Dr. Jirair Ratevosian atop Mt. Ararat

Ratevosian Enters Crowded Race to Succeed Adam Schiff in Congress

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WATERTOWN — Congressman Adam Schiff has decided not to run for reelection in California’s 30th Congressional district in 2024 but to instead try for the Senate. This leaves this position in the House of Representatives open for the first time since 2000, and suddenly, very early in this race, there are some 16 candidates vying for it. While several of the current candidates are familiar to Armenian voters, such as California State Sen. Anthony Portantino, there are only two Armenian Americans formally in the race so far – Dr. Jirair Ratevosian and Dr. Alex Arto Balekian, M.D., and this is an evolving race the Mirror-Spectator will continue to cover.

Dr. Jirair Ratevosian

Balekian has no party affiliation in this district which currently solidly votes Democratic, while the 42-year-old Ratevosian is a Democrat, which may give him an edge.

Ratevosian exclaimed, “This district has the largest number of Armenian Americans in the entire country.” Indeed, the district includes areas with dense Armenian populations like Glendale, Burbank and parts of Pasadena. In 2021, according to the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, 731,165 people lived there, while according to some estimates, 13 percent of registered voters were Armenian. While he did not know Balekian personally, Ratevosian said, “If there is another Armenian in the race, I welcome it. There should be five Armenians.”

There are many Armenians focused on local politics and local seats, Ratevosian noted. However, he said, “We have to do it at all levels. Those who are at the local levels are championing local issues. Where is our voice in Congress? We don’t have one now. That is why I decided to enter the race when I saw there was an opening for that.” He added, “When an Armenian American is in the room, that is how you make real change on Armenian issues. That is irreplaceable.”

A second group that Ratevosian would like to represent and from which he is presumably hoping for support is the LGBTQ+ community. He said, “One motivation for running that I have been talking about is that we need a Congress that looks like us. We need a Congress that really represents the people, first as a gay American and as an Armenian American… We are grateful for the support that we get from allies but I have seen the power of how, when an LGBTQ person is in the room, you make an impact on LGBTQ issues.”

Like Armenian candidates, there are also several other candidates from the LGBTQ+ community, including West Hollywood mayor Sepi Shyne (an Iranian American), and drag queen Maebe A. Girl (G. Maebe Pudlo).

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Ratevosian mused, “The thing is, I knew all of that ahead of time. I think we maybe should even expect, since this primary is not until March, that there could be more people who enter. There could be people that drop out too, right? I knew that it would be a crowded and difficult primary before I decided to leave my State Department job. But this is the beauty of democracy.”

Perhaps a third realm of support would be that of various health organizations. Ratevosian just earned a doctoral degree in public health from John Hopkins University this May right before launching his campaign. He said, “I worked my entire life with physicians organizations and nursing organizations. I have worked in hospitals and so I very much want to be a champion for healthcare issues.”

Federal Government and Political Experience

Ratevosian felt something else in his background made him stand out from his rivals: “I will tell you one thing and this is what I told my family last night. There is nobody in this race that has more Federal government experience than I do. I’ve worked with Republicans. I’ve worked with Democrats. I have created bipartisan caucuses on the Hill. When I worked with [Congresswoman] Barbara Lee, we worked with Republicans on foreign policy issues. We worked with George Bush on HIV issues. I am the one with the most Federal government experience. There is also nobody in the race who has also represented the United States government on behalf of the State Department for diplomacy. I have done that all across Africa when I was working at the State Department.”

Ratevosian served as a legislative director for Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) from 2011 to 2014, dealing with budget, appropriations, foreign policy, and health issues. He recalled, “When I was with Congresswoman Barbara Lee, we worked on appropriation amendments for increased funding for Armenia. I firsthand saw her in action and we had a hand in helping Armenia.”

Dr. Jirair Ratevosian, Senior Advisor for the Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator and Health Diplomacy at the US Department of State, Harry S. Truman building, Washington D.C.

He had already got involved in lobbying and politics prior to that both on HIV-related issues and Armenian affairs as an activist and community organizer. He served on the Planning Council of the Boston Public Health Commission concerning Ryan White HIV Funding from 2007-2008, and then became the national field organizer for the Health Action Aids Campaign, for Physicians for Human Rights (2008-2009). He was chair of the Policy and Advocacy Committee of the American Public Health Association (2008-2011), and deputy director, public policy, for the Foundation for Aids Research, known as amFAR (2009-2011). In the genocide field, he was a community organizer for the Massachusetts Coalition to Save Darfur (2006-2009).

