First published in November 1, 2008 Armenian Reporter
Armenian-Americans rally around Barack Obama for president
“Turnout is critical” in November 4 vote
by Emil Sanamyan and Lusine Sarkisyan
ANC-PAC supporter Aida Dimejian, California State Assembly member Paul Krekorian, Glendale City Clerk Ardashes Kassakhian (in glasses), with presidential hopeful Barack Obama at a campaign event in Los Angeles, December 10, 2007. ANC-PAC.
Washington - "I think Barack would be a strong supporter of the Armenian Cause," said Armenian-American attorney Sarah Leah Whitson, Senator Barack Obama's classmate at Harvard Law School in 1988-91.
"I believe that Barack recognizes the importance of history and recognizing genocide; I think that he would not back down on speaking out about the need for Turkey to recognize its history," Ms. Whitson, who is now Middle East director for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, told the Armenian Reporter. She also emphasized the role Harvard professor Samantha Power, an advocate for genocide prevention, has played in Mr. Obama's campaign.
The campaign of Mr. Obama, Democrat of Illinois, and Senator Joe Biden of Delaware to become the next president and vice president of the United States has gained strong support throughout the Armenian-American community.
The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) formed ties with Mr. Obama's campaign early on, and supported his candidacy well before he emerged as the Democratic Party's nominee. In January, Mr. Obama issued a statement to Armenian-Americans, pledging unequivocally, "As President I will recognize the Armenian Genocide."
Mr. Obama also said he supported a settlement of the Karabakh conflict "based upon America's founding commitment to the principles of democracy and self-determination." This statement takes on added importance as Vice President Dick Cheney and senior officials at the State Department have lately taken to playing down the principle of self-determination for Karabakh in favor of Azerbaijan's "territorial integrity."
Since the Democratic National Convention, the Obama-Biden campaign has had the support of the U.S.-Armenia Public Affairs Committee (USAPAC). The editorial page of the Armenian Reporter strongly endorsed Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden. The publisher of the California Courier, Harut Sassounian, has likewise endorsed the Obama-Biden ticket.
Acknowledging that polls show Mr. Obama very likely to win the presidency, Ross Vartian, executive director of USAPAC, emphasized "voter turnout is critical" to the actual outcome. The only poll that counts is the vote you cast now or on Election Day, November 4, he said. (Some 16 million Americans in more than 30 states have already turned out to vote early.)
Armenians for Obama
Last June, a number of Armenian activists, most with ties to the ANCA, came together to establish Armenians for Obama, a campaigning group.
Polls and past elections show that a majority of voters in the states with the largest Armenian populations - California, most New England states, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut - are likely to vote for the Obama-Biden ticket. Thus, Armenians for Obama has focused its campaigning efforts on Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Virginia - states with anticipated competitive contests.
By contrast, there has been no publicly reported Armenian-American community-based campaigning for Mr. McCain, even though the community has a strong cross-section of Republican Party supporters. And Mr. McCain has made little to no effort to spur Armenian enthusiasm for his presidential bid.
Meanwhile, another coast-to-coast group, Armenian-Americans for Obama, has emerged to support the Obama-Biden ticket. Members include Roger Strauch from California's Silicon Valley and New Jersey developers Michael and David Kasparian.
The Obama campaign's "Armenian-American National Leadership Committee," announced on October 17, includes Democratic members of Congress from California Anna Eshoo, Adam Schiff, and Jackie Speier, California State Assembly member Paul Krekorian, and Dick Harpootlian, a former chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party.
According to figures published at my.barackobama.com, Armenians for Obama, with over $75,000 collected, is one of the most active ethnic community-based supporters of Mr. Obama grouped into "European and Mediterranean Americans for Obama."
Armenian-Americans recall Barack Obama's earlier days
"During our years at law school, Armenia was frequently in the news at the forefront of the [Soviet] reforms," recalls Tom Samuelian who was also Sen. Obama's classmate at Harvard Law School and has since repatriated to Armenia where he established and heads the Arlex law firm. He is also dean of the Law Department at the American University of Armenia.
"We had a small but active Armenian Students' Club at [the law school] that worked to raise awareness of Armenian issues at the time, with posters, leaflets, information tables, and public events, including Karabakh's self-determination, genocide recognition, and earthquake relief."
Another of Mr. Obama’s Armenian-American classmates at Harvard Law, Emily Maranjian, along with her husband and fellow classmate Joe Fernandez, were early backers of Mr. Obama’s presidential bid, according to the Providence Journal. Ms. Maranjian is currently a prosecutor with the Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office.
World public, U.S. foreign policy experts back Obama
Mr. Obama appears to command public sympathy around world.
Gallup studies found support for Mr. Obama among two-thirds of Canadians, Australians, and Japanese, 43 percent of Armenians in Armenia (with 10 percent going to Mr. McCain), and 22 percent of Turks (with 8 percent for the opposition).
Many Turks, and especially the Turkish government, were initially wary of Mr. Obama’s pledges to Armenian-Americans. In early 2008, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan called Mr. Obama an “amateur” for his pledge to affirm the Armenian Genocide. But Turkish commentators have also expressed discomfort with Mr. McCain’s foreign policy approach. And in recent months, the Turkish government has been reaching out to the Obama campaign.
The few countries where Mr. McCain is more popular include Armenia’s neighbor Georgia, where he had the support of 23 percent of the people to Mr. Obama’s 15 percent, apparently reflecting the Arizona senator’s strong support for the incumbent Georgian government. In Pakistan, the candidates are even at 5 percent each, with 90 percent having no preference.
Unusually, the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown (left-of center Labour Party), France’s Patrick Devedjian, secretary-general of the governing right-of-center Union for a Popular Movement, and a number of other European leaders have openly backed Mr. Obama.
In the U.S. foreign policy establishment, in addition to the Clinton Administration secretaries of state, Mr. Obama was endorsed by President Bush’s former State Secretary (2001–2005) Colin Powell and several hundred retired diplomats.
Among them is the former U.S. ambassador to Armenia (2004– 2006) John Evans, who said he decided to support the Illinois senator last January, before the Democratic primary.
“Potentialities that Obama and the Democrats are bringing to this election are so much greater than the [Republican] alternative. I don’t think Obama can be endorsed on a single-issue basis. [My endorsement] came before I learned that Senator Obama expressed considerable sympathy for my situation,” Mr. Evans told the Armenian Reporter.
As part of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to replace Ambassador Evans in the summer of 2006, Mr. Obama criticized the Bush administration for punishing a diplomat for speaking frankly on the Armenian Genocide.
Asked whether he thought Mr. Obama, if elected president, would stick to his pledges of affirming the Genocide and supporting Karabakh’s self-determination, Mr. Evans said that Mr. Obama “would do his very best to do the right thing and carry out his promises.”