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The 113th Congress, a Look at the 2014 Mid-Term Elections and the Countdown to the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide

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By Taniel Koushakjian
FLArmenians Political Contributor

With the House of Representatives remaining in Republican control and the Senate and White House again in Democratic hands, another session of a divided Congress began on January 3, 2013. Major domestic issues facing Americans will be the top priority for the 113th Congress, most likely stretching into the 114th Congress and potentially even beyond that. Immigration reform, tax reform, job creation, deficit reduction, reducing gun violence, civil liberties for the LGBT community, and women’s rights all top the agenda for elected officials, rightfully so. But foreign policy, international religious freedom and human rights issues have the potential to grab headlines, especially in light of the U.S. draw down in Afghanistan, the effects of the Arab Spring, and the civil war in Syria have all shown. Every one of these issues, domestic and foreign, impact Armenian-Americans in some way, thus begging the question: In this polarized political climate and with a laundry list of serious problems facing Congress and the White House, what does this mean for Armenian-Americans two years away from the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide?

Congressman John Boehner (R-OH) was re-elected to serve as Speaker of the House of Representatives for the 113th Congress. Reps. Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) were re-elected to serve as Majority Leader and Majority Whip, respectively. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the Republican Vice Presidential nominee and a leader in the House Republican Conference, was re-elected to his House seat and will remain the Chairman of the powerful Budget Committee. Leader Cantor and Chairman Ryan sit on the Armenian Caucus and, together with McCarthy, have all cosponsored Armenian Genocide resolutions. On the Democratic side, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) also resumed their posts. Pelosi and Hoyer also sit on the Armenian Caucus and have decades-long records on Armenian issues in Congress. Democrats gained twelve seats in the last election leaving Republicans in control of the chamber by a narrower margin, 232-200.

Two seats are currently vacant and impact Armenian issues: Illinois’ 2nd district where, despite his re-election last November, Armenian Caucus Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-IL) resigned, plead guilty and currently faces up to five years in prison for his personal use of campaign funds; and South Carolina’s 1st district where Rep. Tim Scott (R-SC) was appointed to the U.S. Senate to fill the seat vacated by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC). Former Governor Mark Sanford (R-SC) resigned in 2009 after admitting to an extramarital affair and is running to win back his old House seat. In 2000, then-Congressman Sanford was a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (then called the House International Relations Committee) and voted YES during the committee vote on the Armenian Genocide resolution. Last week, Sanford won the Republican primary and will face Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Bush, the sister of popular comedian Stephen Colbert. Although the South Carolina 1st seat is heavily Republican (Mitt Romney carried the district over President Obama 58-40), Colbert Bush is waging a strong campaign and is in a statistical tie with Sanford according to a recent poll. The special elections in Illinois and South Carolina will be held on April 9, and May 7, 2013, respectively.

For the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) also reassumed their posts. Both Reid and McConnell have significant records in support of Armenian issues. Reid is considered a champion of Armenian issues, having cosponsored successive Armenian Genocide resolutions. Last year, the Armenian National Committee of America honored Senator Reid. In August 1997, Senator McConnell travelled to Armenia and two years later led the charge against a pro-Azerbaijan amendment proposed by then-Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) that would have repealed Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act (Public Law 102-511), which bars direct U.S. military aid to Azerbaijan given the ethnic cleansing of Armenians from Azerbaijan (1988-1990), the ensuing Nagorno-Karabakh War (1991-1994), and Azerbaijan’s blockade of Armenia (1994-Present). Although McConnell was successful in defeating the amendment and protecting Armenia, a watered down version of Brownback’s amendment eventually came to pass in 2001, granting the President the authority to waive Section 907 and provide U.S. military assistance to Azerbaijan, which the President has since done on an annual basis. Democrats gained two seats in the Senate in 2012 and now control the chamber 55-45 (two Independent Senators caucus with Democrats).

[READ: Campaign 2012: A Review of Armenian-American Advocacy Organizations in Presidential Elections]

Like the previous Congress, both Republican and Democratic leaders in the 113th Congress each have strong records in support of Armenian-American issues, specifically Senate Majority Leader Reid, Senate Minority Leader McConnell, House Majority Leader Cantor, House Majority Whip McCarthy, House Budget Chairman Ryan, House Minority Leader Pelosi and House Minority Whip Hoyer.

