candidates I’ve supported, but in politics, it’s important to show support to your friends. Frank Pallone has been a friend from the very beginning. At a time when it wasn’t so vogue to stand alongside Armenians against the powerful oil lobby, military industrial complex, the State Department and other interests that saw Azerbaijan and Turkey as a closer ally than the tiny republic of Armenia, Pallone did not waiver and held firm. He has secured key earmarks for aid that helped Armenian through tough economic times and illegal Turkish border blockades. He visited Artsakh and walked along the trenches where young Armenian men defend a tough border under a tenuous cease fire. If he can get elected to the Senate, he will be a game changer for Armenian-Americans and for Trans-Caucasus policy issues.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit that I’m biased. I interned for Congressman Frank Pallone’s office in 1997 when I was still a student at UCLA. I worked on issues to raise awareness about the corruption of American academia by Turkish deniers of the Genocide. I’ve helped fundraise for him, consider him a friend and mentor. But it is not by coincidence that I have come to know him so well. There is a saying in Armenian as there is in many other cultures. It says “Show me who your friends are, and I will show you who you are.” Frank Pallone reflects this statement by having held true to his convictions and never having abandoned the causes important to the Armenian community in New Jersey, in America, abroad or in Armenia. We could use a friend like that in the Senate today.
Ardashes “Ardy” Kassakhian is the elected City Clerk of Glendale. He is involved in numerous community based organizations and has been involved in many political campaigns for local, state and national office. He can be reached at AKassakhian@gmail.com.