BY NANORE BARSOUMIAN
From The Armenian Weekly
BOSTON, Mass.—Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian has announced his candidacy for Senator Edward Markey’s (D-MA-5) vacant seat in Congress. The special election, which will likely take place sometime in December, has five candidates already campaigning for the Democratic primary, which is expected to take place in October. Koutoujian has what he calls a “natural advantage” over his opponents: He has previously run in almost the entire area that is District 5, which includes Watertown, New England’s historic capital for Armenians. The sheriff, a resident of Waltham, is no stranger to the local Armenian community. While serving as a state representative, he was the lead sponsor of the annual Armenian Genocide Commemoration event held at the State House, and was instrumental in securing approval for the Armenian Heritage Park. He regularly attends commemorations and community events, sometimes as a speaker and other times as an honored guest; he has served as an election observer in Armenia; and he has visited the front lines in Nagorno-Karabagh. For his service to the Armenian-American community, Koutoujian received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor in 2011, and the Mkhitar Gosh Medal from Armenia’s prime minister in 2012.
The “Hye” (instead of “High”) Sheriff—as he sometimes refers to himself (“They just misspelled it in the constitution!”)—is proud of his Armenian identity, and has vowed to work towards issues dear to his Armenian-American constituents, if elected. When it comes to the general issues, all five candidates fit the progressive democratic outline. Their success will rely on the kind of outreach they engage in.
With an anticipated low voter turnout after a string of special elections in Massachusetts, mobilizing supporters—or enough supporters—poses a real challenge, and will require substantial funds to cover staff expenses, television and radio advertising, posters, and other outreach efforts. Much of the success of the campaigns hinges on successful fundraising. EMILY’s list, which supports pro-choice women candidates, has already put its weight behind State Senator Katherine Clark who, according to a recent report, is trailing Koutoujian in fundraising for the most recent filing. The sheriff had reportedly raised around $308,000, with $290,000 in the bank, by the end of June. Clark, on the other hand, had raised $228,000 in the latest FEC filing, with $400,000 in the bank.
Koutoujian recently sat down with Armenian Weekly Assistant Editor Nanore Barsoumian to talk about the issues important to him as an Armenian American; his family history; and his past experiences in public service. He also discussed the significance of putting an “-ian” in Congress, which brings with it commitment and at the same time paves a path for future generations of Armenian Americans in politics. In the sheriff’s own words: “I have some well-financed opponents, and the way that I’ll be able to hold my own with them is through the resources that I’ll be able to raise. That is where the national Armenian community can really be of most significant help to me and to us as a people. If we’re able to raise the resources necessary on a national level to be able to win this seat, then that will be a great staging for the next step for us as a people…”
Below is the full interview.
NANORE BARSOUMIAN: Was your family involved in your decision to run for Congress?
PETER KOUTOUJIAN: My family have been very supportive actually. My wife has been 100 percent supportive, even at times when I was less certain because it was really going to affect my family.
N.B.: And your kids, are they excited?
P.K.: Yes, they’re pretty excited, but they like having their dad as a sheriff, too. Having a sheriff dad is kind of cool. I think it’s probably cooler than having a congressman as a dad, right now at least.
N.B.: So, what are some of the issues that are central to you, and are going to be important to you during the campaign and later on?
P.K.: Well first, of course, as an Armenian American, the issue of genocide recognition and the issues that are related to Armenia and Karabagh are always going to be very important for me. When you start stepping off the Armenian issues, it’s going to be a lot about public safety, education, jobs, and the economy. But it’s not only the larger overarching issues. I’ve always enjoyed working on the smaller issues in a legislative capacity or in public service to help address people’s needs, whether it is an issue they are concerned about or constituent services that they need, like housing or healthcare services.
N.B.: Can you talk a little bit more about the issues that are of concern to Armenian Americans?
P.K.: We need to continue to fight for recognition. I know we need to get the U.S. to recognize the Armenian Genocide. Whether reparations are part and parcel of that, I think is another decision that we need to speak about as a community. I believe that reparations are owed. But right now, the primary goal is, I think, getting that recognition by the United States government, which would go an awful long way to the next step.
