Dan Janjigian, his wife and children

Janjigian Runs in Texas Congressional Primary

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LEANDER, TX – Every so often, a new Armenian name pops up among political candidates on the national scene in the US. Armenians rejoice even when the candidate has tenuous connections to his roots. Today, in the 31st Congressional district, an area north of Austin, Texas, there is a new candidate running in the primary election, Dan (Daniel Armen) Janjigian, who is strongly connected to his Armenian heritage. Some may remember him from 2002 when he was one of two members of the Republic of Armenia’s bobsledding team in the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Significantly, if Janjigian wins the primary election, he will be running against a Republican incumbent, Rep. John Carter, who not only refused to cosponsor the successful Armenian Genocide resolution H.R. 296 but did not even show up to vote on it last fall.

Dan Janjigian with his grandmother Nevart Karagozian

Background

Janjigian, 47-years-old, grew up in a very Armenian household. Born in Chicago, he and his family soon moved to the San Francisco Bay area in northern California, where his parents, Aram and Florence, started a popular restaurant called the Armenian Gourmet in 1974 in Sunnyvale. It operated successfully for the next 40 years. As a result, Dan grew up surrounded by Armenian food and frequently was present at various Armenian ceremonies, with his parents doing the cooking. He served in church until the beginning of high school as an acolyte. He was involved in the Armenian Church Youth Organization and would go to Armenian camp in summer, becoming a counsellor. He said, “That was one of the favorite times in my life,” and recalled with a chuckle how he and Matt Vasgersian, today a sportscaster and television host, would get into trouble and have to go shovel manure as punishment.

Later he would go to various Armenian events like ACYO Sports Weekend and the Navasartian Games.

Armenia’s bobsled at the Salt Lake City Olympics

Janjigian’s maternal grandfather came from Samsun and his maternal grandmother from Trebizond. It was this grandmother, Nevart Karagozian, who had the most profound impact on him. In awe, he said, “The woman saw the bulk of her family murdered and still found a way to keep going, found a way to go through orphanages and then come to the US with just her and her brother, to move here and then live in Watertown for a little while, and then get moved out to Fresno and build a life there.” She lived to be nearly 101 and had an infectious laugh.

Janjigian contributed to a book with Jack Canfield as part of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series (The Soul of Success Volume Two, https://www.amazon.com/Soul-Success-2-Jack-Canfield/dp/0996197842/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8) and based his chapter on his grandmother’s story. He wrote the chapter in the first person and tied it to the principles of success he said he learned from her.

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Janjigian was so intrigued with his family history that he took a trip to Trebizond (today in Turkey) with his sister via Armenia while his grandmother was in her late 90s. He said that before going, his grandmother told him about all the areas she was in as a girl, and the two grandchildren went to great lengths to find those areas, which have of course changed greatly in appearance. On a local tour, they were told that khachkars with Armenian lettering were supposedly Byzantine. Janjigian brought his grandmother back some mementos and she was delighted, he said.

Janjigian used to visit his maternal grandparents when they had a ranch in Fresno in the summers, but after his grandfather Jivan died his grandmother came to live with his parents for many years. Janjigian would speak Armenian with his grandmother all the time and can still understand Western Armenian fairly well though he does not have much occasion to use it in Texas. He said, “We were very fortunate because we had a lot of discussions about the Genocide and her escape and what that looked like. She was just an amazing woman. She was really petite. She was very short, but she had a ton of energy.”

Janjigian went to college at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, at the central coast of California. He started as a materials engineer but switched to business administration and marketing, graduating in 1996. He said, “I knew that whatever I did in life I would always be doing something on the business or marketing side and that is what turned out to be true.”

While in college he worked selling educational books door to door over the summers for a company called Southwestern. Janjigian said, “So when I got out of school I had a really good basis for understanding how the sales cycle worked, and I parlayed that to get a job with a company called WebTv. That was a job that was just an amazing opportunity. That was a startup that while I was there got purchased by Microsoft.”

