By Edmond Y. Azadian
For months now Peter Koutoujian’s name has been on the national stage for Armenian-Americans and the hopes were quite realistic to see another Armenian on the Hill come December 15. But those hopes were dashed when the results of the Democratic primary were announced on October 15. Seven democrats were seeking to replace Edward Markey in the Massachusetts Fifth Congressional District. State Sen. Katherine Clark of Melrose won the primary with 32 percent of the votes in the 24 cities and towns comprising the district, followed by the Middlesex County Sheriff Koutoujian with 22 percent. His hometown Waltham and Watertown with a sizable Armenian population did not let him down as they delivered the votes.
The prospects are very promising for Clark because Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district.
Koutoujian waged a clean and courageous campaign as did Ms. Clark. The latter has been a competent candidate who gave a tough run to Mr. Koutoujian. Armenian voters did not question her competence and qualifications; their preference was based on the fact that Koutoujian is more sensitive to the issues most Armenians are concerned with. When Clark heads to Washington, all voters would still be well-represented in the Massachusetts’ Congressional delegation, which has often been very supportive of the community’s issues.
Besides being Armenian, Koutoujian enjoys an impeccable reputation as a public servant that had to motivate Armenians and non-Armenian voters equally.
The outcome of the election should bother the Armenians more than Mr. Koutoujian himself who will continue serving as the sheriff or he may set his eyes on Massachusetts Attorney General’s position which will be vacated by Martha Coakley.
As the voter turnout was low it was the most appropriate opportunity for the Armenian voters to show up in larger numbers at polling stations. Mr. Koutoujian was proud that in one weekend volunteers knocked on 16,000 doors. Even if more Armenian doors were open only 3,000-4,000 Armenians are estimated to be registered voters in the district.
Koutoujian, occupying second place, won 15,290 votes. Even if all registered Armenian voters showed up at the polls, they still would account for one-third of the votes, at best.
In terms of fundraising Koutoujian outdid his competitor, raising $915,000 for his war chest, versus Clark’s $855,000. The fundraising campaign gave the initial indications of a successful ending for Koutoujian as the voting ratio had more in the general electorate than among the Armenians.
Armenians boast of having a population of one million in the US, but if that one million cannot be mobilized as a political force it will prove to be a political dead weight.
No one can give the exact count of Massachusetts Armenians, but certainly more than 4,000 could have been registered in the district to raise a powerful voice to not only elect a candidate of Armenian extraction, but to be a segment of the population to be courted by any candidate seeking public office here.
Another problem Armenians have in the US is a lack of long-term political goals. No plans are in place to groom future candidates and have them rise through the ranks. The candidates thrust themselves on the community which adopts them by default. In this case, Koutoujian was a qualified candidate with a long and deep involvement in many school, church and social organizations in our community, but there have been others in the past, who have expected the support of the community only on the strength of an “ian” in their last names, who have not really been plugged into any Armenian groups. They did not care nor participate after their defeats.
We have to also reflect on the role of the Armenian political parties which trace their roots in the past with an agenda of liberating their homeland from Ottoman tyranny. Over the years their roles have evolved to mean the preservation of the Armenian heritage, a task that merits accolades.
But today many people question the role of the Armenian political parties. Their logical milieu would have been Armenia, because the ideology of a political party can be tested in a country where the parties are supposed to serve.
In the case of Armenia, an anomaly has been created in its political system, because the traditional parties have been marginalized, for a number of reasons. One reason is that they are considered transplants and most importantly, the weaning process from the authoritarian system has taken its time and toll. In fact, the political parties are formed around the agendas of oligarchs, warlords or strongmen, rather than any ideology.
Returning back to host countries where Armenian communities are active, the political parties can justify their relevance by taking an active role in the democratic process.
The antiquated framework of political parties has no room for the emerging generations with a globalized vision. The members of the new generation either wonder in the wilderness or they become a hazard to the community’s collective goals trying to introduce untested practices.
Or worse, organizations destined for other roles may be tempted to fill the vacuum, perils notwithstanding.
Koutoujian’s campaign is a classic case study in trying to integrate into the political system.
One important case which we need to note and celebrate is that there was no political divisions in the Armenian community, so that the candidate enjoyed the solid support of the entire community, especially the ones who came out to knock on doors. They voted and they became a force to be reckoned with.
Although Koutoujian did not win the race, he has shown a courageous outlook and he has been gratified by the support he has received.
We Armenians can also consider this campaign a test case to empower the community for the next challenge.
That may turn an electoral defeat to a prospective victory in the democratic process.