John Harabedian with his wife Young-Gi and eldest son at Lake Sevan, Armenia (photo courtesy John Harabedian)

Harabedian Runs to Represent Armenians in the California State Assembly

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PASADENA, Calif. — There are a new generation of Armenian-Americans vying for office in California — and just in time, as this year there are no Armenians serving in the state legislature despite the large local population. John Christopher Harabedian is a promising member of this group, running for State Assembly District 41, which includes the cities of Pasadena, La Cañada Flintridge, La Verne and Sierra Madre. A Democrat, he appears to be a frontrunner at least in fundraising, with $827,000 in hand on December 31, of which $621,589 is cash.

John Harabedian at his desk (photo courtesy John Harabedian)

Entering Politics in Sierra Madre

He is a native of Sierra Madre, and it seems has always been thinking politically, even as a child. He ran for student council in 5th grade, and he recalls how his parents taught him a lesson in leadership. They asked why he wouldn’t want to be in a position where he could make decisions and changes, and if he wouldn’t do it, who would? This advice led him in 8th grade to become class president of St. Rita Catholic School and to run for student government in Loyola High School and Yale University as an undergraduate (where he studied political science).

Harabedian said: “If you believe that you, your community, your identity, whoever you think you are representing, needs representation, don’t expect anyone else to step up, because most people don’t want to do this.” He summed up his philosophy in one simple principle: “If you are not at the table, you are on the menu.”

He earned a master’s degree in comparative social policy from Oxford University in 2006, and a law degree from Stanford University in 2010. Only two years later, in 2012, he won election to the Sierre Madre City Council, and was reelected in 2016. While on the council, he served twice as mayor of his native town, which is basically a rotating position chosen from the five council members. He said, “I loved not only serving my neighbors and my constituents, and the whole town where I grew up, but also being able to solve problems, and think creatively about basic issues of public safety, infrastructure, clean energy.”

When he was elected, he said that there was a million-dollar deficit, so the council proceeded to adopt zero-based budgeting, meaning starting over at each budget cycle and examining every line item. Pension obligations were fully funded so that interest payments were reduced. The volunteer fire department was turned into one with full-time staff.

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Perhaps the lasting legacy that Harabedian is most proud of is establishing a social microgrid by building a solar panel field to electrify and run the city’s water department. Harabedian said, “All those things are hallmarks of good government that every city, every county, and the state should be doing, but in a small city like Sierre Madre, with only 11,000 people, we showed that you can do these big things too. You can do them if you just have some ingenuity and some stamina to push forward on them.”

The council was fairly diverse politically, with usually two Democrats, two Republicans and an independent during Harabedian’s 8 years there, yet they were able to agree on concrete projects. Harabediaan said, “At the local government level…partisanship doesn’t necessarily ever need to come into play when you talk about paving roads, funding pension obligations, and hiring police officers and firefighters. Clean energy, somehow, becomes a partisan issue, because of climate change and climate action plans, but for us, not only were we doing the right thing for the environment but fiscally, and for our budget, it saved us money.”

There was an informal two-term limit, so towards the end of his second term Harabedian announced his candidacy for Los Angeles County Supervisor (District 5) in September 2019, but he lost against incumbent Kathryn Barger in the March 2020 election. While he had served Sierre Madre in a part-time unpaid public office, he also had been busy professionally, working at a variety of law firms (and one year as a deputy district attorney), while in his married life, by 2020 he was expecting a third son.

So 2020, especially with the constrictions of the Covid pandemic, Harabedian said, was an opportune occasion to focus more on his family and paid work for a while. He began working for Omni Bridgeway, a large firm dealing with legal finance and risk management, and continued there for over three years.

Running for State Office

Harabedian could not resist reentering the political arena, however. He said this decision was motivated by a sense of duty and service, and exclaimed, “I love this district. I was born and raised here, and I am very protective of it.” He also said he was protective of what he calls the American dream, which in his great-grandparents’ case involved emigrating here from Armenia, and in a few generations having descendants able to reach political offices like that of mayor.

At the Harabedian campaign headquarters on E. Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena

He explained: “I think that that story and that ability to prosper here in California is being threatened, mostly by economic instability, and I think it is a challenge for most people, for working families, to actually live here. If you look at a lot of things going on, I think a lot of people are really dissatisfied with the quality of life here.” He recalled the fifth-grade conversation with his parents and said if not him, then who, concluding, “It remains a calling and really a fire in the belly to do it, even though it is not exactly the most convenient personal thing to do.”

