Adrin Nazarian being sworn into office in December, 2018

California Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian Motivated by the Armenian Experience to Promote Equity

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SACRAMENTO — State Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian (D-Sherman Oaks) is unique for a couple of reasons: at present he is the only official elected in California on the state level of Armenian background, as well as the only elected Iranian-born official possibly in any legislative office in the United States at the state level or higher. However, he serves a district in the San Fernando Valley which is primarily non-Armenian demographically. In a recent interview, he said his three broad areas of focus as a politician are equity, infrastructure and the aging community.

The 47-year-old Nazarian said that while he is very pragmatic as a legislator and an elected official whose role is to represent his constituents, “at the same time, you want to look forward, and kind of push and pull your constituency towards a certain direction.” Part of what motivates him is his interests and background, and this is where his Armenian family story comes into play.

Influence of Family

Like many Armenians, his family has seen much tragedy and in the last 110 years, three generations moved four times. His paternal grandparents were natives of Shushi, Karabakh (Artsakh), who, when their hometown was burned in 1920, were forced to move to Baku. Nazarian’s father was born there in 1928, but he said that his grandfather did not want to accept communism or live under Stalinism, and therefore moved to Iran to set up a business. Before he could bring his wife and two sons, neighbors informed the Soviet NKVD, or secret service, which exiled his wife to Siberia, leaving the sons without parents for some five years. She made it back alive and somehow escaped to Iran at night, Nazarian said, to join her husband.

Nazarian’s maternal grandmother was from Volgograd in Russia and because of the Bolshevik revolution, she lost her father and her family got split apart. Three siblings moved to Armenia while she and her younger brother came to Iran.

Iran, too, had its revolution in 1979 and then the Iran-Iraq war, leading to Nazarian’s family once again being torn asunder, this time over three different continents, for some seven years, until reuniting in the United States. Nazarian and his mother had to traverse several countries to come to the United States in 1981.

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Nazarian observed, “Those are the influences that shape you and shape the way you approach things. That is why if you look at some of the bills I have authored or coauthored, or some of the budget ‘asks,’ they are very much focused towards equity and parity. I am a firm believer in opportunity. I think that if I had not received some of the opportunities, and a helping hand and support, there is no way I would have been here.”

This background of repeatedly fleeing upheavals motivated him to go into politics. He said, “Part of the reasons I ran for office was I wanted to tell my kids that you are a shareholder in California. This is where our home is. This is where we are going to stay. We are not passersby anymore. You are not going to leave in another 50 years, even if there is a revolution — though it feels really strange these days. You are a part owner of this and you have got to work to make it better.”

Nazarian graduated from Holy Martyrs Ferrahian High School in Encino in 1991 and then earned a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1996 from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). After college, he received a Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs and then from 1997 to 1999 served as an aide to Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA). Gov. Gray Davis appointed Nazarian in 1999 as Special Assistant to the California Trade and Commerce Agency, where, among other things, he helped set up a memorandum of understanding on the creation of a Californian trade office in Armenia.

His next position was as Los Angeles City Council deputy from 2001 to 2004. Before his election as assemblymember in 2012, Nazarian served as Chief of Staff to Paul Krekorian when the latter was Assistant Majority Leader in the California State Legislature, from 2006, and as Los Angeles Councilmember since 2010.

Armenians in California Politics

Nazarian explained that he initially planned to go to law school in order to prepare for public interest work. While he was working for Sherman, he began to get a lot of calls from nearby Armenian residents asking for help with visas. He asked them why they were not calling their representative, and they would reply that their representative’s office would not return their calls. In addition, they said that they had heard about his efforts to help those in need.

Nazarian found out that the representative was Republican James Rogan, whose Congressional district included one of the largest numbers of Armenians in the US.

Several Armenians, he said, got together to discuss the situation and decided to run a campaign for an Armenian for Glendale City Council as a first step to preparing a candidate to challenge Rogan. After they succeeded in getting Rafi Manoukian on the City Council in 1999, Nazarian said they wanted attorney Paul Krekorian to run against Rogan.

