Adrin Nazarian

California Assembly Member Adrin Nazarian Shares Vision of Armenians in a New California, Aims for LA City Council

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TOLUCA LAKE, Calif. — Adrin Nazarian has served continuously as a representative in the California State Assembly for the 46th district in the central San Fernando Valley from 2012, and he could have served for one more two-year term before reaching the lifetime maximum allowed by law in this legislature. He is the only Armenian-American elected to serve on the state level in California at present. However, he declined this year to run for reelection. Nazarian explained why and discussed various issues important to him, as well as to Armenians, over the last several years.

Quo Vadis?

In December 2021, an independent Californian electoral commission drew new borders for electoral districts as part of the decennial effort to make sure all districts have the same number of people. California lawmakers are required to live in the districts they represent, and after the redistricting, Nazarian and two other incumbents, Laura Friedman and Luz Rivas, found themselves, all Democrats, located in the same newly redrawn 44th Assembly district, which includes the areas of Sunland-Tujunga, La Crescenta, Burbank and the northern part of Glendale. Rivas chose to move to the newly redrawn 43rd district and run for that seat, leaving the other two as contenders for the 44th district.

On February 28, 2022, Nazarian bowed out of the race, noting that although he seemed to have a “clear road to victory,” it would come at the expense of “extreme divisiveness that would have torn our communities apart at a time when we need unity and healing rather than division.” Instead, he announced that he would run in the March 2024 election for Los Angeles City Council District 2, now represented by Paul Krekorian, as the latter will by then have reached the legal limit of three terms in office.

Nazarian explained that this new position was a good fit for him at this time in his family life with children, unlike other offices which would require much more travel. Furthermore, unlike other large American cities, in Los Angeles, there are only 15 council members and one mayor, so that the legislative and executive powers become somewhat equal. He said, “The accountability becomes all the more of an opportunity for each council member to accomplish a lot in his or her district. Plus, it is a fulltime position with fulltime professional staff, which allows you to walk in with a certain vision of how you want to see an area improve or change and be able to implement that in a certain period of time.”

In the state legislature, he said that you dealt with many different issue areas but in the council, you deal with very localized matters like land use, zoning, and constituent services. Therefore, he said, “The issues are much more contained and you have greater time and opportunity to focus on them. This allows you to make a meaningful impact.”

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Nazarian said that he made his decision “with mixed emotions,” and had several major considerations. Given that he would run in 2024 for a new position, he would be working on two races back-to-back due to the closeness of the timing, which would be possible but difficult. However, he said, “the question will constantly come up: why even run for this when you are going to be running for City Council.” Winning a tough Assembly race would not necessarily help in the Council contest.

Consequently, he said, “Instead of staying in the [Assembly] race, and causing too much dissension, I thought, let me take some time off and focus on the City Council race.” While in the legislature, Nazarian was traveling eight months out of the year, and missing out on family life. With two children still at home, he said, “My kids are young so I can enjoy this time with them, as well as make sure that my last year in the state legislature is effective.”

After his term in the Assembly finishes at the end of this year, he said his preference would be to continue somehow in the realm of public service over the following year to year-and-a-half. He declared, “I am not crazy about going from the public sector into the private sector and then back into the public sector. It is a revolving door. I think that it not only sends the wrong connotations, but if you want to do anything meaningfully, you need to be in a place for a substantial period of time.” Teaching or a government-related appointed position are possibilities, he stated.

Redistricting’s Effect on Armenian Political Influence

The redistricting split, among other things, the city of Glendale, a hub of Armenian population, along the 134 freeway, between two electoral districts. Nazarian estimates that around 46,000 registered Armenian voters will be situated in the newly created 44th district. The southern part of Glendale has over 10,000 Armenian voters. The Armenian National Committee of America’s Western District office argued in a December 2021 press release that this split along with other electoral districting changes will “undermine the cohesion of the local community and dilute the voice” of this community, placing at risk various services and support.

Newly redrawn California State Assembly map shows the new boundaries of District 44

Nazarian pointed out that Armenians are not a federally protected community, and though it is also not necessarily a protected community on the state level either in California, “what it can benefit from is advocacy. If there are enough people making enough noise, advocating, then this could help foster [electoral] lines to be drawn in a certain way.”

Meanwhile, he pointed out, Armenian voting influence remains substantial in both of the districts containing parts of Glendale and an Armenian candidate can be successful in the future even in this circumstance. However, he said, “I think it is going to be critical for Armenian community organizations that they reannex the southern Glendale portion to this district in the future to make sure that there is a cohesive community with an Armenian constituency that is connected.”