Initially, Harabedian announced in February 2023 that he was running for the California 25 Senate District seat which included Glendale, Pasadena, and much of the south San Gabriel Valley, though he and his wife also were aware of the Assembly seat. He was the first candidate for this position, but a second candidate jumped in a few weeks later, followed by what Harabedian called a “multimillionaire self-funding candidate with a very strong demographic advantage.”

Harabedian said that he realized the odds of winning in such a dynamic would be very tough, even though that Senate district included the heart of the California Armenian population. Consequently, in the beginning of August 2023, Harabedian announced he would drop the Senate campaign to run for State Assembly District 41. He said later that there was not a “huge difference” in the opportunity to work in the legislature and accomplish “good things,” whether you are one of 40 in the Senate or one of 80 in the Assembly.

When asked to characterize his political views, he started out by confirming that he was obviously a Democrat, and elaborated: “I am fiercely rational, and I view myself as a classic reformer, as someone who wants to change the institution. I do view that a lot of politicians, and candidates especially, feel like we are just rats in a maze. I feel like there has been a maze and there have been contraptions and a system set up and we run through it, and we all try to get to the end to get the cheese. I don’t think there are enough people trying to change the maze. I don’t think there are enough people trying to change the institutions.”

In other words, he views himself as a reform-minded pragmatist. When asked whether that approach was similar to that of President Bill Clinton, he agreed. He said, “I think most of us are in the middle. I view politics as 80 to 90 percent of people who live in this country and in this state want the same things. They want basic quality of life, they want basic safety, and they want to make sure that if they play by the rules, they can continue to succeed and take care of their families.” He said that though one hears a lot about the extremes, on both left and right, he finds the two-party system in the US important because it forces moderation.

The Campaign

After entering the Assembly race, Harabedian set up his own law firm in September 2023 to do legal work periodically because he realized he could not simultaneously work for a company and campaign. In fact, he said, “This venture, and this seat, really requires if you can do it, full-time campaigning. It is a district that has 500,000 people in it. To get the amount of resources that you need to run a campaign, to effectively communicate with that many people — a few hundred thousand voters — you need to raise a lot of money, and have resources and an apparatus behind you.”

He said that he has been campaigning pretty much full-time, seven days a week, since July, with weekends in some ways busier than weekdays since that is when a lot more direct voter contact is carried out. By mid-December, he had two fulltime staff members, a campaign manager and finance director, and a field director, who oversees everything being done with volunteers, such as door knocking and voter communication. He also has hired a team to advise on high-level political strategy.

On the campaign trail with the three Harabedian boys

He explained his success in raising money for the campaign as in part due to a network of personal contacts, including people he grew up with in Sierre Madre, went to school with, former constituents and business contacts, and friends from all aspects of life. He said this is called “love money” in this field, and his support also has come from close personal friends in the Armenian community (though he added that percentage-wise money from Armenians has not been that great overall).

He said that the serious approach to the campaign and his qualifications also may help convince potential supporters that he is able to win the race and accomplish things. Despite this, Harabedian said, “Financing for a campaign takes a lot of hard work. You crawl through glass to raise every dollar, but the harder you work the more successful you become.”

His support, he said, has come across the spectrum, including from labor and business (both large and small). He said that realistically, most successful candidates running for State Assembly, Senate or even Congress have to raise money from a variety of sources, and to spend a lot of time on this which they could have used to interact with voters.

When asked about potential conflicts of interest due to campaign donations, he said, “I do think there is too much money in our politics. I think that it has a corrupting effect on the system, mostly because of the perception. A lot of people don’t believe in our democracy anymore because they see a lot of candidates who run and get elected. They look and see how much money is flowing into these campaigns, and it is usually not mostly from mom and pop [sources]. It is usually from special interests and I do think a lot of people question whether people who get elected to these positions can remain neutral, and can actually make decisions based on the merits and not based on the money.”

Harabedian declared that real reform was necessary to raise voting rates and bring people back into democracy.

Goals in Office

Harabedian listed several important issues he would focus on during a first term in the State Assembly, starting with homelessness, which he characterized as an absolute emergency. With at least 60,000 people homeless in Los Angeles County, three people die on the streets daily, so these people need help in an urgent way.