Looking at the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), the committee of jurisdiction for the Armenian Genocide resolution, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) is term limited according to House Republican Conference rules, stepped down as chairman of the committee, but will remain on as the Subcommittee Chair for the Middle East and North Africa. As FLArmenians previously reported, Ros-Lehtinen has an inconsistent record on Armenian issues, having voted YES on the Armenian Genocide resolution in 2000 and 2005, but NO in 2007 and 2010. She also sits on both the Armenian and Turkish Caucus. With Ros-Lehtinen’s transition, Armenian Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) has taken the gavel as Chairman for the 113th Congress, with pro-Armenia Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY) serving as Ranking Member. Tied with California, Florida Representatives account for the largest delegation serving on the HFAC (7 out of 46) namely Ros-Lehtinen, and Reps. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), Trey Radel (R-FL), Ted Yoho (R-FL), Ted Deutch (D-FL), Alan Grayson (D-FL) and Lois Frankel (D-FL).

Hellenic Caucus Co-Chair and Armenian Caucus member Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) is no longer serving on HFAC. In addition to Bilirakis, pro-Armenian Representatives departing the HFAC in 113th Congress include Reps. Donald Manzullo (R-IL), Howard Berman (D-CA), Allyson Schwartz (D-PA), and Christopher Murphy (D-CT). Congressman Manzullo (R-IL), who voted YES on Armenian Genocide resolution votes in committee in 2007 and 2010, lost a bitter primary battle. Due to redistricting, he was forced to run against his fellow Republican colleague and Turkish Caucus Member Adam Kinzinger (R-IL). In an unusual move, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor got involved in the race. Cantor publicly endorsed Kinzinger over Manzullo, donated $10,000 to him from his leadership PAC while “The YG Action Fund” Super PAC – run by a former Cantor aide – spent $52,000 on a radio ad boosting Kinzinger,” according to a report in Roll Call. Furthermore, Kinzinger received $6,500 from Turkish PACs last cycle, a bet that seems to have paid off. HFAC Ranking Member Howard Berman was also a victim of redistricting, where he lost his seat to fellow Democratic colleague Brad Sherman (D-CA). As FLArmenians reported last year, the Berman-Sherman race was sure to grab national headlines, and it did.  In addition to both sides spending a record $16 million, at one point the two Congressmen almost got into a physical altercation during a town hall debate. Armenian Caucus member Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-PA) easily won re-election last year, but will not sit on the HFAC in the 113th Congress. According to a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Rep. Schwartz is interested in leaving her House seat behind in a run for Governor in 2014. Armenian Caucus member Christopher Murphy (D-CT) did not seek re-election last year, and instead successfully ran for Senate where he replaced retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT).

Pro-Turkey members departing the HFAC in the 113th Congress include Reps. Dan Burton (R-IN), Mike Pence (R-IN), Connie Mack (R-FL), Jean Schmidt (R-OH), and Russ Carnahan (D-MO). Congressman Burton announced his retirement last year and did not seek re-election. In February, Burton was named chairman of the board of the Azerbaijan American Alliance. Rep. Pence was elected Governor of Indiana last year, while Congressman Mack unsuccessfully ran for the Florida Senate, giving up his House seat in the process. Both Reps. Jean Schmidt and Russ Carnahan lost their respective party primary election and were not even on the ballot in November. However, the circumstances surrounding Jean Schmidt’s stunning primary loss, as well as the loss of her two-time opponent, Armenian-American David Krikorian (D-OH), warrants a deeper look. As FLArmenians reported last year, Schmidt and Krikorian faced off at the ballot box in 2008 and 2010, and in an Ohio election courtroom in 2011. A number of factors contributed to Schmidt’s ousting in addition to her ethics woes: she was an incumbent, was opposed by the Tea-Party, she had new territory in her district as a result of redistricting, and she did very little campaigning to keep her job, if at all. In fact, on the day of the primary election, Schmidt wasn’t even in Ohio; she was in Washington, D.C. attending a private luncheon with Turkey’s Ambassador to the United States Namik Tan, according to a report in POLITICO. In August 2011 the House Ethics Committee ordered Schmidt to repay the more than $500,000 she “unknowingly accepted” to the Turkish Coalition of America when she was found guilty of accepting the free legal services as an improper gift, but cleared of wrongdoing. To date, Schmidt has only made one payment toward her debt. However, since she is no longer serving in Congress she gets to “cleanly walk away from this,” the Dayton Daily News reported. As for Krikorian, he too lost his primary battle, but the writing wasn’t so much on the wall for him as it was for Schmidt. William R. Smith, a local truck driver and political unknown who spent no money and did no campaigning whatsoever trumped Krikorian by 59 votes out of roughly 20,000 cast. Kirkorian campaigned hard, raised money, travelled the district and had the backing of the local and state Democratic Party. However, a report in USATODAY attributes Krikorian’s upset to a last minute effort by a mysterious Super PAC that sponsored a number of robo-calls encouraging voters to back Smith.

