Paul Krekorian, center, at the dedication of the Republic of Artsakh Square, in front of the Azerbaijani consulate general in Brentwood, with, from left, Elen Asatryan, Robert Avetisyan, Traci Park and Adrin Nazarian on August 31, 2023

Krekorian Brings Political Savvy and Experience to LA City Council

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LOS ANGELES — Paul Krekorian is the president of the City Council of Los Angeles, the second most powerful position in the second largest city in the United States. Consequently, Krekorian is one of the most prominent Armenians in American politics. He has not shied away from using his position to make Armenian issues better known, while working to improve city government.

Paul Krekorian

City Council Reform

The council, with 15 members, is the lawmaking body for Los Angeles. Krekorian was elected as representative of City Council District 2 at the end of 2009, which includes areas like North Hollywood, Studio City, Sun Valley, Toluca Lake, Valley Glen, Valley Village and Van Nuys, and contains the highest percentage of Armenian voters in the city. In 2012, Krekorian was elected as chair of the council’s Budget and Finance Committee, where he served for ten years and helped maintain balanced city budgets through a recession and Covid-induced economic turmoil.

In December 2022, he was elected as council president, taking over after a scandal forced the prior president, Nury Martinez, to resign. An audio recording was leaked of Martinez and two other council members, Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo, all three Latinos, making racist comments about various individuals and ethnic groups in a conversation with labor union leader Ron Herrera about redrawing council district electoral lines.

“It was deeply disturbing,” Krekorian said. While Armenians were comparatively minor targets, compared to Blacks and Americans of Oaxacan descent, in the discussion, their inclusion was also troubling. He explained: “We didn’t have the most shocking parts of that conversation directed to us as Armenians, but it was an example of the sort of stereotyping that we see. …Thy look at me and see the Armenian guy. They don’t see the representative of the 2nd council district. They see the Armenian guy, and there are references to my staff — ‘I am sure they have a name that ends in ‘ian’’ and those sorts of things; mocking references to somebody’s appearance who used to work for me, so that was hurtful.”

Cedillo, unlike Martinez (and Herrera), refused to resign, but lost his reelection campaign. De León is still in office and running for reelection, though Krekorian had made it clear early on that both should have resigned from the council. Krekorian pointed out to the Mirror-Spectator that the City Council has no enforceable authority to remove a member from office and could suspend a member only if they are indicted for a crime or certain other circumstances. Krekorian said, “I did remove him from his committee assignments but that and censure are really the only steps that the council can take. He was elected. It would not be a healthy democratic process if the council could remove an elected official, who is elected by the voters of that district, because we don’t like something that they did, unless there are extreme circumstances that require protection of the city – like if somebody was criminally indicted.”

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Immediately after being elected president, in his acceptance speech, Krekorian had promised to reduce the power of his new position. He said last month to this newspaper: “There is significant power, for lack of a better word, inherent to the position, but I think we should create an atmosphere and a structure whereby it is clear that that power stems from the members, not from the individual council president.” He noted that the council at present is the most diverse in the history of the city, ethnically, politically, and in terms of the number of women, while his leadership style has been much less heavy-handed than predecessors.

In terms of structural changes, Krekorian said that a charter review commission will “look at the entire city charter and determine where we can make changes, all of which will have to be approved by voters, to make the council and the city as a whole more effective, more efficient, more transparent and less subject to corruption. I am also reviewing all of the council rules to determine how we can have meetings that operate more efficiently, how the office of the presidency can be less of an influence on outcomes, and also, by the way, less subject to corruption.” Term limits on the council president, he said, made sense to him, allowing for a more regular rotation of this post.

Krekorian backs the creation of an independent commission to carry out redistricting of council districts. The plan, approved by the City Council on November 29, 2023, would have to be approved by voters in November of this year, he said, after which it would take two years to set it up. This would be the first time in a century that redistricting would be done independently of the council, so, as Krekorian said, “this would be a huge achievement in and of itself.” The actual redistricting will be based on the results of the decennial census.

He also is pushing for expanding the number of council districts, which would dilute the power of each member. He said, “If you have smaller districts, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee the election of a member of any particular group, but each group’s voice will be more influential in the outcomes. That is what I think is the biggest advantage of this. There are other advantages too. It will reduce the influence of big money in council elections. It will reduce the likelihood of somebody abusing their position because they have outsized power as the representative of 270,000 people and all the land use authority that we have and everything else.”

