Ardashes Kassakhian working

Glendale City Clerk Strives to Increase Voter Involvement

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GLENDALE — Ardashes “Ardy” Kassakhian has played a steady role in Glendale municipal governance and local politics for several decades. He now is in his fourth four-year term as Glendale City Clerk, and the motto on his website, appropriately, is “helping you navigate through city government.” He is the highest vote receiver among elected officials in Glendale.

Kassakhian was one of those fortunate people who became interested in their future professions at a young age. In fact, he said that his interest in public service goes back to his parents and grandparents. His mother, Loussik Kassakhian, whose family lived in Greece, was a public school teacher who only recently retired, while his father Dr. Garabed Kassakhian was an environmental chemist dedicated, according to his son, to insuring that there is clean air, water and soil on this earth. His grandparents and his parents were very involved in the cultural institutions of Jerusalem and Lebanon, including in the Armenian General Benevolent Union and the Ramgavar or Armenian Democratic Liberal Party, of whom one grandfather was a prominent leader. In addition, a great-grandfather was friends with the noted poet and activist Vahan Tekeyan.

Kassakhian personally began to become engaged in politics while in college. As a child, he moved a lot with his family, from Boston, where he was born, to Canada, to New Jersey, to Armenia and finally to Glendale. In all these places his parents were involved in local Armenian communities, and helped establish the Armenian church in Ottawa, Canada. Kassakhian remembers driving to New York as a child through the tunnels to go to the Armenian cathedral.

Despite all this, he did not really feel engaged, he said, until senior year at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He had become involved with the Armenian Student Association there and studied Armenian history, among other things. While he was president of the student association, in 1997, the Turkish government tried to establish a chair of Turkish and Ottoman studies at UCLA, as Prof. Stanford Shaw was about to retire.’

Ardashes Kassakhian

The problem, Kassakhian and others realized, was that the Turkish government would retain influence over the chair and thus a foothold in American academia. Consequently, he and other student activists protested, wrote to the newspapers and were quoted in some articles, and got members of congress involved. Ultimately, through the work of Prof. Richard Hovannisian and others, the UCLA History Department narrowly voted to relinquish the Turkish money and end the proposed relationship.

Kassakhian recalled, “That opened my eyes to how no one can avoid having politics touch them in some way or form.” Even today, he likes to quote Pericles (while noting that he too has partial Greek heritage), who said, “Just because you are not interested in politics does not mean that politics won’t take an interest in you.” The UCLA incident led him to an internship in Washington, DC with the Armenian Assembly of America at Rep. Frank Pallone’s office. He further studied and raised awareness of similar infiltration efforts of American academia by foreign governments.

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More significantly, he said, he saw that the number of Armenians in the ranks of the hordes of interns who descend upon Washington every year and from whom policymakers and leaders of the US emerge, was minuscule. Kassakhian said, “We talk about defending Hayasdan, taking up arms, singing the patriotic songs of these heroic battles of the past, but the realization came to me that the real battles here are fought in the halls of power at state legislatures, and in the nation’s halls.” Kassakhian did a second internship the next year with a different congressman and went back again to Washington to become the Armenian Assembly’s internship coordinator.

A Community Awakening

In 2000, back in California, Kassakhian joined the public relations firm of Stoorza, Ziegaus and Metzger, which specialized in government relations and public affairs, but in 2002, he was hired as Government Relations Director for the Armenian National Committee (ANC) of America Western Region and in 2003 became its Executive Director, remaining in this post until 2004.

Switching from the Armenian Assembly to the ANC, Kassakhian said, did not matter that much. He made an analogy with Armenian food. Every group of Armenians, from diverse countries like Iran or Lebanon, has types of food in which it is considered superior, he explained. You go to the restaurants of each group for its specialties. In the same way, the Armenian Assembly internship program, he added, offered what he sought, to be working in Congress, whereas the ANC only at the time offered internships at its own office.

When Kassakhian came back to the West Coast, he said, the ANC was active and the Assembly had no presence. Consequently, he said, “As an Armenian-American who wants to be involved today, if you here on the West Coast want to be where the fight is, the fight is being fought here by the people who are in the ANCA. You have to look past the other differences which divides us and look more to what binds us. You can call me a mercenary, or whatever it may be, but I am an Armenian.”

In this period, there was a new political awakening in the Armenian community, which had candidates running for office and trying to get elected with Armenian votes for the first time. Kassakhian said he became involved in several of those campaigns. By then Rafi Manoukian had been elected to the Glendale City Council in 1999 in this manner. Kassakhian worked on Paul Krekorian’s State Assembly campaign in 2000, and eventually decided himself in 2004 to run for city clerk.

He explained that the main reason was because the city clerk, aside from being a custodian of records, was in charge of running elections. He said, “I remember the difficulties we had before with previous city clerks in trying to acquire materials translated to Armenian that would help the pubic understand the voting process.” Many recently naturalized Armenian citizens did not have sufficient master of English to be active participants in this process. However, Armenians were told that the cost of translating materials into Armenian was too great, while the Armenians were not considered a protected class under the Federal Voting Rights Act like Latinos or Asians.

Instead, various Armenian candidates running for office, like Rafi Manoukian, Paul Krekorian or Kassakhian himself, had to register thousands of voters themselves. Kassakhian said, “In large part, though, the lion’s share of the credit goes to groups like the Armenian National Committee.”