He stayed with Microsoft for a few years in the tech industry and then worked for a few other companies, but primarily began to run his own businesses for approximately the next ten years. He had a website development company and also developed SpeedMenu, an application allowing people to order food and drinks from their cell phones while in a restaurant.

Finally, he switched to the health care insurance industry, and has been selling insurance in the Austin, Texas area, to which he moved in 2005.

While working in these jobs and running several restaurants, he also pursued many other interests at a fairly high level of success. He was convinced by a friend of his cousin on the Greek bobsledding team to try the sport, and went to Calgary in 1998 right after the Nagano Olympics. By chance, the world-class coaches had been underscheduled and Janjigian was able to have intensive training in this field. He said, “I just fell in love with it. I did it for almost ten years. When I started off, I was racing for both the US and the Armenian teams, but unfortunately there was just a lot of politics in the US team.”

The Armenian Federation was willing to accredit Janjigian and his Greek-American partner, and the plus was that Janjigian’s grandmother loved that he was putting Armenia’s flag on the map in this sport. Janjigian went to Armenia both before and after the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. He also did win a silver medal in the 2005 America’s Cup.

A second important interest for him is acting, which he did primarily when he moved to Los Angeles after the 2002 Olympics for about three years. He also did some shows in Austin, Texas later. Janjigian said, “I have a passion for it…It was never a full-time career but I had a lot of success in it.” He was in several reality shows and did some commercial work. He performed as an extra in some fairly well-known movies, such as “Sea Biscuit” and “The Longest Yard” with Adam Sandler. The best known one, “The Room,” was independently shot in 2002 and came out in 2003. It developed a cult following, which led to a book about its production. James Franco and Seth Rogan then made a film based on the book in 2017 called “The Disaster Artist,” which was a 2018 Golden Globe nominee for the category of Best Motion Picture. In it, Janjigian is portrayed by Zac Efron.

The Janjigian family in front of their restaurant the Armenian Gourmet in Sunnyvale, California

Political Passions and Policies

Politics has now become his main passion, with his three main areas of focus being health care, the environment and immigration. He directly connects his position on immigration, maintaining secure borders but welcoming immigrants and refugees through “proper legal channels” with his Armenian background on his campaign website: “My grandparents escaped genocide and tyranny in Armenia, and America has given us nothing but opportunity, prosperity, and a chance at an incredible life. This distinctly American value of welcoming immigrants is a huge part of why I love my country so much.”

His 15-year experience in health care, he explained, motivated him to enter politics and try to make changes. He said, “It just got to a point that you realize that people are not addressing the big problems. People right now are still focused on premium prices and how much they are paying and how much their deductibles are. They don’t realize that even when they do all those things right, even when they can afford to do all those things, they are still left in financially grave danger. If you can’t work for six months or two years, how can you make your mortgage payment? How are you covering those things?” The problem, he continued, is not just coverage, but what happens after a catastrophe strikes.

He proposes giving a public and private option for American health care, similar to how the US educational system at present gives guaranteed access to public education but also allows paying for private schools. He said, “Everybody should have access to a certain level of health care. It should be a right and not a privilege. No American citizen should have to worry about losing their homes, losing their families, because of a medical condition.” Private insurance coverage is fine, he said, as long as every single person can have free access to health care, as in many other countries.

A second motivating factor has been a bill passed last year in Texas that basically allowed an employer to fire an employee just for recognizing that they are a member of the LGBTQIA community. Janjigian said, “That is ridiculous. We have other states that are trying to get rid of archaic laws like this yet this a new law that just got on the books last year. It got me so angry. I have friends who could be affected by this…. All citizens have to be treated with a very high level of respect and not discriminated against.”

Janjigian is concerned about climate change and will work to combat its deleterious effects. He also is upset that the US only recycles about ten percent of its recyclables. He said, “That is a horrible, horrible number. In India, 60 percent of all recyclable material is recycled.” There are a lot of alternative methods that the US can choose to improve this situation.

