Aiming for Washington, Rooted in Waltham: Peter Koutoujian Seeks US Congress Seat

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By Alin K. Gregorian

Mirror-Spectator Staff

WALTHAM, Mass. — Sheriff Peter Koutoujian wants to expand his horizon beyond Middlesex County to Washington. He is seeking the Fifth District House of Representatives seat vacated by now Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), in a special election slated for December 10.

Markey replaced the longtime senator from the state, John Kerry (D-Mass.), whom President Barack Obama named as secretary of state in his second term.

“I’m a kid from Waltham and I always will be. My family will stay here and my children will continue to be at the Armenian Sisters’ Academy [in Lexington]. I am not an ideologue. For me, political positions are ways to help people but they are not the only ways. I care about politics but I have come to care more deeply about the people I help,” he added.

Speaking about his platform, the progressive democrat stressed the “economy and jobs.” He noted, “The rising tide lifts all ships. If we get the economy working strongly, we create better opportunities, jobs, resources and public funding” for different programs.

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He characterized Markey as a “strong and active” leader. “When people ask what you hope to do, I want to build on what he has done before,” he said.

Koutoujian has risen in the ranks steadily since his days as a young prosecutor in the Middlesex County district attorney’s office. It is not bigheadedness that is prodding on Koutoujian, but his family and his roots.

“My own family’s immigrant story is what motivates me. My grandparents, Abraham and Zarouhi, fled Marash [historic Armenia] during the Armenian Genocide. Zarouhi worked in a Syrian orphanage. Eventually they were able to track each other down and settle in Massachusetts,” he said.

“They saw unspeakable acts and didn’t want to talk about them,” said Koutoujian during a recent interview at his Main Street headquarters in his hometown.

“They raised four kids and all the boys were in the military,” he said.

“My grandparents adored this country for giving them refuge and an opportunity,” he said.

His mother was a teacher and his father, the Waltham city clerk for 30 years. “Through them, I came to love public service. I became a prosecutor and ran for office,” he recalled.

Koutoujian earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Bridgewater State University, his law degree from the New England School of Law and a master’s in public affairs from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

The lifelong Waltham resident was first elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1996, representing the 10th district, including Waltham and Newton, a seat he held for 14 years. During his tenure in the State House, he chaired three different committees.

Three years ago, Gov. Deval Patrick appointed him sheriff of Middlesex County. Koutoujian won the sheriff’s seat in November 2012 with 77 percent of the vote.

He is optimistic about his chances in this race, while conceding that it is a tougher campaign than the sheriff’s race.

“This is a much more intense campaign, as it is in a much shorter time period. Money is the most challenging part of this campaign. You need the resources to put together a good congressional campaign,” he said. “We need to turn out our vote. It is crucial in our victory.”

Koutoujian said he hopes to receive the support of the Armenian community, as well as the non-Armenian community. “We’ve had a great deal of volunteer and financial support from the non-Armenian community,” he said. “Women have responded very well. I’ve been a strong supporter of women’s rights and issues affecting women over the past 17 years.”

Indeed, he has been a leader in taking on domestic violence as well as sexual assault in the state. He serves on the boards of REACH Beyond Domestic Violence and the Newton Community Service Center, as well as the West Suburban Samaritans, Waltham Boys & Girls Club and Newton Boys & Girls Club.

He added that support for women’s rights was not a position he had adopted for getting votes, but instead, because “it is the right thing to do, especially as I see my daughter. I want her to have every opportunity.”

In addition, he said, “I want to be a leader on a national level for our [Armenian] community,” like the two other Armenian-Americans in the House, Representatives Jackie Speier and Anna Eshoo, both Democrats from California.

“As a people I believe we need to unite to get representational on the national level,” he noted. “An ‘R’ or ‘D’ should not matter, but an ‘ian.’”

“Mark Geragos said we can bring legal action but unless we can affect political structures,” Armenians are not going to be able to make a difference, he said. “We need to get people elected into office,” he said. “We haven’t been as good in that effort as we should be. I hope to be a part of that change. It’s not just getting elected. Armenian-Americans need to get involved in politics. We need to build up influence that way.”

Aid for Armenia is a significant issue in Washington, he said. Another issue that is affecting diasporans is the recognition of the Armenian Genocide.

“We can achieve both these goals,” he said.

“We need to make sure that Armenia gets aid. We need to get aid to Karabagh and raise the issue of the Javakhk region in Georgia and make sure that aid reaches Javakhk,” he said.

Koutoujian praised his wife, Elizabeth, an attorney originally from Spain, with being his “greatest supporter.”

“I was considering whether I should run. My wife continued to encourage me. She said ‘you can make this work. You can make a difference.’ It is overwhelming at times but the response [to the campaign] has been incredible.”

Issues that he is supporting are gun control and access to health care. He was instrumental in crafting the historic universal health insurance reform law, the statewide workplace smoking ban and legislation about new school nutrition guidelines.

He has upcoming fundraising trips to California and New Jersey in August, focusing on the Armenian community. “They will be the difference in this race if we win,” he said.

The campaign is trying not only to raise funds in the community, but to register more people to vote and to make sure they turn out on election day.

Koutoujian said he will not let political differences stop him from cooperating with others. “I’m a good team player and I’m respectful,” he said. “Bi-partisanship allows me to do good things for my community.”

The primary will be held on October 15 while the special election will be on December 10.

The campaign is looking for volunteers. Those interested in giving of their time or money or both can visit www.koutoujianforcongress.com.

 

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