The issue of an independent, free, democratic, and autonomous Karabagh is another important issue. A people that are of an ethnic makeup, that want to have independence, a government, and an independent territory, is very important. I’ve been to Karabagh. I’ve been on those front lines and I’ve seen how it affects a nation and a people. Armenia with its economic wellbeing is also very important to me—and would be good for the region, as well. We need to bring down the blockade. We need to bring down some of the issues that are holding Armenia back from fulfilling its greater glory and becoming economically independent and strong.
N.B.: When was the last time you were in Karabagh?
P.K.: Four or five years ago. In 2004, I went as an independent observer of the Armenian elections. I returned some years ago, and actually went to Karabagh, which was quite a drive, and that was with the new road. Man oh man [laughs], it was a pretty frightening experience—the drive, not the visit.
N.B.: What role has your involvement in the Armenian-American community played in your development as a political leader, and as a champion of many of the issues that you stand for today?
P.K.: I went to Sahag Mesrob Saturday School for many years as a child, right through sixth grade. Thereafter, it was my mother that spearheaded an effort with a couple of other Armenian parents to have Armenian taught as a language and as a culture at Waltham High School by Marcel Karian. He taught that for a couple of years, so I got a couple more years.
But it was really my first election…my State Representative district was not a really Armenian-driven district, but I was very driven to become involved in Armenian issues and our people. I was able to work with [current Massachusetts Registrar of Motor Vehicles] Rachel Kaprielian, who was then a State Representative, in continuing, maintaining, and building up the Armenian Genocide commemoration which we held at the State House. It really brought me great blessing because it drove me further into my community. All too often, as Armenian Americans, some of us get distracted, we go our own way. This brought me back into the community because it was not just an opportunity, it was the responsibility as an Armenian American to become involved and do the right thing by our community, and represent our community well, and reflect upon our community well. I became immersed in Armenian issues. I spent, relative to the weight of our community, a great deal more time on Armenian issues and Armenian events than it would be directly worth the political time. It’s just something that I’ve been very passionate about. Some of my closest friends now over many years, and some of my most committed and trusted confidants, are Armenian Americans that I’ve met through so many of these endeavors. My children go to the Armenian Sisters’ Academy as well, and so they are learning to read, write, and perform in Armenian, and it’s been a blessing.
N.B.: While announcing your candidacy for Congress, you mentioned your grandparents’ immigrant background, their flight from Turkey during the genocide, and “the promise of the American dream.” Could you talk about that?
P.K.: My grandparents Abraham and Zaruhi lived in Marash, Turkey. They fled [the genocide] and they followed the French cavalry out of Marash. They carried my aunt Veronica during this trek. Veronica was a young child at the time. They carried her, and it was so cold that Veronica just wanted to go to sleep. She wanted to die. My grandfather carried her, shook her, and kept her awake in this journey. Eventually she did make it through, and she ended up becoming a very successful businesswoman in Waltham. But my grandfather and my grandmother ended up separated during this journey. She ended up working in an orphanage in Aleppo, Syria. He ended up coming over here to Massachusetts. Through the Red Cross Family Finder Program he was able to send for her, and have her come over here. My grandma spoke almost no English at all. My grandfather could speak a modest amount of English. They had four children, a daughter and three sons. All three of their sons served in the military and were veterans. My uncle Jack was a medic. He eventually became the veterans’ services director in Waltham. My uncle Arsen never returned from the Philippines. He was about 19 years old when he died. Because of my uncle Jack’s service, they were able to get the GI loans, with which they opened up a corner store in Waltham, which became very much a hub for a lot of activity in that neighborhood. That’s where I grew up in my early years. That’s my Armenian experience.
My grandparents loved this country, and thought it was the best country in the world because, as my grandfather would say to my dad—the youngest and the Amerigatsi child—“you can be anything you want to be.” I still have my grandparents’ wedding picture, which looks like it’s my great-grandparents’ wedding picture. My grandparents loved everything about this country. They loved the opportunity provided to them and to all four of their children. All three of their sons did some service for their country, which I think is very powerful.