In terms of the practical implementation of the creation of more districts, Krekorian said, “There is conflict of interest in making some of the decisions that we would have to make, so we made the decision to ask that the charter reform commission take this up.”

He added that though the Los Angeles Times may have thought that he and the council were slow walking this process, in fact, “It would be entirely disruptive to try to change the size of the council districts before we do the next round of redistricting.” The next regularly scheduled redistricting is in 2031, after the next release of US Census data, while if redistricting is done earlier, as some advocacy groups propose, he noted that this would require an extra boundary-drawing process for the council districts.

Entering Politics and Mobilizing Armenians

Krekorian is a third-generation San Fernando Valley, California, resident, but his paternal grandfather Yervant emigrated from Hussenig village of Kharpert province to Worcester in around 1896 before eventually coming to Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Yervant’s maternal uncle was a student at the University of Michigan in the 1880s before returning to teach as head of the mathematics department of Euphrates (Yeprad) College, where he was arrested at the start of the Armenian Genocide and killed.

Paul Krekorian places a wreath on behalf of the Los Angeles City Council at the Armenian Genocide memorial in Yerevan

Krekorian said that he knew from an early age, even before high school, that he wanted to serve his country in some way. “My dad was a marine, I grew up in a patriotic household, and I just felt that the highest calling for me would be to serve in some way in public service. Elected office seemed like a dream. It didn’t seem like a realistic goal, but it seemed like that would be the cumulation of everything,” he related.

He went to the University of Southern California and became a political science major. He joined the gubernatorial campaign for Jerry Brown in 1978 and started a Democratic political organization on campus. Then he got an internship with his state assemblyman, Tom Bane. He planned to go to law school and after practicing law for a few years find his way into government service, but a couple of years working as an entertainment, business and intellectual property lawyer quickly turned into 15, and he only engaged in politics on the side. Suddenly, Bane called him out of the blue in 1992, and said that he is not running for reelection. He asked if Krekorian would like to run for his Assembly seat. Krekorian ended up deciding not to do it, “But,” he said, “for a couple of weeks there, I was making a rational decision, looking at my life, looking at the facts, looking at the opportunities, and thinking, yes, I can run for the State Assembly, and deciding to do it. Now we have come the full arc from it seems like a dream to not only is it doable, I am doing it.”

He became excited about government again and got involved in Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign that year. Krekorian ended up starting a grassroots campaign political organization in the area that later would become his Assembly district. In 1993 he met political strategist Eric Hacopian, and around the same time, Adrin Nazarian, all Democrats. In 1994, the Democrats got crushed in the election. Krekorian recalled, “We started looking ahead and thinking, well, how can we make sure that the Armenian community in this area becomes a valuable swing constituency that we could move to the Democratic column and help the Democrats win in this area, and lead that effort.”

Their theory, Krekorian recalled, was that the American Armenians like himself who had been in the San Fernando Valley or Glendale a while were mostly Republican. Many were business people. The newer Armenian immigrants, if they registered to vote, were Republicans because they wanted to support fellow Armenian Governor George Deukmejian, rather than deep-seated partisanship. This meant they could be converted, and so the trio worked to register Armenian voters in the late 1990s. Raffi Manoukian ran for Glendale City Council in 1999, and Krekorian announced his campaign for State Assembly in 2000.

Krekorian said, “So those two efforts of those two campaigns really mobilized the community like it never happened before. We registered thousands of people to vote. We were on Armenian tv all the time. We were going door to door. We had hundreds and hundreds of young volunteers, who would meet people at the door, and these voters had never been approached by anybody who spoke Armenian or spoke Farsi. It was a transitional, pivotal moment for the community because people saw they were not being treated as outsiders. They were being given the opportunity to elect a member of the California state legislature. That alone was a new concept. I mean, it was just something that they were highly motivated by.”

Krekorian said that he has always chosen not to be involved with Armenian political parties, but he worked pretty closely at the time with the Armenian National Committee, which was just starting out in the 1990s in southern California and was involved with the Armenian General Benevolent Union (he even met his wife through it), as well as the Armenian Assembly of America.

He said, “We were all kind of doing the same thing, moving in the same direction, but the Armenian organizations had the institutional reach into the community, and what we had was the knowledge of the way American politics works, and how you run a real campaign. Integrating those efforts was the exciting part of this equation.” Armenian institutions are necessary, Krekorian explained, “not just to elect people, but to hold elected officials accountable — not just Armenian elected officials but our so-called friends too.”