President Joe Biden (prior to his election) and the Ratevosian family

At the end of a stint working in the private sector for a biopharmaceutical company, Gilead Sciences, from 2014-2021, as executive director of global patient solutions, Ratevosian joined the Biden-Harris Transition team as a volunteer in the National Security Foreign Policy Team (2020-21), advising on global health and HIV issues. He was tapped to then work in the US State Department. He first served as senior advisor at the office of the US Global AIDS Coordinator and Health Diplomacy, becoming its acting chief of staff in 2021, and finally serving as senior advisor for health equity policy. It was this job he quit in order to begin campaigning fulltime for Congress.

Armenian Background

Ratevosian points to his paternal grandfather, whose namesake he is, as the source of his inspiration, and includes him in his campaign video. “Before I started my campaign I went to his shoe repair store, which is still there, and memories were coming back of me sitting with him where he was teaching me how to engage with humans, how to be respectful and kind to people who walk into your door, and how to be a citizen in this world. That level of humility, that level of respect, that level of treating everyone equally are the things that have inspired me to run.”

Ratevosian has both Western and Eastern Armenian ancestors, the latter coming to the US from Lebanon. His father’s parents were exiled to Siberia because they were very anti-Communist. His father was born in Siberia in exile, and was given the name Azat, which means free in Armenian, Ratevosian said, because, according to his grandmother, the family was saying to God, let us be freed from here. His paternal grandfather thus was very involved in Armenian politics. Ratevosian said, “My grandfather was the most Tashnag person on the planet, I could say.”

Nonetheless, Ratevosian himself is not involved in any Armenian political party or organization, declaring, “I’ve had no allegiances necessarily but I have worked with all of them.” He said he worked with the Armenian Assembly of America, when he was in graduate school in Boston to obtain his master’s degree in public health (2005-2007), and the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) in Washington, as well as the Armenian Revolutionary Federation.

Ratevosian, who was born in Hollywood and grew up in Sun Valley, graduated three Armenian schools in the Los Angeles region, Rose and Alex Pilibos Armenian School, the Mekhitarist Fathers’ School, and Holy Martyrs Ferrahian High School. He speaks Armenian fluently, and, in fact, peppered his answers in this interview with Armenian phrases.

When working on the Hill in Washington, Ratevosian said he worked with both the Assembly and ANCA to help young Armenians to get jobs in government. He said, “I have always believed, just because of my own experience, that Armenians need to come out of their bubble, come out of California, or LA, or wherever they might be, and come to Washington, where the power is, and help contribute to building that power. So I have always been passionate about creating those pathways, and supporting those pathways to jobs in Washington.”

Jirair Ratevosian participates in an annual AIDS Lifecycle event

He has traveled many times to Armenia. In 2019, right before the Karabakh war, he had the unique experience to climb Mount Ararat with fellow Armenians. He trained for a year to do this. He said, “I went all the way to the top and put an Armenian flag on top of Mt. Ararat.” He added, “I had never felt so connected to the homeland. I brought my dede’s [grandfather’s] picture to the top of Ararat. It just changes your whole world view, in terms of when you look 360 [degrees] and see what it was so many years ago, the Armenian empire. It really transformed my connection to the homeland.”

Improving Armenian Health

He proudly proclaimed: “I have a long track record on working for Armenia no matter what my job has been. Even when I was in the pharmaceutical company, I worked to create the first ever Hepatitis C elimination project between Gilead and the Ministry of Health in Armenia. So I have always looked out for ways to support the homeland and to support Armenians.” He went there in 2018 for this project, and went several times.

Jirair Ratevosian, first in the right foreground, as part of the Gilead Sciences delegation meeting with the Armenian Ministry of Health in October 2018

Hepatitis C is a major challenge for Armenia because, according to Ratevosian, injecting drug use is high, as is alcoholism, and people can live with this disease for a long time without showing symptoms. The Gilead company had developed a cure, and Ratevosian’s job was to ensure that people all across the world, not just those in the West, had access to this cure at affordable or zero cost per patient. He said, “What we were able to create, with a few hepatologists who are champions in Armenia, was an awareness campaign so that Armenians can get tested and be educated about cures.”

Later, during the Covid pandemic, Ratevosian secured priority meetings between Gilead and Armenian government officials, and worked behind the scenes to facilitate Gilead’s donation of 3,000 vials of Veklury (remdesivir), an antiviral medication for Covid, to Armenia in the fall of 2021.