He opined that Armenian candidates should not remain insular and base themselves only on Armenian numbers. When he first ran for his district in the Valley, he won it with less than two percent Armenian voter registration numbers. Nazarian said it is possible for Armenians to be successful if they have put in the work, become known as activists on specific issues, have been involved in local community organizations and local political party bodies, and served on local boards: “When you do all of these things over time, you can be a candidate in your own right and you just happen to now benefit also from the various bases of constituencies that you have.”

He also noted a benefit of not having all Armenians concentrated in one place. He said, “It is good to have pockets of Armenian communities scattered in different places too, because it is important for the Armenian community to have a strong dialogue with various different representatives [of varierd backgrounds], and bring the issues important to the community, and also what it has learned from its past [historical] experiences and its past traumas to the attention of its elected officials.”

More specifically, as far as the newly created 44th district goes, incumbent Laura Friedman has three more terms she can run for Assembly, and usually incumbents have a decided advantage in such races. After this, the district seat will open up again and present an opportunity for an Armenian, Nazarian remarked.

Legislation

Nazarian is known for his legislative efforts concerning issues of equity, infrastructure and the elder community. Over his ten years in office, Nazarian estimates that he has offered somewhere between 50 and 60 bills that have been signed into law, and probably authored around 200 bills in all. Of the latter figure, some were duplicates that he reintroduced one or more times if they did not pass initially.

He also noted, “Sometimes what ends up happening is a bill might not pass because of certain types of opposition or the timing is not right, but then you are able to succeed in the budget. For example, my children’s savings program – the CalKids program, where every child born in California is going to have a savings plan to their name for college or some kind of educational enhancement program, was a bill that I wrote in 2018 that became part of the budget. It wasn’t until last year that Governor Newsom put $2 billion into it onetime to fully finance it on an ongoing basis, with 180 million dollars annually.” The legislation for this program stalled in an Appropriations Committee because the price tag was too high, Nazarian said, but the language of it was placed into the state budget code, which itself is a bill that gets passed. In other words, there are many ways in which legislation can move forward.

Furthermore, it seems that many ideas for legislation are recycled over the years. Nazarian said, “I had to burst the bubble of the legislators and my colleagues, but of the 2,000 bills we introduce annually, 95 percent have been attempted in the past. Some of them are really horrible ideas that keep being defeated, while some are really good ideas that keep being defeated as current entrenched lobbying efforts don’t allow them to prevail. However, when you start a certain conversation it is hard for it not to be revisited.”

He gave the example of his work on seismic resiliency. He said, “Some of the bills have not been successful because it is not a sexy topic right now, but I know that when there is a major seismic event, there is going to be at least six or seven of my colleagues or future colleagues quickly dusting off those bills and trying to pass them as quickly as possible so that we appropriately react to the event in the future. What is unfortunate is that we always react instead of taking steps early enough to address some of these issues.”

Artsakh

Like many other Armenians, Nazarian was profoundly affected by the 2020 Artsakh war. He said, “It was 44 days of devastation and seeing almost no coverage of the disastrous human, environmental and historical impacts. Not only were people being maimed and butchered, killed in the most ugly ways, with video footage of heads being cut of, of elderly civilians – and I say this very graphically and specifically, because it is very tormenting to anyone who knows how our politics and media work. It was very crippling to watch this unfold in front of us when there was a great deal of evidence. What really bothered me was the cry for help from the Armenian community and the blank stares from the rest of the world.”

On October 5, 2020 he and a number of his fellow California legislators held a press conference condemning the Azerbaijani attack. He said he was grateful that many colleagues, including Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon participated. However, with hindsight, he said, “As much as I appreciate what my colleagues did, what we learned from that experience, and what we are learning now, and what validates what we learned two years ago, is that the press has a big role and the levers of media attention are invaluable.” At the same time, he continued, “Unfortunately, politics is an arena where there is just so much you can pay attention to, and then you have to move on to the next issue because your constituents demand it. Whereas Paul Krekorian and I were focused on this, I cannot blame many of my colleagues for wanting to shift their focus to something else.”

As many others have observed, Nazarian stressed that even before a single bullet was fired in Ukraine, there were several weeks of news articles propelling the issues in that conflict. “It just calls into question,” he said, “why is it that what happened to Armenia did not get that attention. Why, when Artsakh was being devastated? If you are not going to value human life, what about the phosphorus burning the natural forests? There are so many angles of what happened there that are so vile and wrong, and for it not to have received anywhere near adequate coverage is devastating, personally, but also, it is a significant setback for humanity.”