. Paul Krekorian, at podium, after receiving the St. Nerses Shnorhali Medal by order of Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II from Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, Primate of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, to his right, on April 13, 2023

It was possible for Krekorian to work with a variety of Armenian organizations, though they might have been at odds with one another. He said, “It was not easy, but part of the reason that I think it worked was that they saw me as not being firmly from one camp or the other. When I was growing up, I wasn’t. If you grew up in Lebanon, you were identified with a party. I wasn’t, at all. They saw me as the American Armenian who could deliver a skillset and a body of experience that most of the folks in the organizations didn’t have.”

In the 2000 election, California experimented with a variant of the “blanket” or “open primary” system in which all registered voters could vote for any candidate of any political party on the same ballot, and then the top Republican vote winner would run against the top Democratic vote winner. “So there was a guy, an Armenian Republican, who got into the race, thinking, this is a Republican district. It should stay a Republican district…We tried very hard to unite the community, because we knew that whoever was the Democratic nominee was going to win, because the Democrats had the majority of votes in that district. Getting somebody nominated on the Republican side just to lose was not serving the community’s interests,” Krekorian said.

Republican Armenians could have voted for Krekorian under the open primary system but instead a lot of people supported the Republican Armenian and Krekorian lost the primary. The Republican Armenian, as predicted, won the Republican nomination but lost the general race in the November election that year. Raffi Manoukian won his council race. Krekorian said, “So I lost the election, but that foundation was the start of what we see now of the Armenian empowerment of Southern California…There were people who were in that campaign who got their first taste of politics and government who have gone on to great things.”

Three years later, Krekorian used the momentum created to become the first Armenian elected to the Burbank Board of Education, and three years after that, in 2006, he got elected to the Assembly seat he lost in 2000, the 43rd District, which includes many Armenian-populated areas like Glendale, Burbank and eastern parts of the San Fernando Valley.

Anti-Armenian Racism

Krekorian said that often when he speaks to groups of younger Armenians, they just take it for granted that Armenians can run for office. “They don’t understand how much of a steep hill that was to climb, and how the whole point of it was to kick open the door for other people,” Krekorian reminisced.

He said, “I have, you might have noticed, a poster of Jackie Robinson in my lobby. The reason is, I have been the first of a lot of things. I was the first Armenian elected in Burbank. I was the first Armenian elected to that Assembly seat to represent the Glendale-Burbank area. I was the first Armenian elected to any office in the city of Los Angeles, and I am the first Armenian City Council president. All of that is great, but being first is not the point. The point is not to be the last. The point is to open the door for other people. You do that by commanding respect, by doing a good job, and by being an example that others can be proud of. That is what I have always strived to do, and that is why I have that poster there: to be a reminder that had he failed or become an embarrassment, or had he been somebody subject to criticism for some reason or another, it would have set back the cause of desegregating the major leagues. I feel the same way.”

When Krekorian was growing up in Los Angeles, he said he never experienced anti-Armenian sentiment or racism because there was only a small community of Armenians there, compared to the present, and general ignorance about Armenians reigned until the waves of immigration from Lebanon, Iran and Armenia. However, during the same period that he and others got busy registering Armenians to vote, and there was opportunity for political empowerment, there also was overt racism, in the 1980s and 1990s. “I can’t say it was a direct cause and effect,” Krekorian remarked, but the dehumanizing racism was public, even in letters to the editor published in the Glendale newspaper. He said, “It was almost socially acceptable to direct racism towards us. That was the environment in which we started the political journey. It would be offensive under any circumstances for any group to have to listen to that kind of racist stereotyping.”

Paul Krekorian, front center, during a march to commemorate the Armenian Genocide in LA in 2013

It led him to action. Krekorian said, “it was a highly motivating factor for me to work harder to try to empower this community and let them know that they actually have a voice in their government because they were being shunned so much by it.” Though being Armenian was seen as a real advantage in his first Assembly race, at the same time, Krekorian said, he had to face all of the pushback from the anti-Armenian racists in Glendale, Burbank and elsewhere. Walter Karabian, a mentor for Krekorian in politics, told him early in his career that it is often easier for an Armenian to get elected in a place where there is not a huge Armenian population because you won’t get as much of that racist pushback. Krekorian said, “If you are running, I don’t know, in San Diego, and there isn’t any of that, you are just a guy with a long name, an unusual name, but there isn’t that kind of racism. Here, it was very vile and very toxic.”