Finally, there is the question of the animosity and gridlock reigning in Washington nowadays, and how to change the way that government operates. Janigian points to Simon Sinek’s book, Leaders Eat Last (https://simonsinek.com/product/leaders-eat-last/) for a solution. Thirty years ago, members of Congress would live together in Washington and travel back to their districts on breaks, which allowed them to become friends in their personal lives despite their political different. Today they do the opposite and the mutual respect of the past has disappeared. Consequently, an astounding low percentage of bills pass both houses of Congress to become law.

Janjigian said that of the five Democratic primary candidates, “What I think I bring that is unique is that I am running as a Democrat but I am surrounded by Republicans. I have a lot of friends who are Republicans. I have a lot of people that I do business with that are Republicans. I have to constantly find ways to get them to come to the table to have fruitful discussions. That is what I have done my entire career. That is what I believe is really missing right now in politics.”

He said that if he did win the general election, he would work to have more bipartisan discussion and mutual respect in government, which will help move legislation forward.

In addition, Janjigian said that the five Democratic primary candidates have generally similar views on generic platform issues, which are of course all important from a national perspective. None of them have significantly more national political experience than the other. What distinguishes himself from the others, he said, is that “I have tried to focus on what the people in my district are looking for. I live in more of a rural area, so internet access is a big thing. You have a huge amount of growth and worrying about how that growth is going to affect traffic is a big issue. I have tried to learn as much as I can with those folks. Very frankly, because of the nature of my business, I have sat down with around with about 18,000 plus individual Texans, a lot of them in my district, talking about health care, talking about their issues with oil or gas when the price goes up or down…” In other words, he says he is in immediate touch with his local constituency.

Janjigian exclaimed, “The most important question is, who will have the best opportunity to win when it comes to going against a Republican incumbent. At the end of the day, we can spend all the time in the world going through this process, but if you don’t have the best candidate in front of you for the general election, you have to wait two more years to go start the process again. That is key…and I obviously believe I am the right candidate.”

Another Armenian in Congress?

If he makes it into Congress, Janjigian said he would love to be a part of decisions concerning Armenia, Artsakh and Azerbaijan. With changing US-Turkish relations, and the new regime in Armenia, perhaps there would be more opportunities for Armenia to benefit from its relationship to the US.

He stressed, “Suffice it to say that Armenian issues are incredibly important for me. We have such a rich culture and at one time had such a large country. We are, I think, the only country whose national symbol [Mt. Ararat] is not within its borders.”

As far as Armenian Genocide recognition is concerned, after the two Congressional resolutions last year, he said that the Genocide should be included in public school curricula just like the Holocaust.

The primary election is on March 3 and early voting already began on February 18. Janjigian and his campaign staff are working to contact voters and do fundraising (see www.danjanforcongress.com). So far, his campaign has raised just shy of $70,000 and needs to reach around $100,000. Much of this is from individual donors, and Janjigian himself is financially contributing to his campaign. Some other candidates have raised more because they have been running longer, but Janjigian said his campaign would try to spend its money in a more efficient manner.

He said that so far, “the Armenian community has been amazing” in its support. Janjigian has been endorsed by the Eastern District Committee of the Armenian Democratic Liberal Party and also by the Armenian National Committee Western Region.

Perhaps the most important Armenian component in Janjigian’s campaign and in his life as well again comes from his grandmother. He said, “I spent I don’t know how many nights sitting at the kitchen table, eating madzoon and dolma, and talking with my grandma. I would sit on the couch with her and hold her hands, and I remember the wrinkles in her hands, where she had been and what she had done. She was in her mid-to-late nineties. …She said, I feel I am a young girl trapped in this old body. I asked her, what would you do if you had the body? All I want to do is run and jump and play in a park. I feel like I am trapped in this body and can’t do anything. That just spoke so, it just resonated with me… Why do you wait? The timing has to be right?”

Janjigian drew the following conclusion: “There are things you just can’t do at a certain point in life no matter how hard you try, so you have to do those things now. That is what I got from my grandmother. That is why we are going to fight. We are going to fight until we win, lose, or draw. And hopefully it is the former.”

 

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