State Sen. Anthony Portantino

Portantino: ‘I Am Proud of my Friendship with the Armenian Community. That’s Part of Who I Am.’

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GLENDALE — When I moved to California years ago, it was in time for the elections for different political offices. While Armenian community members were doubting whether this or that fellow member will represent the community’s interests the best, one non-Armenian name was getting top marks on the ballot: Anthony Portantino.

In the case of Anthony Portantino, that devotion was anything but usual. I even thought that he might have Armenian ancestors (you know, that’s how it ends in most cases with us). But it turned out that Senator Portantino, whose ancestors are from Italy, learned about Armenians when he was a child growing up in New Jersey. His mother was somehow knew about the Near East Relief and the Armenian Genocide and she passed on all her knowledge to Anthony about this as well as about New Jersey native son President Woodrow Wilson.

Portantino carried all these memories with him when he moved to California in 1999 and was elected to the La Canada City Council. After that, one thing led to another. He was invited to a Genocide commemoration event at the Sisters’ Academy, a private Armenian school in Glendale. Some of the Armenian community members at the event were from New Jersey. “That’s how I started to get involved in the community. One relationship led to another. Arda, who works for me now, I met her father at that meeting. It’s been a wonderful relationship. People say welcome, you say welcome back!” Portantino said.

Pictures at Portantino’s office from his trips to Armenia

Portantino represents California’s 25th State Senate District, starting in 2016 after winning the race against Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich. Public education, mental health and gun control are the priorities that his office has been focusing on for years.

Along with hosting the Armenian Select Committee in his district, Portantino supported the Armenian community through various legislations, securing funds and assistance, condemning violence and spreading the awareness about the Armenian Genocide. On June 1 Senator Portantino signed a memorandum of Understanding with the Governor’s office and Impact Hub Armenian Social Innovation Development Foundation to establish a Trade and Services Desk in Armenia.

“Coming out of what happened in Armenia (the senator is adamant to use the Armenian name Hayastan) for the last four years both politically and also with the war, it’s important that California and Armenia have a good partnership. There is a mutual benefit: we share democracy, we have nearly a million of citizens of Armenian heritage in California, so many of our business leaders have businesses there and here.” The senator calls it symbolic and a complementary relationship.

A cap from Pope Francis’ visit to Armenia

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Portantino was one of many who embraced the new government in Armenia in 2018. He commented earlier about “excitement” and “optimism” in Armenia under the leadership of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, in a context formalizing a “positive economic relationship.” When asked about his comment and whether he still thinks the same way considering the latest developments, Portantino answered diplomatically.

Senator Portantino at the annual harvest festival in Stepanakert (courtesy Senator Portantino’s office)

“War is the worst thing that can happen to a people. I don’t think anybody hasn’t been deeply affected by that. But as you and I walked around GiniFest [Portantino was referring to the Armenian Wine and Spirits Festival on July 25] to see the entrepreneurs, the Armenian businesses both-based in Armenia and here in California, I think on that economic vitality there is a sense that everyone has to help the Armenian economy. I think there is continued to be that endearment.”

Portantino has been invited to and visited Armenia and Artsakh three times. “I’ve loved it, from the food to the people! It breaks my heart what happened in Artsakh,” he said.

The senator at Haghartsin Monastery in Dilijan (courtesy Sen. Portantino’s office)

He remembers when the last time he was in Shushi with the Glendale City Councilmember Ardy Kassakhian and the High Commissioner of Diaspora Affairs of Armenia Zareh Sinanyan, they “crashed” a wedding at the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, met with the bride and groom and took pictures with them. “And to think that that cathedral is now desecrated – it breaks my heart,” Portantino added with noticeable sadness.

The senator in the Impact Hub with Zareh Sinanyan, and Sara Anjargolian, Former Chief of Staff at Diaspora High Commissioner’s office (courtesy Sen. Portantino’s office)

In the 25th District senate office, five employees are Armenian. “Beyroutsy, Hayastanci and Bolsahay,” Portantino said, proudly using the Armenian he learned at the Glendale Community College by taking special classes for non-Armenians.  How did it happen? “I hire talented people,” he said.

Photos from the Genocide Monument in Armenia

On a more technical note, he underlined the importance of having Western and Eastern Armenian speakers in the office. “That’s the single biggest piece of the puzzle, to make sure that we speak both dialects while working with Armenia, Artsakh and the diaspora,” added the senator.

Friendship with Armenians certainly couldn’t avoid one of the most important components: food!

“I eat all the food from hummus to Khinkali!” exclaimed Portantino. “Friday night, I am going to eat at Raffi’s. I’ve done take-outs from Khinkaly [House], and I love the lentil soup at Carousel,” he said.

He added he thought it was important that he is willing to learn everything about the Armenian community. And the community never ceases to teach him back.

“Let me show you something,” he said, inviting me during the interview to approach the special shelves in the office where everything is about Armenians: on the top shelf is a photo of the Genocide monument in Yerevan, in front of it there is the symbolic art work of Mount Ararat. He then shows the sign of the Pasadena Armenian Genocide Memorial and a white cap with a picture of Pope Francis from his visit to Armenia in 2016.

“I was there, you know,” he said, and moved to the other room where the collection of photos shows his travel to Armenia and Artsakh, and his participation in Armenian events.

We then speak about the renaming of Maryland Street in Glendale to Artsakh Street, which triggered many non-Armenian Glendalians to express their anger through social media, newspapers and any other outlets they could find. Almost the same mood prevailed after the groundbreaking ceremony of the Armenian American Museum in downtown Glendale.

Portantino said he found the roots of this kind of predisposition to run deep. “For the last four years we had a leader in the White House who was very polarizing, who legitimized hate speech and demonized people. The impact that the Trump administration has had on the rhetoric has been poisonous. The demonization of the immigrants started in the White House,” he noted.

Portantino is confident that the remedy to confront the “top down anger” is to be a “good neighbor.” “I am proud of my friendship with the Armenian community,” the senator adds, stressing, “That’s part of who I am.”

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