Krekorian said that the overt part of this racism by now has subsided somewhat. He said, “People started to realize, I think, how deeply troubling that was, but I still feel the unspoken part of it… sometimes people… tend to still categorize and stereotype in a way that is benignly racist.”

Armenians in US Politics Today

Today, Krekorian said, “I would say that as a community, we are more involved than the average American. We are more apt to participate in voting than the average American, and that is all I think the direct result of the work we started 20 plus years ago.” It does take extra effort on the part of candidates for office to be culturally aware and speak to people in their language, he said.

This involvement is recognized by politicians. Krekorian said, “You see it in the respect that we are afforded by elected officials. In this area, people are almost always, whether they are Armenian or not, really concerned about whether they can get the Armenian vote. That has its own benefits on an ongoing basis. I think our community’s nationwide reputation for political involvement is such that members of Congress and others listen to us maybe more than they would for a similarly sized community that was less involved. It’s not enough, but still I think we have a lot to be proud of in how we have built the political reputation of this community.”

Armenians should be more demanding of concrete results, Krekorian said, from elected officials. He stated, “I think we have been too generous in allowing elected officials to call themselves friends of the Armenian community because they show up at the Genocide monument on April 24. That is the price of admission. That doesn’t make you a friend. That is the barest minimum you can do. What makes you a friend is when you ask for a meeting with President [Joe] Biden to demand action from the American government to stop genocide from occurring at political risk, that is when you get to call yourself a friend of the Armenian community.”

Despite some political successes in the US, Armenians have not been able to achieve much concerning recent events in Armenia and Artsakh. Krekorian said, “The bigger picture right now is when we see genocide occurring in front of our very eyes to Armenians and the world collectively yawns. To me, I have no explanation for that other than we are a group of people that the majority doesn’t see fit to support. Yes, I get that there are geopolitical reasons for that, but you can’t get past also the racial aspects of it.”

Krekorian said that he uses Ukraine as an example a lot. He said, “Aggression in Europe by [Vladimir] Putin is something that we have to stop at all costs, but aggression by Azerbaijan with the aid and support of Putin against Armenians a few hundred miles to the southeast is not seen as being as important. We are not European enough, I guess.” He said that the world must see that Artsakh, and the territorial integrity of Armenia, are global issues, not just Armenian ones.

LA Councilmember Paul Krekorian, center, welcomes Ashot Ghulyan (right), chairman of the Nagorno-Karabakh National Assembly of the Republic of Artsakh, and Archbishop Barkev Mardirossian (left), to John Ferraro Council Chambers in LA on November 21, 2012

As to why the local Los Angeles Times did not do a better job on covering these issues, despite the large local Armenian population, Krekorian shrugged and said, “I have no idea. I really have no idea. It has been a source of great frustration for as long as I can remember.”

Paul Krekorian with Armenian clergy on April 12, 2016 at a candlelight vigil on the steps of LA City Hall honoring the lives lost from Azerbaijani aggression during the four-day war that year

Krekorian said he felt that the Armenian demonstrations in front of CNN in Los Angeles, blocking highways, and street protests in the US in the past few years were better than nothing, but not effective. He said, “What would have been effective, in retrospect, was for us to have spent the last 20 years telling the story and developing allies who understand the story in a way that would make it unthinkable for a totalitarian dictator aggressor to use violence to change the status quo and we failed to do that. That failure, over the last 20 plus years, is not something that we could make up for in weeks or months during the blockade.”

Armenians, he said, were mistakenly “satisfied to just expect that the status quo would always prevail. We didn’t act when we saw [Azerbaijani President Ilham] Aliyev spending his petrodollars on arms. The Armenian worldwide community and our allies didn’t do enough to prepare for what should have been foreseeable.”

Paul Krekorian with Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Armenia Vahagn Melikyan, who was visiting Los Angeles on April 8, 2019 as part of the celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the office of the Armenian Consulate General there

The situation remains critical. Krekorian declared: “I say often to anyone who will listen, that when a brutal dictator who is shameless about what the world thinks of him, promises to do something, you should take him at his word. And when he describes Armenia, or parts of Armenia, as being Western Azerbaijan, you should take him at his word. When he says that he is going to plant the flag of Azerbaijan in Republic Square, don’t just write this off as hyperbole. This is a man who feels completely unrestrained by international norms, and so if we are not preparing to prevent those things and not convincing our allies to do more to prepare for those things, then I am afraid that the result will be predictable.”

