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Candidates Woo Armenian Americans

June 18, 2000|MICHAEL FINNEGAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Republican Rep. James E. Rogan of Glendale sends voters a letter typed in the Armenian alphabet to trumpet his record as a "true friend and staunch ally" of anyone who can read it.

Not to be outdone, his Democratic challenger, state Sen. Adam Schiff of Burbank, stammers through a banquet speech in Armenian, one syllable at a time.

Perhaps most daring of all is Democratic Assemblyman Jack Scott of Altadena, who is running for state Senate. The courtly Texas native dazzles viewers of Armenian cable TV with his language skills in an ad promoting the 2000 census. With a touch of his Southern twang, "shnorhagaloutiune," the Armenian word for thank you, rolls off his tongue.

Welcome to the newest frontier of ethnic politics in the Southland.

A surge in Armenian American voter registration in the Glendale area over the last two years has led candidates for Congress and the Legislature to court them with an unprecedented barrage of TV ads, mailings, phone calls and events.

Every major party campaign in the area is mining computerized lists of voters with names that sound Armenian to target them for ethnic appeals. The candidates have come to view Armenian Americans as a crucial bloc that could make or break their campaigns.

With the race so closely fought, some analysts think Armenian Americans could be the decisive factor. "Frankly, they will decide this Rogan-Schiff race," said Los Angeles political consultant Eric Hacopian. "This is the largest group of swing voters."

The battle for their support in the 27th Congressional District is especially intense because the race there is one of the most competitive and expensive House contests in the nation. Democrats see Rogan as one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents, and they need to pick up just six seats to win control of the House.

The district, which covers Glendale, Burbank, Pasadena and several adjacent communities, is home to more residents of Armenian ancestry than anywhere else outside Armenia. About 300,000 Armenian Americans live in the Los Angeles area, nearly a third of them in the 27th Congressional District, according to the Armenian National Committee.

In the hotly contested races in the overlapping 21st state Senate and 43rd Assembly districts, candidates are also fighting for the pivotal Armenian American vote.

"Anyone who's politically ambitious in the area is courting them," Hacopian said. "This is a whole maturation process for a community that's coming into its own politically."

Candidates in the area have wooed Armenian Americans for years, but two developments have heightened the community's potency in the 2000 elections.

First, thousands of Armenians who emigrated from Iran, Lebanon and the former Soviet Union in the 1980s and early '90s have recently become citizens eligible to vote.

Second, the Glendale City Council campaign of Rafi Manoukian, an Armenian American, was coupled last year with an aggressive voter registration drive, called "25,000 in 2000," that put several thousand new voters on the books.

Since 1992, the number of Armenian American voters has more than doubled to roughly 23,000 in the congressional district, according to Political Data, a Burbank firm that sells voter information to campaigns.

The new voters tend to be less conservative and less affluent than earlier generations who rallied behind Republicans like George Deukmejian, governor of California from 1983 to 1991. Over the last 18 months, Democrats have slightly outnumbered Republicans among Armenian Americans who registered in the district.

To candidates in close races, the new voters offer an enticing opportunity, so the politicians are showering them with attention.

In Asbarez, the leading Armenian newspaper in Glendale, campaign advertising is up more than 50% over the 1998 election cycle, said Ara Khachatourian, editor of the paper's English-language edition.

On local Armenian TV stations, the candidates have become fixtures of news and talk shows.

"Everybody and his brother, they were here," said Vache Mangassarian, a Rogan supporter who hosts a nightly show on the Armenian National Network from his Glendale studio.

So far, four candidates have run TV commercials in Armenian: Schiff; Republican Assembly contender Craig Missakian, an Armenian American; and two losers in the Democratic primary, Assembly candidate Paul Krekorian and state Senate hopeful Scott Wildman.

Schiff made his Armenian commercial the first TV ad of his campaign for Congress. It showed him meeting with Robert Kocharian, the president of Armenia, and speaking at an event commemoration the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of the Turks from 1915 to 1923.

A Krekorian ad was more upbeat. A fast-tempo Armenian folk tune nearly drowned out the narrator as words written in the Armenian alphabet scrolled down the screen: tradition, family, youth, security and future.

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