City Clerk

In the broader sphere of his work as city clerk, Kassakhian said that his office was able to raise the number of voters in Glendale to the highest numbers it has been in at least the last 50 years. He has attempted to provide easier access to government by taking advantage of advances in technology. Digitalization has made access to public records easier. Council meetings can be viewed on line. Kassakhian said that he avoids cutting edge technology because he wants to be sure that it will be a lasting format before adopting it in his office. He gave the example of laser discs which quickly were replaced by DVDs as what might happen if changes adopted too rapidly.

His efforts in the broader American sphere, he said, can be characterized as follows: “I have worked to make sure that Americans and Glendale resident stakeholders know how their government works and why it sometimes doesn’t work — because there is a friction that has been designed into our American system of government; and lastly, what they are capable of doing as citizens to make government work the way they want it to. That means voting, coming to council meetings and participating, writing letters, and how to contact and access their elected officials.”

Simultaneously, he said, “I am a servant also to my community, the Armenian community. I have helped it in particular by creating opportunities for Armenian Americans who are interested in learning. I am very generous with my time for Armenian causes, and individuals who are interested in learning about government who happen to be Armenian.”

Ardashes Kassakhian, wife Courtney, and their child

He said that dozens of Armenian-American interns and others have participated in programs established in city hall. For example, the majority of the high school students who benefit from the student city hall ambassador program, by virtue of Glendale demographics, tend to be Armenian.

Kassakhian gave an example of how having Armenians in city affairs helps bring more Armenians into involvement in the political process. In the last election, he said that there were some votes that they could not tally because the signatures on the envelopes did not match those on the original affidavits. At first glance, this might appear to be voter fraud, but it turns out that sometimes it is voter error.

He said that a trilingual letter was prepared, in Armenian, English and Spanish, for these individuals asking them to come to city hall to resolve this discrepancy. Most people ignored it but afterwards a team of Armenian-speaking youth were hired on a temporary basis to go to people’s homes to check their signatures. At that point they sometimes found out husband and wife signed each other’s envelopes by mistake, or the new immigrant originally signed his name in Farsi or Armenian but now is comfortable using English so there is a difference.

Ardashes Kassakhian with local citizens

This allowed reregistering a number of people with their new signatures so that in the future their votes will count.

In his “free time,” Kassakhian keeps in contact with Pallone, and the Armenian Caucus has asked him to be master of ceremonies for the Capitol Hill Armenian Genocide service several times. His past connections with both the Assembly and the ANC no doubt were useful for this.

He was also able to take a trip as Glendale city clerk to Armenia as part of a California state delegation in September of this year to encourage investment in technology in Armenia. He and the delegation met with the mayor of Glendale’s sister city of Ghapan there and offered his knowledge and experience to ministers or deputies in charge of local municipalities. He also told various individuals within the Armenian government that Glendale would be happy to facilitate their visiting to observe its municipal elections. He said, “I know the meetings were positive, but unfortunately, a lot of it has to do with timing. We are hoping that we can do something in the near future.”

While Kassakhian has good working relations with the rest of the city government, he notes that he only has five fulltime staff at present, reduced from a number over 10, due to budget cuts and attrition. While sustainable, ideally he would need seven individuals to function well. He hopes, he said, that if the city’s financial footing improves over the next few years, staff can be added.

Kassakhian has some suggestions for the Glendale city government. He said he believes the city council should be expanded from its current five seats to seven because of the growth in the size of the city’s population. It would give an opportunity for greater diversity of representation in the decision-making process. He also thought it would help further the general understanding of the public concerning how government works. Kassakhian used religious terminology, which perhaps indicates how seriously he believes in his work, when he said, “Each council member almost becomes a missionary or an apostle. He goes out there in the community and spreads the knowledge of the mystery that goes on here in the council chambers every Tuesday.”

Though there is a movement in California for election to municipal councils by district (as in Pasadena), he prefers at-large elections for council members because that can allow for greater diversity (for example, by gender). However, he would like to expand it. He said, “My ideal election voting system is a cumulative voting model, rather than district. If there are three seats up you get three votes. You can give all three of your votes to your one candidate of choice, or spread them around among three candidates,” or split it between two candidates.

He also is interested in broader electoral reforms. He worked with State Sen. Anthony Portantino in introducing a California state senate bill, SB25, which recently became law, to reverse the ballot order for elections, at least in Los Angeles County, on a trial basis. The problem is that when local races are at the very end of a long ballot, Kassakhian said, “your eyes have glazed over, your interest has sort of waned, and good luck if you fill out that ballot completely.” In the past, cities had stand-alone elections, but a state law forced their consolidation with county elections to ensure higher voter participation rates. To improve this situation, Kassakhian came up with the idea of having the local races first, and Portantino introduced it as legislation. The 2020 election will show if this approach will help.

Kassakhian noted that though he is a registered Democrat, and has his opinions, his and for that matter all local offices are nonpartisans, and that regardless of a person’s political ideology, he can still do whatever work is assigned to him.

Kassakhian ran unsuccessfully for California State Assembly in 2016. When asked the obligatory question of whether he had any plans for further runs for office outside of the city clerk position, the short version of his answer was simply, “desnank [we shall see].”

Meanwhile, his message for Armenians remains the same: “Being a small diasporan nation with more Armenians living in practically every corner of the world outside of Armenia, it is important for us to know how the world works, how politics works, how government works…and what we as citizens of our respective nations can do to make government work in ways that can benefit us as communities living in those places, as well as to help preserve our heritage and culture.”

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