Today, nine of the 46 members of the HFAC sit on the Armenian Caucus, whereas thirteen sit on the Turkish Caucus. Nearly half of the HFAC in the 113th Congress are freshman (22) and it is not yet clear who will join the Armenian or Turkish Caucus. Technically a member of the 113th freshman class, Rep. Alan Grayson served in Congress from 2008-2010 and was an original cosponsor of the Armenian Genocide resolution.  Also, despite the fact that Congressman Deutch has never cosponsored the Armenian Genocide resolution, he did vote YES during the successful committee vote in 2010.

Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen was also appointed to the House Rules Committee in the 113th Congress, a top leadership body that oversees what legislation is actually brought up and passed by the House of Representatives. This committee is significant should any legislation reaffirming the United States Record on the Armenian Genocide be brought to the floor for a vote in the run up to 2015. In fact, Florida currently holds four out of the 13-committee seats, which also includes Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL), who helped lead Democratic efforts to defeat the Armenian Genocide resolution in 2007. Last year, the Turkish Coalition of America sponsored a trip for Ros-Lehtinen to Turkey, where she was reunited with her Turkish relatives. Looking ahead, Turkish Caucus Co-Chair and Rules Committee Vice-Chairman Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) is considered the Republican front-runner to challenge Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) in 2014. Congresswoman Foxx’s son-in-law is Turkish and she is a top recipient of Turkish PAC contributions. A January 10-13, 2013 poll conducted by Democrat leaning Public Policy Polling showed Foxx leading the crowded Republican field with 21%, but also showed Hagan over Foxx by 7% in a direct match up. Although the 2012 Democratic National Convention was held in Charlotte, North Carolina, Mitt Romney carried the state with 51%. Rep. Foxx’s potential departure from the Rules Committee removes one obstacle, but her election to the Senate would create a different one. Meanwhile, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen’s addition to the “Speaker’s Committee” appears to have created another hurdle for human rights proponents, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she will be.

[READ: Campaign 2012: A Look Through the Armenian-American Lens]

On the other side of Capitol Hill, Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) Chairman and former Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry (D-MA) was nominated by President Obama and quickly confirmed as the 68th U.S. Secretary of State. The Armenian Assembly of America, the largest independent Armenian-American advocacy group, recalled Kerry’s numerous actions in support of Armenian issues. Departing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, considered the leading Democratic contender for the White House in 2016, played a significant role in the signing of historic Protocols by the governments of Turkey and Armenia in 2009 that envisioned the establishment and normalization of relations between the two countries, as well as the end of Turkey’s blockade of Armenia. Although the Protocols stalled in the Turkish Parliament, Clinton has been on record multiple times urging Turkish government officials at senior levels to follow through on their international commitment.