US national political developments interfered, because Rogan had become a House manager in the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton and that in turn led to national efforts to identify and support a candidate against the latter, which turned out to be Adam Schiff. Krekorian instead ran for State Assembly but lost. Nazarian said, “Fortunately, we learned a lot from that loss and we were able to come back and win that seat six years later.”

Who was part of that initial group of Armenians? “Paul and I have been joined at the hip and have been working together for over 20 years…When I say we, I mean Paul, myself, our consultant, Eric Hacopian (who has been both my consultant as well as Paul’s), and a young group of Armenian activists who are now in their 30s and 40s, and have all become chiefs of staff or are holding different political positions.”

What they shared, Nazarian said, was the idea that it was not enough to campaign one time. Armenians had to work their way through the process, becoming staffers, and then political directors of unions, major corporations or other organizations, lobbyists or specialists in specific issues (e.g. environmental or civil rights issues) so that there would be a broad supporting network in place when needed for those directly in political office. He concluded, “So you become part of this long march of becoming embedded in the political system.”

Nazarian, Krekorian and Hacopian thought, said Nazarian, “if we run a campaign and if we energize the young voters, they’ll participate and they’ll come out. When you bring ten people out at least one or two are going to stay on, and they are going to continue in that career or arena. So we started through campaigns to generate a lot of interest.”

Nazarian recalled that there was no Armenian organization committed to voter registration. He said, “Every community organization was too busy doing too many different things, so if they did a drive, it was for a week or a month.” Instead of setting up a new organization just for this purpose, the campaign process itself served as registering method and raised its own financing.

After the 1999 city council win, the 2000 Krekorian loss, in 2001, 2003, and 2005, and in every successive Glendale city council, school board, community college and then city treasurer and clerk race, Nazarian said they successfully expanded the number of Armenians in representative office in Glendale. Beyond this, he said, “My goal was always to further expand and look at how you can integrate Armenians more in the mainstream political arena rather than just in the confines of its own community, a small geographic political community as well.” Speaking to issues people find important would create a constituency base outside of just the Armenian community, he said.

It should be clear that Krekorian and Nazarian were Democrats from the very start but many of the new registrants, Nazarian said, did not want to choose a party, and therefore they were being registered as “declined to state.” Though Armenians are in general a conservative community, over time, without any pushing, more Armenians began to register as Democrats, he observed.

A second important component of the process was after registration to encourage Armenians to vote in large numbers at a higher percentage than the average population. “If Armenian Americans start voting at a rate of 50-percent registration,” he said, “guess what is going to happen? Everyone is going to want to talk to Armenians. That is how you get attention.” This approach became so successful, Nazarian proudly remarked, that the New York Times stated that in the race between Rogan and Schiff in 2000, it all came down to which of the two would be a better advocate for the Armenian community and recognition of the Armenian Genocide (https://www.nytimes.com/2000/10/07/us/2000-campaign-house-races-republican-s-unusual-gift-vote-house-floor.html?searchResultPosition=2 and https://www.nytimes.com/2000/09/17/us/2000-campaign-california-emotions-spending-run-high-one-close-house-contest.html?searchResultPosition=1).

Nazarian on Armenian Issues

As an assemblymember, Nazarian has directly accomplished a variety of things for the Armenian community. To increase the momentum of Armenian political involvement, he worked to raise money for the California Armenian Legislative Caucus to create an annual fellowship program for Armenian youth to come for two months and be assigned to an assemblymember’s office or a committee for an internship. This creates a whole new set of opportunities for Armenian-Americans to become embedded in the bureaucracy and American political system.

Every year he has played a leading role in advancing a resolution on the Armenian Genocide and getting other legislators involved. He said, “I usually ask a colleague to introduce it because I want my colleagues to carry the Armenian Genocide resolution. It shouldn’t just be the token Armenian doing it.”