Secondly, Harabedian said he would focus on economic sustainability and the quality of life in general in California, where the cost of basic services such as healthcare, or rent and goods have increased so much that many people are priced out of living there. He said that this would require a variety of policies in connection with jobs and economic employment.

Third are issues connected with energy, the climate and natural resources. Harabedian said, “The biggest thing that government needs to figure out how to do, and this is not only for California but our country and the world, is a collective action problem: how can we use the sun and natural energy resources to power our lives, and how do we do it quickly, since we are running out of hydrocarbons and we see the impact of climate change. There is a real threat to the existence of my kids’ generation, and to their kids especially.”

Electoral reform, particularly campaign finance reform, is necessary to achieve solutions to the abovementioned problems, Harabedian said, since otherwise the system will remain inefficient in electing people with innovative vision on these issues. The Supreme Court has ruled that money equals speech, in the Citizens United case, and corporations are like human beings when it comes to freedom of speech. Harabedian said that therefore reform is first needed on the judicial level to overturn such rulings. At the California state level, he said that publicly financing elections and more disclosure of where money is coming from in campaigns would help allow the election of more representative politicians.

Family Background

Harabedian’s paternal great-grandparents, Tatos and Astrig, came to the US from Russian Armenia not too far from Yerevan in 1907. They came almost directly to the Los Angeles area, and John Harabedian’s great-grandfather became one of the first Armenian trash haulers (a field that Armenians dominated for a period in southern California), with a cart that he pulled by hand. They settled in Boyle Heights, and soon had a son, Harabedian’s grandfather, also named John, with four sisters. John joined the US Navy, and on his return, met and married a native American Cherokee. The family moved soon after having children to Arcadia, California, for the good public schools. Harabedian’s father, again named John, followed his own father into the trash business.

Consequently, Harabedian said, “I was the first non garbage waste hauler John Harabedian in my family.” Nevertheless, he still feels a connection to the industry. He said, “In a weird way, I don’t know how to explain it, when I see a trash truck, when I even see a trash bin, it’s like it is in our DNA.”

Although Harabedian’s grandmother and mother were not Armenian, he said, “We had a strong patriarch, my grandfather, who was Armenian, and we always viewed ourselves as a very strong Armenian family…Even my cousins, who don’t have the Armenian last name, still very much view themselves as Armenian.” Although his grandfather discouraged the family from speaking Armenian because they were in America, his grandfather and his sisters, and then in the next generation, Harabedian’s father and his father’s sisters, did know the language a little. Harabedian’s Cherokee grandmother learned Armenian because she lived with her husband’s parents for years and they only spoke Armenian, and she learned how to cook Armenian dishes too.

In his family, Harabedian related, “From our personal experience, I just think that there is just a strong family pride and bond in the Armenian culture and it obviously comes from a crucible of tragedy. There is this recognition that it came very close to where we no longer existed and we have to be very cognizant of that. I do think that the Armenians are a strong people, a smart people that care a lot about the things that are important in life, whether it is science, art, our culture, or government, but I think it was really typically familial for us. At no point do you even question it. I do think that there is this bond. As many of my Armenian friends say, even a drop of Armenian blood is always enough for people.”

Harabedian was baptized at St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church in Pasadena, but he grew up in Sierre Madre, where there were only a few hundred Armenians. As he put it, there were still various parts of his life that connected with Armenians. They went to Glendale or Pasadena on high holidays and big events only. However, Harabedian went to Catholic school his whole life and did not learn the Armenian language.

Things changed later on after he formed his own family, marrying Young-Gi, a transportation planner born in Korea. Harabedian and his wife sent his three children to Armenian day care, and their nanny is Armenian and speaks Armenian to them. He said, “My kids know more Armenian than I do. My wife has been incredibly supportive in insuring that her sons — our sons — are Armenian. That is something that was lost on me. I think on the language thing, you have to be very direct and intentional about preserving that.”

John Harabedian with his wife Young-Gi and eldest son at Garni, Armenia (photo courtesy John Harabedian)

Moreover, in 2017, Harabedian together with his wife and firstborn son, went to Vanadzor, Armenia, as part of the sister city delegation for Pasadena. He said, “I think it was the most incredible trip that we have ever taken,” and hopes to go again soon.