Also departing Obama’s cabinet is Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who was succeeded by former Senator Charles Hagel (R-KS), albeit with some Senate consternation. Hagel’s nomination is concerning to Armenian-Americans. An article in the Washington Free Beacon entitled “Chuck Hagel has an Armenian Problem,” recalled a 2005 statement where he declared that “What happened in 1915 happened in 1915” and that the Armenian Genocide should be left “to historians and others to decide what happened and why.” Also of import to Armenian-Americans is the departure of Samantha Power, Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights at the National Security Council (NSC). Power is well known in Armenian-American circles for her book “A Problem From Hell” which extensively covers the Armenian Genocide, and for her assurances to the Armenian-American community during the 2008 campaign that Obama would keep his promise and recognize the Armenian Genocide as President. Washington insiders consider Power as Obama’s top pick to be the next U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, should Susan Rice be nominated to head the NSC. In addition, Phillip Gordon, Assistant Secretary of State for European & Eurasian Affairs, has left his post to join President Obama in the White House. He served as Secretary Clinton’s hand during the signing of the historic Armenia-Turkey Protocols. Current State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland is expected to replace Gordon.

Kerry’s departure from the Senate resulted in the promotion of pro-Armenia Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) to Chairman of the powerful SFRC. Menendez has been a champion of Armenian issues for over a decade and is one of the Senate’s strongest proponents of human rights, religious freedom, and Armenian-American issues. Kerry’s departure also results in an open Senate seat in Massachusetts, home to the second largest Armenian community in the U.S. Scott Brown (R-MA), who shocked the nation when he won the 2010 special election to replace deceased Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), announced, fresh off his 2012 re-election loss, that he would not run to replace Kerry. Much to the chagrin of the Massachusetts GOP, Brown would have been the strongest Republican candidate in the field, and instead is reportedly eyeing the Governor’s mansion in 2014. Should Brown have run to replace Kerry this year, he would have been forced to run for re-election again next year. That amounts to four very expensive campaigns for Senate in four years, something no politician has ever faced, and a natural conclusion for Brown not to seek the seat. For Armenian-Americans, it was interesting that with eight months remaining before the 2012 election Brown introduced the Senate version of the “Return of Churches,” a bill that called on the Republic of Turkey to safeguard its Christian heritage and return stolen church properties. As FLArmenians previously reported, the House version of this bill passed the lower chamber last year, but Brown’s bill went nowhere and was perceived as a last-ditch effort to secure the Armenian-American vote. Brown lost his re-election in 2012 to Democrat Elizabeth Warren, who met with Armenian-Americans at the Democratic National Convention last year and pledged her support of Armenian issues, particularly genocide affirmation. Upon his election to the Senate in 2010, Brown refused to cosponsor the Armenian Genocide resolution, a mistake that proved consequential in his re-election effort. With Brown out, many expect the Massachusetts Senate seat to remain in Democratic hands. The two Democratic contenders are both members of the Armenian Caucus: Reps. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Stephen Lynch (D-MA). Recent polling in the state gives Markey the edge, in addition to Democratic establishment support. However, Lynch has strong union backing and is expected to mount a tough campaign in the Bay State. The Massachusetts Senate special election is scheduled for June 25, 2013.

[READ: Armenian-Americans at RNC 2012: Support Mitt Romney for President]

Florida’s senior Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) has left the SFRC, while Florida’s junior Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) remains on the committee. Rubio is a top contender in the Republican field for the White House in 2016 and delivered the GOP response to President Obama’s State of the Union address earlier this year. Senators Nelson and Rubio have no record in support of Armenian-American issues. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (R-FL), who incidentally backed Rubio’s unsuccessful candidacy to join Mitt Romney on the Republican presidential ticket in 2012, is also a top Republican contender in the next race for the White House. In 2006, Gov. Jeb Bush issued an official proclamation commemorating the Armenian Genocide.

Also of note are the known and unknown retirements of pro-Armenian Senators. Senior New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg announced his intention not to seek re-election in 2014, paving the way for Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D-NJ) to seek his seat. Representing one of the strongest Armenian-American communities, New Jersey’s senior Senator Lautenberg has cosponsored successive Armenian Genocide resolutions. Booker has not issued any official statements or proclamations on the Armenian Genocide as mayor, but he has attended Armenian community events. Also, Armenian Caucus Co-Founder and Co-Chair Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) previously expressed interest in the Senate seat years ago, but has not yet announced his intentions for the next cycle. Booker was in Palm Beach last month for a fundraiser for his Senate campaign. Also, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) announced that he would not seek re-election in 2014. Republicans are looking forward to Congressman Steve King (R-IA) jumping into this open seat contest, while Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA) is the only major Democrat in the race. Rep. Steve King is a member of the Turkish Caucus whereas Rep. Bruce Braley is a member of the Armenian Caucus. Another Senate departure that seriously impacts Armenian-American issues is the retirement of Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI). Levin’s retirement was expected as he was on the short list of retirements to look out for as we approach the 2014 mid-term elections.  He will be 80 years old had he chosen to run for re-election next year. Senator Levin has been a champion of Armenian issues for over thirty years and introduced one of the first Armenian Genocide resolutions in the Senate back in 1981. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) is also on that list, but his retirement is less likely. Durbin, the Senate Democrat’s number two, is a previous cosponsor of the Armenian Genocide resolution.