Adrin Nazarian speaking at the April 23, 2018 Armenian Genocide observance event at the state capitol

He followed the same principle by creating an essay and visual arts contest to motivate students of all backgrounds to learn more about the Genocide, with the reward of a free trip to Sacramento and $1000 from the California Armenian Legislative Caucus. However, he said, “I don’t want to just commemorate the Genocide. I want to show that we are better for it and California is better for it. Because of the Genocide, there is a thriving Armenian community that contributes to the arts, literature, science, medicine and politics of California.” So instead of writing directly on the Armenian Genocide, every year the essay contestants must nominate and highlight a notable Armenian-American with a strong connection to California to the California Hall of Fame located in the California Museum of Sacramento.

Nazarian has worked to expand the teaching of the Armenian Genocide in the California state curriculum, building on the initial 1985 bill AB1273. In 2014, a bill Nazarian authored, the Armenian Genocide Education Act (AB1915), was signed into law encouraging the use of Armenian Genocide survivor and witness oral testimony in human rights lessons in California classrooms and professional and resource development for teachers on the Genocide. Nazarian followed up with the California State Board of Education and the Instructional Quality Commission, concerning a new history-social studies curriculum framework, adopted in 2016, which expanded the language and scope of treatment of the Genocide. Nazarian said, “So whether it is in US history, world history or civics, whatever year or grade level it is, there is ample coverage of the Armenian Genocide and how that shaped that community’s and subsequently that region’s outlook or cultural presence, with a lot of migration to other Middle Eastern countries as well as into the United States.”

Another step against Turkish genocide denial is the Divestment from Turkish Bonds Act (AB1320), introduced and primarily authored by Nazarian, and signed into law in October 2019. It prohibits the boards of the California Public Retirement System (CalPERS) and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System from renewing investments in Turkey, or making any additional or new ones, after federal sanctions are imposed on Turkey. Nazarian said, “it was a labor of love and very difficult. This was something I wanted to work on when I was first elected. When I saw that there was a movement among the UC [University of California] students and they were passing resolutions on campuses to divest any campus investments, I thought this was a good time to use that as a starting place…”

Nazarian admitted that the bar for action, based on federal sanctions, is set pretty high, but pointed out that other things have happened as a consequence. He said that CalPERS instituted a geopolitical risk factor in its decision making, so that forthcoming investment decisions concerning Turkey would be calculated differently than in the past.

Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian, third from right, led a 9-member California legislative delegation to Yerevan (Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex, October 5, 2017; photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Armenia)

On a different topic, Nazarian is a supporter of Armenian charter schools. He was one of the founding members of Ararat Charter School, established in 2010. He also strongly supports the public education system but remarked that until recently despite waves of new immigrants, including Armenians, Israelis, Iranians and Filipinos, to the San Fernando Valley, nothing was being done to cater to their needs and integrate these new populations at the district level. Charter schools, he said, offered an avenue to achieve this.

General Assembly Work

Nazarian said, “When you are elected to an office like this, you obviously are the voice of your constituency. You represent their interests on the policy issue areas, whether through the legislation you are crafting, or the way you are voting on bills.” Consequently, he said, “I think, first and foremost, the important issue is to listen and to make yourself available.”

Adrin Nazarian, at right, recognized Lusy Gradzhyan and Avo Koshkaryan, of Lusy’s Mediterranean Cafe and Grill of Van Nuys, as the 46th Assembly District Small Business of the Year (Sheraton Grand Hotel, Sacramento, June 16, 2014)

You work as a problem solver for constituents. He said: “If my constituents have a problem with the DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles], the Department of Health Care Services or medical-related issues, or if they did not get their cosmetology license, preventing them from getting that job, they can call my office and I will help expedite those issues.

You also regulate and oversee industries, so that they run in the paths and vision set out for them, he said.