Krekorian has stood up for Armenians on the international scene on many occasions, including sponsoring a special resolution of the City Council of Los Angeles recognizing the independence of the Republic of Artsakh in 2013, a press conference at City Hall supporting the people of Artsakh during the 2020 Artsakh war, calling on President Biden to stop Azerbaijan’s aggression in September 2023, and naming the square in front of the Azerbaijani consulate general in Los Angeles Republic of Artsakh Square. When asked how far one can go on such international issues as a local official, or whether there is pushback to such actions, he responded, “In the first place, Los Angeles is maybe the most diverse city that has ever been. I think that there are over 100 languages spoken at home by kids. We have the largest diasporan communities of something like 30 countries living in Los Angeles.”

Paul Krekorian, center, with a group of California legislators in 2019 on the Artsakh-Armenia border on the way to Dadivank.

He said that in fact, “There is no real pushback, per se. I would say actually that, on the other side, because we are the second largest city in America, being in my position gives me a better platform than I might have if I were in a different position.” He related that when he and Karen Bass, the mayor of Los Angeles and a former Congresswoman, went to Washington last October, they were able to get senior-level meetings with the Biden Administration and members of the State Department and that was possible only because they represented Los Angeles. He said, “If I were from some smaller town, we wouldn’t really be given the time of day. That, I think, is why it was so important to take this track here in Los Angeles.”

Of course Krekorian also did a lot for Armenians on a local level too in addition to the political mobilization mentioned abo e, such as in 2012 getting the City Council to approve a motion to have electoral materials be available in the Armenian language in the city and supporting the march to commemorate the Armenian Genocide on its centennial in 2015 as well as pushing for its recognition in the US and commemorating it annually in various ways.

Legacy and Future

When asked how he might define himself in the spectrum of American politics, he replied, “I try not to hew too much to labels, especially because the labels are changing so rapidly these days. It is meaningless to me. I have been a Democrat all my life. My dad raised me as a Democrat.” He said this was because of the fundamental values of the party.

He recalled his father talking to him, and said, “He told me, at that time, well, the Democrats are the ones who fight for the little guy, and so that has been my defining philosophy…When you look at the things that have been most important to me, and my policymaking, it has been about creating good jobs, environment protection, promoting education and child welfare, and investing in our public infrastructure. These are the sorts of things that I think are traditional Democratic values and priorities. But I also believe very strongly in ensuring that we have a commitment to public safety. I think that it is unfortunate to see as much division as we have had in recent years over the basic idea that we should have a well-trained, well-funded police department to combat crime.”

Elaborating, Krekorian said that he thought people saw him as “somebody who understands also that we have to run government in a way that works and that is pragmatic. I was chair of the budget committee for ten years. I was proud of the fact that we had sustained balanced budgets, and the largest reserves in the city’s history were built up under my leadership. We had a sustainable economic, financial foundation for this city and all of its services, and that is something that everything else that the city wanted to do was dependent upon. … I think most people see me as being an effective problem solver, as being somebody who listens to different points of view and isn’t pigeonholed into positions because of bumper sticker sloganeering.”

When asked what achievements during his roughly 20 years in political office he was most proud of, outside of the Armenian realm, he replied, “I think the fact that I was the author of the first tax incentive in California history to bring motion picture and television jobs back to California was a big one. I was the author of the initiative that led LADWP [Los Angeles Department of Water and Power], the biggest municipal utility in the country, to reach 100 percent clean energy by 2035. I have helped to lead the campaign against plastic pollution in the environment…I think in the last year that we will have completed a lot of steps for reforming government that I am going to be able to claim as part of my legacy as well, independent redistricting being the start of it. I think … that will have a lasting effect on the city for a long time. There is a lot more.”

Due to term limits, this is Krekorian’s last year on the City Council. When asked what he plans afterwards, he replied, “Everybody asks, and I understand.”

He pointed out that he had an opportunity to run for Congress when Adam Schiff decided to run for the US Senate in a district with a large Armenian population, and in fact he was looking at this seat as early as 2000. However, he said, “I felt that since I had been given this opportunity to help turn Los Angeles around as the leader of the Council, I couldn’t leave this position to go and do what is necessary to run for Congress. So I had to take a pass on that.”

However, he said, “I remain very interested, and I will remain very interested after I leave here, in finding ways that I can influence our federal government in a way that will be more supportive of Armenian interests than what we have seen. I want to find ways to help us to accomplish some of the things that I mentioned earlier that we haven’t done over the last 20 years to make the case for Artsakh and Hayastan’s integrity and security and safety. Whatever I do will encompass those goals.”

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