With the exception of House Speaker Boehner, a majority of the Republican and Democrat leadership in both the House and Senate, including leaders of the HFAC and SFRC on both sides of the aisle, all have strong, decades-long records in support of Armenian-American issues, particularly efforts to protect Christian Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh from Muslim Turkey and Azerbaijan’s blockade and aggressive policies, as well as genocide recognition efforts. Interestingly, despite the broad coalition of pro-Armenia congressional leadership, the one factor that has been instrumental in previous legislative efforts to affirm and reaffirm the U.S. record on the Armenian Genocide is a strong Speaker of the House. When the United States House of Representatives first acknowledged the Armenian Genocide in 1977, and again in 1984, the Speaker at the time was none other than Thomas Phillip “Tip” O’Neill (D-MA), arguably one of the most powerful Speakers of the House in American history. Of course, his being from Massachusetts helped. But since then, the closest the Armenian Genocide resolution got to the House floor was in 2000, when it passed the Rules Committee under Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) and was ultimately blocked by President Bill Clinton. Hastert was somewhat of a strong Speaker, but he was no Newt Gingrich or Tip O’Neill. In 2007 and 2010, Speaker Pelosi was unable to get the Armenian Genocide bill through her own Rules Committee. As the 113th Congress convened to elect their Speaker, some Republican members organized a behind-the-scenes revolt against Boehner, many preferring Rep. Eric Cantor. However unsuccessful this effort was, it does open wider the possibility for a new Republican Speaker should the GOP hold the House in 2014, especially if Republicans loose more seats. History suggests that only a strong, well-respected and powerful Speaker would be able to bring an Armenian Genocide resolution to the floor of the House for a vote before 2015. One possible scenario would be that a Speaker Ryan or a Speaker Cantor could very well play that role. After joining Mitt Romney on the Republican ticket in 2012, talk on Capitol Hill has it that Ryan is less interested in the White House, and instead is eyeing the Speaker’s gavel. In addition, it was Cantor, not Boehner, who recently spoke at the American Enterprise Institute in an effort to rebrand the GOP for the 2014 midterms. In another scenario, should Democrats take back the House in the 2014, it is unlikely that a Speaker Pelosi could or would bring an Armenian Genocide bill up for a vote, but a Speaker Hoyer potentially could.

[WATCH: Florida Armenians Editor Speaks to Voice of America’s Armenian Service About the 2012 U.S. Election (in Armenian)]

The 2014 mid-term elections will be an important factor in the makeup of Armenian-American and Turkish influence in Congress, and will set the chessboard for 2015. Congress, of which one chamber has already recognized the Armenian Genocide, has an opportunity to work with the White House to put American foreign policy on the right course when it comes to the Armenian Genocide and future human rights related policy. The outperformance of Turkish PACs to Armenian PACs in the last three cycles has turned the tables, as reflected in the Armenian and Turkish Caucus numbers. It remains to be seen what steps the Armenian-American community will take in the next 24 months. At the same time, the re-election of President Barack Obama offers a sliver of hope for Armenian-Americans, particularly in those that stuck with him (with their checkbooks and at the ballot box) last year. President Obama can issue an executive proclamation, order or decree reaffirming the vast U.S. record on the Armenian Genocide at any time prior to the expiration of his term in January 2017. Certainly, human rights and anti-genocide activists, within and beyond the Armenian-American community, hope the President will honor his 2008 campaign promise to refer to the events of 1915 as the Armenian Genocide before the 100th anniversary. With a strong, well-established and broad coalition of pro-Armenia officials in the leadership of both political parties in both chambers of the U.S. Congress (and hopefully a strong Speaker), President Obama no longer threatened by another election, Vice President Joe Biden’s well established record, and Secretary of State Kerry’s decades-long efforts on behalf of his Armenian-American constituents, there has never been a more opportune time for the Armenian-American community to have a positive impact on U.S. reaffirmation, and Turkey’s recognition, of the Armenian Genocide-potentially even a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a result. After all, it is the modern government of Turkey’s recognition of its Ottoman predecessor’s crime that the Armenian Diaspora deems as the justice necessary to bring about true healing and reconciliation between the two peoples. No doubt President Obama, his cabinet, and U.S. Congressional leaders have an opportunity to play a crucial role in what could be one of the most monumental achievements of justice and conflict resolution in modern human history.