Legislatively, Nazarian’s concern for equity, mentioned above, motivated him to formulate a bill on foster youth even in his first term in office. He said, “When you look at all the different constituency bases, you see that this is one group that is one of the most voiceless that there are, and if you don’t speak out for them, hardly anyone else will.” He proposed the expansion of a program which would allow foster youth to stay at UCLA year-round to become immersed in the positive environment, but the bill only got one vote in the policy committee. He said, “There were such entrenched interests; there were organizations working in that arena for so long that they don’t want the funding sources to shift. They don’t want anything to change, even if it is better for the constituency that they are serving.”

In a more successful effort connected to equity, four years ago he developed a bill to give every child when born in California a savings account with at least a nominal amount, while encouraging local jurisdictions and philanthropic organizations, along with parents, to help complement this amount. Nayiri Nahabedian, a member of the Glendale Unified School District’s Board of Education, served as an adviser to Nazarian on this. In 2019, the California Kids Investment and Development Savings (KIDS) program with universal opt-out enrollment was established through two bills he promoted.

Nazarian was always interested in the elder community, his second main focus. In 15 years, he said, one out of four Californians would be 60 or older, and this “tells you everything else is going to come into question: our level of healthcare service, our education quality, how we are advancing individuals to the workforce so they can provide the services necessary, what we are going to deem essential service providers.” In 2019 he became chair of the Assembly’s Committee on Aging and Long-term Care.

Nazarian felt that “right now we are not doing a great job.” Those taking care of the elderly are being paid the bare minimum.

Nazarian’s third general area of emphasis is infrastructure; he serves on the Assembly’s Committee on Transportation. He explained, “For me, infrastructure is critical for the long-term stability and resiliency of the Los Angeles area.” As the car culture capital of the world, Nazarian said that oil companies and the auto industry benefited while a good public transportation system was lacking. Now that real estate is at a premium, he said, “we have to make the hard investment of purchasing properties to build rail.”

In addition to transportation, water is critical, he said, for California, especially when Los Angeles is located in practically a desert region. He said that there was a large underground reservoir of water contaminated over the decades by industry and business, so that it would take some time to clear it up.

Aside from constituent votes, an assemblymember needs financial support to stay in office. Nazarian exclaimed, “Campaigns are ludicrously expensive. It has become so expensive that you really can’t have people who decide to jump in and see what this whole process is about… Who is the political process open to? You either come from supported groups that want to make sure they have their candidate in office, or you have to be independently wealthy, or you have to have the right name or the right heritage or background to reflect an area. Or you just have to work your tail off.”

Nazarian said that as a staffer for 14 years, he benefitted from getting to know a lot of community leaders and overnight had over 100 local endorsements. He did not seek out public office endorsers, he said, because “you don’t need to know or care whether someone from Northern California is endorsing me, but whether someone down the street from you is.”

Though not always dominant, outside money plays a big role. In his first assembly race, a teachers’ association disliked one of his opponents with a lot of money, so they spent around $400,000 to attack the latter, while three charter school organizations spent over 1.8 million dollars to support his opponent. In this race, Nazarian only got two contributions from Sacramento organizations, while most of the latter either stayed neutral or did not support him. He raised about 60 percent of his money from his electoral district, he estimated, and perhaps 95 percent in all was from the greater Los Angeles area, because of his Armenian supporters and friends. That, he said, “allowed me when I came up here to be very independent. I am a progressive Democrat, but I had the benefit of also just voting exactly the way I felt would be best to serve my district, and in all honesty, where I want to see California go as well as a state.”

In later races, Nazarian said that various organizations, such as the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, “when they saw the work that I am doing, and saw that the work that I care about actually ends up benefiting their membership, started supporting me.”

He added that the Assembly committees he serves on also made a difference. For example, when he got onto the Health Committee, he said, “as the various segments of the health industry got better acquainted with me, there was support coming in from places I never thought I would get support.” He said that the pharmaceutical industry has been a very big supporter although on various occasions he voted against its interest.