Harabedian’s children also have learned the Korean language. He remarked that “Koreans and Armenians have a lot in common. From a history of a people in terms of colonization and persecution, there are a lot of similarities. There are a lot of strong family values, family centric views of the world. My wife and I have had so much in common from our respective upbringings, that I think that our sons being both Korean and Armenian is a pretty cool combination. It is an amazing thing to grow up in such an ethnically diverse family.”

On the other hand, as most of Harabedian’s Cherokee family connections live in Oklahoma, he does not have much direct connection with Cherokees, who are largely organized in a tribal fashion. Harabedian did note that if elected to the State Assembly, not only would he become the only Armenian there, but also only the second native American representative.

Armenian-American Politics

Harabedian’s parents were not involved in Armenian politics. In some ways, he said, he only became fully aware of the latter after he ran for city council. That led him to meeting the Armenian National Committee (ANC) and Armenian Assembly people, and this was, he said “eye-opening.”

“Getting involved in politics, you realize right away just how under-represented our [Armenian] community was,” Harabedian reflected. He met Ardashes “Ardy” Kassakhian (an Armenian-American politician now on the Glendale City Council) and became involved with ANC. Harabedian said, “Then I realized that we need to focus on, how do we get our community more representation in a state where, in many ways, we have gone backwards from the [former Governor] George Deukmejian days. How do we get this bench of leaders elected and in positions of policy and power? I think that process really opened my eyes to just how important my identity really was and how impactful it could be for others.”

In his current campaign, in addition to ANCA and the Assembly, he said he has a lot of friends in different organizations, such as the Armenian Rights Council of America and the Armenian General Benevolent Union, and is also involved in the Armenian Caucus in Sacramento. He said, “That is really, really important, because that is our voice in Sacramento, even though we don’t have an Armenian there. It is really making sure that people know our issues, and know that this is a priority, so I have spent a lot of time doing that too.”

The Armenian component to his State Assembly campaign is “quintessential,” he said, because Armenians lack representation. “I feel like we as Armenians have felt like we are on the menu, especially the past year, when we saw what I think have been very clear actions of genocide and ethnic cleansing in Artsakh by Azerbaijan…As great as some of our federal elected officials have been to the Armenian community, I think it is very different when you have Armenian elected representatives at these levels,” Harabedian said.

Having elected representatives on the state level in a powerful state like California will increase Armenians’ ability to communicate with the federal administration and Congressional representatives on issues of importance to their community, he said. Harabedian observed that having very powerful people like Paul Krekorian on Los Angeles City Council is great but there is only so much that one person can do. He pointed out that “Armenians have been a very good funding source for politicians. We have been a very good community to show up and get people elected, but we haven’t done a great job of making sure that our community is in these positions at a greater number – these positions being state and federal level. We do have a lot of Armenians in local office, whether it is city councils or school districts.”

If Harabedian gets elected to the Assembly, he said he would be “working with federal officials, whoever my congressional representatives will be, tirelessly talking to the Administration, and working with the Administration to get some real relief in Artsakh, to get some real economic help for Armenia, to actually put Armenia and Armenian people internationally on the same level of priority as many of our brothers and sisters in the Jewish community, in Israel, and throughout the Near East and Middle East.” He promised to work hard on getting more Armenians into Congress as well as into local elected office, and push for Armenian-American diplomats and ambassadors in the State Department.

As far as California local issues that are important to Armenians, Harabedian said, “I think Armenians, like any population, are struggling with cost of living, paying our rent, and seniors being able to afford their prescriptions…I do think discrimination generally is something that the Armenian community continues to deal with, whether it is in Glendale or Pasadena — having non-Armenian communities put us in a box and view us in a certain way. I think people are tired of that rightfully so.” Basically, though, he noted the same aforementioned quality of life issues that are important for most Californian communities.

Harabedian called for Armenians to work together more and expressed concern about internal divisions over issues in Armenia causing harmful and unproductive battles. He left the readers of the Mirror-Spectator with the following thoughts on the future: “We need to think as a community about how to have an impactful legacy on a number of fronts. I know there is government, there is business, and there is arts and culture. But how do we as Armenians leave this place — earth — and this country, better off with our stamp in the process? I think we have a long way to go in elevating who we are, in making sure that non-Armenians know just how important we are as a people on every different level.”

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