A conversation with Rostom Sarkissian
Rostom Sarkissian is only 26 years old–but listening to him talk about politics–you would think you were speaking to a veteran political analyst who has been working on campaigns since the Reagan-Carter race.
Sarkissian got his political start when he was a student at Hoover High School in Glendale and just happened to walk into the campaign offices of then candidate for Glendale City Council–Rafi Manoukian–back in 1999. Today he jokingly refers to himself as having been part of the original "Manoukian Machine." He credits that election for awakening not only the Armenian political voice in Glendale–but the activist within him as well. A graduate of Occidental College in Eagle Rock–California–Sarkissian has already accumulated quite a political resume. He has conducted research in Armenia–interned for the UN at the Office of the Iraqi Oil for Food Program–and worked on numerous local and state campaigns. In 2000–he was part of an elite group of university students to participate in the Armenian National Committee of America’s Leo Sarkissian Summer Internship Program. After graduating from college–Sarkissian returned to his political roots by managing the successful re-election of Glendale Mayor Rafi Manoukian. After the campaign–he was accepted into the Coro fellowship–one of the nation’s most prestigious public policy leadership training programs–which is based on experiential learning obtained through site placemen’s. He worked in Pittsburgh–Pennsylvania for over a year and during his time there worked on the Howard Dean Campaign for President in Iowa.
Sarkissian’s love of politics has taken him half way around the globe to his ancestral homeland–to the halls of the United Nations and today–he finds himself in a small city in Oregon–sitting behind a desk–staring at his computer while he gives advice on the phone to a team of grassroots activists. Sarkissian is currently both the Deputy Field Director for the Democratic Party of Oregon–and the regional director for the 5th largest county in Oregon. Recent polls show that Kerry’s leading the President in Oregon by at least 5 points. Asbarez caught up with Sarkissian to talk about his political career and his experiences on this campaign.
Asbarez: When did you start with the campaign?
Rostom Sarkissian: I arrived in Oregon on July 26–but I’ve been following the Presidential campaign since September of last year.
Asbarez: How did you get involved in politics?
RS: I got involved in politics in 1999 as a volunteer with Rafi Manoukian’s first city council campaign. I heard about his candidacy in Asbarez–and thought I’d stop by and see how I could help. It’s been 5 years now–and I’ve been addicted to the electoral process ever since.
Asbarez: What drew you to this campaign?
RS: There are too many reasons to list. John Kerry has a great record on Armenian issues in the Senate–and I think he will be a President that all Americans can respect. George W. Bush has not only been indifferent toward the Armenian community but has been outwardly hostile. I remember when his administration tried to place Armenia on a list with known terror sponsoring countries–and his administration’s response was–"oops we made a mistake?" That’s the record of the Bush administration–one big mistake.
Asbarez: What did you learn on that campaign–and how have you incorporated it into your work today?
RS: I learned during Rafi’s race that politics is personal. If people see how voting will affect them–they will vote. In this year’s race–it’s very clear how this election will affect people. Family incomes for the middle class have gone down while health care costs have skyrocketed. I have friends and family that went to Iraq. For what? WMD’s that didn’t exist? George Bush rushed to war without a plan to win the peace. I think it’s very clear how this election will affect people’s lives.
Also–in Rafi’s race–our goal was to register new voters and bring them into the process. It’s no different with this election; just on a much larger scale.
Asbarez: What is it like working on such a close campaign?
RS: (laughing) Long hours–bad food–and very little sleep–but I have nothing to complain about. This is one of the most exciting–and surreal experiences of my life. This whole election rests on a handful of states–and it’s a great feeling to know that I can make a difference in one of those states. While people are closely following the election on TV–I get to see it first hand.
When John Kerry came to Portland in August–over 50,000 Oregonians turned out in the middle of the day to see him–and all I kept thinking was "we’re going to win."
Asbarez: How does your background working in grassroots politics affect your work?
RS: The old adage of "All politics is local" applies to a presidential campaign as much as it does for a local race. The essence of grassroots politics is personal interactions. That’s what we’ve been doing on this campaign.
The first thing I did when I arrived in Oregon was build a volunteer organization that would sustain the main thrust of our campaign which is voter contact–voter contact–voter contact. We run the ground campaign the same way we would in a local race. Phone bank–canvass and repeat. Day in–day out. This is why we are going to win.
Asbarez: What has been your best/worst experience of this campaign?
RS: Seeing over 50,000 Oregonians turn out in the middle of a Friday afternoon for a John Kerry rally was one of the great experiences of this campaign. I haven’t really had any bad experiences–but I do want to say that I would like to get more sleep (yawning).
Asbarez: You recently exhibited your support of John Kerry/John Edwards in a unique way–can you explain the picture? (skydiving pic)
RS: I like to joke that by land or by air–I’m always on message. About 3 weeks ago–a friend and I decided to prepare for the adrenaline rush we would get during the Get Out the Vote period by going skydiving. It was a great experience–but it doesn’t match up to the adrenaline rush I will have when we celebrate John Kerry’s victory on Nov. 2.
Asbarez: Where do you think the Armenian American vote will be the most important?
RS: (growing very serious) Regardless of where you live–you should vote. Armenia’s can have a great impact on this election–especially in Nevada–Pennsylvania–Florida–Arizona–Michigan–Ohio–Wisconsin–and of course–Oregon.
Asbarez: What is your electoral college prediction?
RS: John Kerry 284–George Bush 254.