Taniel Koushakjian is an independent political commentator for Florida Armenians (www.flarmenians.com). He earned a B.A. in Political Science from Florida Atlantic University, and is currently enrolled at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @Taniel_Shant. 

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Petition Launched on White House Website Calling on Government of Turkey to Open Border with Armenia for Syrian Refugees

By Taniel Koushakjian
FLArmenians Political Contributor

WH Petition_Syrian-Arm_01.11.13

Over the course of the last week, an Internet petition launched on the White House website has stirred emotions and reignited the debate surrounding Turkey’s nearly 20-year blockade of Armenia. In September 2011, the Obama administration launched “We the People” an online platform whereby American citizens can petition their government, a right enshrined in the First Amendment of US Constitution. According to the terms, a petition must reach 25,000 signatures within 30 days of its launch in order for it to receive a response from the administration. On January 15, the White House raised the signature threshold to 100,000 signatures. However, the new requirement applies only to new petitions and does not affect this petition.

[Click here to read the petition.]

The petition says that “There are 200,000 ethnic Armenians living in Syria and most of them want to escape to Armenia where they can feel safe, comfortable, find a job, a place to live and go to schools” and that the “road from Syria to Armenia goes through Turkey which closed its border with Armenia in 1993.” It concludes, “There shouldn’t be closed borders in the 21-st century.”

The petition was launched on January 5 and, as of this writing, has garnered over 500 signatures, five of which hail from Florida. The petition was initiated by Heritage Party activist Daniel Ioannisian in Armenia, ArmeniaNow first reported. There is no stipulation that the petition organizer be a US citizen, according to the Terms of Participation of the “We the People” platform.

Last year, Florida Armenians held events in Boca Raton and Hollywood, raising thousands of dollars to assist in the Syrian-Armenian relief effort.

According to the ArmeniaNow report, Petros Gasparian, who fled to Armenia amid intense fighting in the Syrian city of Aleppo, welcomes the initiative. He says that many want to drive to Armenia, but avoid the long travel through Georgia, which is also complicated by the need to get an extra visa and other difficulties.

“The road is very long and unfamiliar, while it’s only half a day’s drive from Aleppo to Yerevan [it takes about 35 hours to reach Armenia from Aleppo by way of Georgia]. That would be easy to all of us, but I’m not sure Turkey would display such an attitude,” Gasparian told ArmeniaNow.

Syria’s largest city, Aleppo is home to 80,000 ethnic Armenians, most descendants of survivors of the 1915 Turkish genocide of Christian Armenians. Today, thousands of Armenians have fled Syria, many seeking refuge in Armenia. According to immigration officials in Yerevan over 6,000 Syrian-Armenians have applied for citizenship in Armenia.

As Turkey’s failed policy to blockade Christian Armenia enters its second decade, the remnants of the Soviet Union continue to linger in the South Caucasus as the last iron curtain hangs over this remote but volatile region. Support for Armenian-Turkish rapprochement reached an all time high in 2009 when Armenia and Turkey signed Protocols to establish diplomatic relations. However, the accords stalled in the Turkish parliament and still await ratification.

Others hope, however, that modern-day Turkey can play a leadership role in the region and in the Syrian conflict in particular. Perhaps in all of the turmoil in the Middle East the Turkish government can display such leadership and open the border with Armenia, at least for refugees. Although a relatively small step in this context, it has the potential to move the ball forward in a larger one: Armenian-Turkish relations. When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Armenia in July 2010, she was asked about the state of Armenian-Turkish relations and the next step in the process. She replied, “The ball is in the other [Turkey’s] court.”