Ratevosian said he worked to get financial support for several organizations in Armenia working to fight homophobia and transphobia as well as to provide treatment and prevention medication for people living with HIV or at risk of infection even before his work on Hepatitis C. This was first through amFAR and then Gilead. Gilead provides a treatment, as well as a medicine for prevention called PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis).

Genocide and Artsakh

While working in the Biden-Harris transition team, Ratevosian worked on promoting President Biden’s Armenian Genocide recognition, he said. When he started working in the State Department his focus was on the health side, so he was not directly involved in Armenian issues any longer.

Regarding what is going on in Karabakh, he said, “In my view, what is happening now is very concerning…It is an existential crisis. The future of the homeland and Armenia’s role in the region are really at stake.” He said, “This is why all Armenians, the diaspora in particular, should be paying attention to this election, because we need an Armenian voice to be leading the charge in Congress.”
He declared that while everyone wants peace, the question is at what cost. He said, “I am not going to stand for a so-called peace agreement that gives a license to the Aliyev regime to continue its goal of ethnic cleansing of Armenians in Artsakh. I don’t believe peace can be achieved by giving up the rights of Armenians in Artsakh to their own self-determination.”

As far as what the US could do about this, he replied, “America is the indispensable nation in the world, and if we can change the calculations to ensure that Armenian issues are a key part of our foreign policy agenda in America, then that will hopefully bring big change to the region and to the way America supports Armenia. I think that can be achieved, but I think part of that is building power in Washington, building representation.”

He emphasized, “Being hayrenaser [patriotic] is not enough. I say this all the time. You can come protest here in Los Angeles, where I am now, or on Facebook, but we need to take action into our own hands. We need to get jobs in government. We need to get jobs on the Hill. We need to elect Armenian Americans to Congress. That is how we build power.”

When asked how realistic was it to hope that the US can defend Artsakh and Armenia from annihilation, and what did he think the US could actually do, he responded, “There are so many ways that the United States can lead. We have seen how America has led in the past on other crimes against humanity, right? This should be considered as one. We have to hold the Azerbaijan government accountable. This is a regime that does not stand for peace. This is a regime that needs to be held accountable by the international community.  So the United States should lead a charge at the UN, at the Security Council to bring that kind of accountability.”

Secondly, he said that the US should review military assistance to Azerbaijan. Finally, he said that any peace agreement needs to be mediated, monitored and reviewed by the international community. He added, “If the United States wasn’t leading part of the international community’s review and monitoring, then I think there could be risks that there could be backsliding or threats to whatever peace agreement that could be signed.”

Ideology

Politically, Ratevosian said, “I am a proud progressive…I have a track record of fighting for people who are disenfranchised and who are marginalized – some of the poorest people around the world and in our own communities. I will be informed by my own personal lived experience as I approach issues… I myself as a gay man have been discriminated against and have been pushed out of the system…Being a champion for progressive issues, I am a feminist, in addition to being a progressive.”

He said that while he worked for the most progressive member of Congress, both Congresswoman Lee and himself had also been pragmatic in the way they approached issues, in order to be able to solve problems, but Congress now is not working for the people.

He said, “I have seen how Congress can work better for people and I want to be part of the change to make it work better for people in the district, in the California 30th. Being a progressive doesn’t mean you can’t get stuff done.”

He said that as a progressive, “It is also about taking care of people, and ensuring that people have more than a minimum wage to be able to support their families. It is about ensuring that mothers don’t have to have two jobs to be able to pay their bills, or if you go to school to be a nurse or a physician, you are not in debt to a loan company for the rest of your life. … There is something wrong with the system and we need to encourage people to have educational opportunities without having to sacrifice supporting families.”

He observed that there are many healthcare challenges facing communities, including access and the pricing of prescription jobs, while healthcare workers face their own difficulties. Aside from such healthcare issues and homelessness, another issue he wants to tackle is crime. He said that it is high in California’s 30th District, and many business owners he spoke with told him that their businesses had been vandalized over the past few years.

In sum, he said, “I would say that I am one of the more progressive candidates in the race and I would hope to be the most progressive.” Compared to others, he said, “What I will do differently in terms of my strategy is that I will talk to all communities. … So my approach to issues and to communities is to always build trust and to listen. I have the humility to be able to sit down, listen to communities, and understand what their challenges are. I will do that for Armenian Americans, I will do that for Philipino Americans, I will do that for African Americans, for all different communities in the district, because this district, like all of LA, is so beautifully diverse. I want to be that champion for all communities, and that is something different I think that I bring to the table because of my experience.”

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