N.B.: What can the Armenian-American community do to help you in this race?
P.K.: Part of how an Armenian-American community can help is providing the resources necessary to run a first-class campaign, because it always comes down to the resources. Right now we have a great opportunity. I had good exposure to this district. We have the very top political consulting firm in the city, Northwind Strategies. Doug Rubin [founding partner at Northwind Strategies] who ran my very first campaign in 1996 is, I think, the top political operator in the state right now. He ran Tim Cahill’s successful campaign for treasurer, Deval Patrick’s successful campaign for governor, and Elizabeth Warren’s successful campaign for Senate. He’s just one of the best around. We need to have the resources to be able to hire staff, to do the advertising, to put all that together. That’s really where the Armenian-American community—especially around the country—can really be helpful.
I have some well-financed opponents, and the way that I’ll be able to hold my own with them is through the resources that I’ll be able to raise. If we’re able to raise the resources necessary to be able to win this seat, then that will be a great staging for the next step for us as a people. I will be one of those point people, as I’ve been here, that will help bring us to the next level and the next generation of leaders. That’s really important, that we have the next generation of leaders out there prepared to run.
In this election, it’s not so much a matter of the “-D” or the “-R” next to the name, but it’s a matter of the “-ian.” Because as a people, we can have disparate views, disparate opinions—and that’s completely understandable, we should, we’re reflective of the greater society of the United States—but we have a really good opportunity here to get an Armenian American elected to Congress. I just believe that with this opportunity we can do a great deal as a people. I’m hoping to be the one to bring Armenians nationally to the table, to be a more robust and stronger political influence than we are even now. I want to take us to the next level.
Constitutionally, I am the High Sheriff of Middlesex County. But whenever I speak to an Armenian group, I always say that I am the Hye Sheriff of Middlesex County. They just misspelled it in the constitution!
N.B.: How are you going to set yourself apart from the other runners in this race?
P.K.: One, I believe that I have a natural advantage in the fact that I have run over almost the entire district at least once. I’ve served in the legislature for 14 years. I ran in Waltham and Watertown for 14 years. I ran the entire county this last year for sheriff, and we received a vote of 77 to 23 percent. There are three towns that are outside of Middlesex County that I have not run in—Southborough, a very small town in Worcester County, and Revere and Winthrop, which are in Suffolk county.
I think people will look to my leadership in the public safety end, and also in many of the other issues that are about creating a good community, whether they are mental health, substance abuse, or educational issues—things that I have done in my job as sheriff. My record of achievement outside of the Armenian issues include workplace smoking bans, the stalking bill, and a number of other smaller issues. I’ve got a record of achievement that I think is quite significant and a record of almost 25 years of public service.
N.B.: What are some of the greatest lessons you have learned in the past 25 years, and what, as a result of your past experiences, would you bring to Congress?
P.K.: Well, probably the greatest lesson I learned—and I learned it the hard way—is that the harder I work the luckier I get. I think that ties in directly to the success that myself and my team have had in the legislature and in the sheriff’s office. We work very hard, and we care very deeply about what we do and our integrity. That is very important, because we know that we are out there as a representative of a government, and people should have trust—firstly knowledge, and then trust—in their government.
I’m not an ideologue. I have my beliefs that something might be right or wrong, but I don’t believe I’m any smarter or better than anyone else simply because I believe it. I believe that there are many perspectives on every single issue that we face, and I believe that we also have more in common than we do that separates us, even in partisan issues, Republicans and Democrats. I believe in building relationships that can endure and that can bring benefit to both sides.
I did that a great deal in the legislature, because many of the major issues that I had—the school nutrition bill, the workplace smoking ban bill, the stalking bill, and many others that I can’t think of at the top of my head—I always worked with the other side. I always visited with the Republican leadership. I always spoke to them about what I was hoping to achieve in this legislature, and then we’d have a talk about what they could live with, what they couldn’t live with, where we’re going to have some battles politically. But it was always very congenial, collegial, and professional. We could then go to the floor and have a robust debate, but we had paid each other respects and knew that this is a professional and political discussion. I think if we make it more political and professional than personal, we can get a lot more done.