At present, he said, “There is no mechanism of accountability of the press really, except for economic impact. We have learned some valuable lessons. Now it is up to us to figure out how we put those to use.”

Cultural Heritage

Nazarian tried to legislatively deal with the impact of the Artsakh war and Azerbaijan’s attempt, he said, “to cleanse a land not only of its people but of any cultural heritage artifacts that put into the ground and into the soil the existence, the tenured existence, of a group of people.” He discussed it first with attorneys in Armenia and his political consultant, “pondering,” he said, “what meaning step can we take in California that will also have a resonating impact in other states and other countries, of how to hold to account countries like Azerbaijan.”

He explained to political colleagues that during any trip across Armenia you could randomly encounter cross-stones, hundreds of years old, and sometimes older than a millennium, and “that is the beauty of places like Armenia and Artsakh, where you see the immediate intertwinedness of the residents and the history and culture of that land.”

He ended up introducing a cultural heritage preservation bill (Assembly Bill 1815), which asks public museums in California not to exhibit anything that is state-sponsored by countries that have desecrated or decimated other cultures’ historical or heritage-related artifacts. In order not to burden the state to create an agency or department to figure out who is doing what, Nazarian said that the bill specifically prescribes that if a country is found guilty in the International Court of Justice, this conviction can be used to establish the guideline of not working with that country. However, he said, in order to not restrict freedom of art or expression, and dissidents in such a country, it is specific to state-sponsored exhibitions, though the museum is also able to insure that such states are not attempting to use third parties to avoid this ban.

A second component of the bill, Nazarian explained, is to ask and encourage the various state universities of California to be very careful in their exchanges with such countries. He added, “It starts with permissive language so it sets a certain thinking and tone and could be treated as guidance, once it is in statute. Then future generations of political leaders can take the next steps in moving this forward.”

Part of the background to Nazarian’s thinking, he said, is the attempt by the Republic of Turkey around a quarter-century ago to buy an endowed history chair at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). While this was defeated, Turkey today is much more powerful and influential. Nazarian said, “It is critical that we are taking steps to make sure that these sorts of things do not happen, and not just at UCLA but at any institution.”

The bill is in the committee level of consideration at the Assembly at present. An earlier version from 2021 (Bill 1544) did not pass but Nazarian was hopeful for this bill.

Armenian Genocide Commemoration through State Holiday, Monument

The Armenian Genocide is commemorated in many parts of the United States, even by official government bodies, but it is not an official public holiday anywhere. Nazarian introduced Assembly Bill 1801 this year to make April 24 “Armenian Genocide Awareness Day,” a state holiday on which public schools, banks and state government offices would be closed. He said that California “has attracted so many different communities of survivors of mass trauma, whether it is Jewish, Ukrainian, Armenian, Cambodian or Rwandan, that almost any community that over the last 100 years has been impacted by some form of genocide or mass murder attempt has significant numbers in California – sometimes to the point of being the second largest community outside of its respective country of origin.”

The bill had unanimously passed on May 19, with no votes against it, and is in California Senate now. If it becomes a law, Nazarian said it will carry a big price tag. If all state employees get a day off, that alone will cost hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

Nazarian had in 2016 gotten another Assembly bill, number 2790, passed into law that gave the capitol park committee that oversees the park area around the state capitol of Sacramento five years to come up with a master plan to determine where they see fit to build a genocide memorial monument in this park. The bill specifically noted, Nazarian explained, that after five years, if the park’s overall master plan has still not been adopted, and the Joint Rules Committee of the state legislature supports the memorial concept, the Department of General Services will initiate this action.

After five years came and went, as of January 2021, Nazarian decided to follow up with a request for several million dollars from the California state budget in order to move forward with identifying a specific location and developing that monument. Nazarian said, “Now we are working with the Department of General Services with the support of the Joint Rules Committee chair.”

If the funding request does not get accepted, Nazarian said, “I would have to then go to the community and say that we have to do this on a public-private basis and raise money.” The cost of this may seem reasonable at less than a quarter of a million dollars, he added, but you would be amazed at how the price could easily rack up to a few million dollars very quickly.