Why? He responded: “Whether I support them on that one issue or not, they know we can work together on figuring things out on a myriad of other issues. Yes, I will vote for the transparency bill that allows the public to know three months in advance when they want to raise their prices, but at the same time I will speak out against health insurance companies that are superfluously contributing to costlier access to medication, [costs] that the pharmaceuticals themselves did not contribute to.”

Ultimately, Nazarian concluded, “I could either vote up and down with labor or with business, or I could vote for my constituents. When I vote with my constituents, sometimes I am going to vote against labor and sometimes I am going to vote against business. At the end of the day, you end up not belonging necessarily to any one group, but you are being a representative of your constituents.”

Outside money, however, continues to play a big role in American politics. Nazarian said, “Until we have real political campaign contribution reform and make it into public money, so that we are not creating an environment where campaign contributions create a cloud of influence, … then we are going to continue having these issues and not really trust the system that is contributing to long-term policymaking.”

Black Lives Matter

Nazarian said that he viewed the Armenian Genocide not just as an Armenian issue, but as an issue for humanity. The same thing is true for ongoing oppression of blacks in the US. He said, “Martin Luther King [Jr.] said that you have to protect the weakest link, because an injustice in one place is an injustice in every place. Of course we are going to have the issues which we are having now, because we don’t resolve what has happened in the past. This is one of the motivating factors for why I even got involved in politics.”

He continued, “We had the Civil War. We had the civil rights movement 100 years later, but there still has not been resolution, and from that resolution, programs or investments that help create parity between communities to a place where you don’t even have to think about the programs anymore. Every time an upheaval would break out, we would then come up with temporary solutions that would become these benefits to a very small segment of the community rather than an overall benefit and progress for the entire community, so you have disparities within the black community as well.”

Although Nazarian serves a very diverse electoral community, where whites are around 20-23 percent of the population and Latinos 45 percent, blacks are fairly few, less than 5 percent, according to Nazarian. Nonetheless, his perspective led him as an Armenian to become allied with the black, Latino and Jewish communities. He said, “I always worked in the margins and I tried to find friends in communities where the common denominator was the same, where they felt disenfranchised, where they felt that they were passed up, where they felt they had their own challenges.” He added, “That is also when I realized the importance of relationships and being able to reach into different communities, establishing that trust so that when they ask me for something I also can help them with those issues.”

He went on to say that he hoped this movement will have staying power, because it is getting a lot of young voters engaged, and that they will begin to work to improve things within the existing political system, though entrenched interests will fiercely fight to keep things the way they are.

Nazarian on the one hand pointed out that the fact that Los Angeles city had a large police capacity allowed it to stop outbreaks of violence and plundering during the protests, unlike places like Santa Monica and West Hollywood. However, he questioned the need for use of rubber bullets and tear gas, saying, “We are doing things that even the UN convention does not allow or advocates against.”

Nazarian supported some of the contemporary demands for police defunding, declaring, “I think there are a lot of misnomers and lack of communication on the issue. If you were to really explain what it means, there are a lot of aspects of it that make sense. I think it needs to be implemented over time.” He noted that in Los Angeles police forces had been continually bulked up into paramilitary units. Furthermore, he said that since he has been in office, the legislature has rolled back a lot of the sentencing enhancements that had been passed in the 1980s and 1990s.

He said, “You look at the investments California has made in the last 20 years. We have built 20 prisons. We only built one UC campus. Which is a better investment? Providing more opportunity for investment and research and potential economic flourishing because you are producing kids who are going off and doing research and analytics? Or do you want to put people in prison and pay upwards of $80,000 a year to house them without rehabilitating them? To me, these things are not even a conservative or liberal issue. It is a matter of what you want your society to look like.”

He also said he has worked on bills on gang database related issues (e.g. AB829 in 2015-16) which would allow a better means to contest wrongful designations as well as not to treat less serious violations in the same manner as graver crimes.

While he supported much of the current movement for change, he also said that when violence accompanied the protests, “I am extremely sympathetic to the businesses that lost their life’s investment. What hurts me most about this is that usually it is the common denominator people who usually end up suffering the most.”

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