The bill initially had the Armenian Genocide as a major component, while listing several other genocides, but, Nazarian said, “We took a lot of the specifics out and made it about genocide awareness in general.” At some point, he said, he would be very open to placing back some of the specific communities impacted.

Armenians Among Underrepresented Communities?

Assembly Bill 979, enacted as law in 2020, requires publicly held domestic or foreign corporations whose principal executive office is in California to have a certain minimum numbers of directors from “underrepresented communities” in order to increase diversity on their boards. Nazarian attempted this year through bill 1840 to add Armenians, along with Assyrians, Greeks, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and individuals with disabilities, to the list of underrepresented groups which the initial bill listed as Black, African American, Hispanic, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American, Native Hawaiian, Alaska Native, or gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.

This bill is at the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee. However, Nazarian observed, “That bill is going to have a very tough time because the initial legislation that it is hinged upon, AB 979, was struck down by a California Superior Court. This is going to most likely be appealed if it has not already been appealed. However, given the tenuousness of the situation, I don’t know if this bill [1840] is going to be able to move forward. What I am trying to do is to see if we can at least have it continue to be part of the conversation.”

Bringing TUMO to LA, Supporting Armenian Culture

In 2021, Nazarian helped secure state funding for three Armenian arts and educational institutions: $1 million each to the oral history program of the University of Southern California (USC) Institute of Armenian Studies and to the Lark Musical Society, and $9 million to establish a TUMO Center for Creative Technologies in the southeast San Fernando Valley in partnership with the City of Los Angeles and the USC Institute of Armenian Studies.

Nazarian explained: “For me, TUMO represented two things. Not only is it an Armenian innovation which contributes to everybody else, regardless of where you are from, but in a place like Los Angeles, it allows a lot of youth from different backgrounds to socioeconomically succeed together. What is better than to have thirteen-year-olds from the Armenian and Latino communities coming together and learning for their future benefit and empowerment later on?”

He first encountered TUMO in 2013 when he took the first California delegation trip to Armenia with his colleagues. He said, “It blew me away, and I wondered why we don’t have a place like that in California when we are the innovators of the world when it comes to technology.” Later, he spoke with one of his friends, benefactor and community activist Charles Ghailian, who also is chairman of the Leadership Council of the USC Institute of Armenian Studies. Out of their conversation, said Nazarian, was born the idea of doing something in Los Angeles with TUMO. The TUMO Foundation itself had already been established as a nonprofit in Texas by Sam and Sylva Simonian.

California Armenians

Nazarian saw two key issues for the California Armenian community, “to see our future generations thrive as well as through rising here to raise the standard of the community not only here but also abroad.” He said that despite some problems such as rising costs for middle class families, “California is an amazing and evolving space.”

Armenian Americans, and Armenians in California in particular, are no longer the poverty-stricken community struggling to survive of a century ago. Nazarian said, “I think in California in particular we have such a wonderful opportunity, given the talent we have in various arenas – in the arts, medicine, sciences, agriculture and even in politics to a lesser extent – to try to take advantage of this and make sure that Armenia looks at how it could benefit from the intelligence and experience that has been cultivated here over the course of a century.”

What remains is to establish better and more forums for connections. He said, “It is critical for the Armenian community in California to figure out exactly how it wants to play a role… Let us learn the rules of the international ‘games’ and make sure that we play them well.”

Although Nazarian is the only Armenian American in the state legislature, and he is leaving this body, he is optimistic that there is a new generation of Armenian Americans who will run for such offices soon. He said that he and Paul Krekorian have had many of them as interns over the past ten years and it is just a matter of time before some of them revisit the idea of serving in public office.

Meanwhile, California has become a very diverse place, where the Latino Central American and the Asian and Pacific Islander communities have been growing rapidly, respectively upwards of 50 percent and 22 percent. Nazarian pointed out: “I think it is going to be critical for the Armenian community, and for other smaller communities, to figure out how they are going to continue to be politically engaged and have a seat at the table of decision-making. I think it is going to be important for California overall to figure out as well, because it is that very diversity and the diverse voices that have helped enhance California and become what it has become.”

An important related point he made is that “No one person’s suffering should be seen as greater than the other’s. If we can relate to our African-American brothers and sisters and establish a common denominator, they will better respect our plight and they will want to learn more about our plight. If we do the same with our Latin and Central American brothers and sisters, and with Asian and Pacific Islanders, the more we establish common denominators of what trauma means for different communities, different tribes of people, this will allow others to better associate with you and understand where you come from. They will also remember to bring you up in their future conversations.”

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