Taniel Koushakjian is an independent political commentator for Florida Armenians. He received his bachelor’s degree in political science from Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida, and is currently enrolled at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @Taniel_Shant. 

*This story was updated on January 16, 2013.

Campaign 2012: A Look Through the Armenian-American Lens

Campaign 2012: A Look Through the Armenian-American Lens

By Taniel Koushakjian
FLArmenians Political Contributor

We are now less than a year away from the 2012 elections and the campaign trail is already heating up. The race for the white house has catapulted various GOP candidates to the top of the mountain, only to see them tumble from its peak. So far we have seen some historic debate gaffes, incredibly bold policy proposals and unorthodox candidates try to distinguish themselves from each other, all in an effort to be the anti-Romney; the presumptive GOP nominee. But this election season is going to be unlike any other. Fresh campaign tactics, new technologies, redistricting and the latest player in the political arena, the SuperPAC, are all poised to dramatically change the way Americans vote in 2012. And these factors will impact not only the presidential race. What we see in the presidential contest will be evident in congressional races as well.

So what does this all mean for the Armenian-American community? Let’s take a look.

In congressional elections, for decades Armenian-Americans have been active in raising Armenian issues and concerns, upon which politicians compete for our vote. In recent years, the small but growing Turkish-American community has followed suit. From its peak in the 110th Congress, the Congressional Armenian Caucus boasted over 160 Members of Congress. Today it stands at 135 Members strong. At the same time, the Congressional Turkish Caucus grew its ranks from just over 60 in 2006, to 126 Members today, a 200 percent growth rate.

So far this year, 17 House Democrats and 9 House Republicans have announced their retirement or will not be seeking re-election in their present seat. The number of outright retirements can be attributed in large part to the redistricting process, a once a decade phenomenon. The announced retirement of Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), a strong leader on Armenian issues, is a prime example. Additional retirement announcements can be expected in the coming weeks.

As of this writing, the Armenian Caucus is set to lose 9 Members: Representatives Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), Dennis Cardoza (D-CA), Jerry Costello (D-IL), John Olver (D-MA), Barney Frank (D-MA) and Dale Kildee (D-MI) have all announced retirement. Congressman Kildee’s nephew, Dan Kildee, is a candidate for his uncle’s seat. In addition, three Armenian Caucus Members are running for other office: Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA) is running for mayor of San Diego, Rep. Chris Murphy (D-CT) is running to replace Joe Lieberman (I-CT) in the Senate and Rep. Shelly Berkeley (D-NV) is also running for the Senate. As of this writing, the Congressional Turkish Caucus is set to lose 7 Members: Reps. Mike Ross (D-AR), Dan Boren (D-OK) and Geoff Davis (R-KY) are retiring outright, while Reps. Connie Mack (R-FL), Denny Rehberg (R-MT) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) are running for the Senate. Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) is running for Governor. Mack, Flake and Pence all sit on the House Foreign Affairs Committee where they voted against the Armenian Genocide resolution in 2007 and 2010.

Redistricting has resulted in some of the above retirements, but it is also putting pro-Armenian incumbents in head-to-head battles and making re-election much more difficult for others. Looking at congressional champions of Armenian issues, Armenian Caucus Co-Chair Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) and Armenian Genocide resolution sponsor Adam Schiff (D-CA) have not been adversely affected by redistricting. However, Armenian Caucus Co-Chair Ed Royce (R-CA) and Armenian Genocide resolution sponsor Robert Dold (R-IL) are not as fortunate. Redistricting has made Dold’s seat bluer, and given his narrow victory in 2010, he is a top target for Democrats in 2012. Congressman Ed Royce has also been victimized by redistricting, putting him in a dual-incumbent battle with Armenian Caucus Rep. Gary Miller (R-CA). In New Jersey, reports indicate that Armenian Caucus Member Steven Rothman (D-NJ) has decided to challenge his colleague, fellow Armenian Caucus member Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) in the redrawn 9th Congressional district, setting up a costly dual-incumbent primary.

The most prominent tete-a-tete battle to result from redistricting has put two pro-Armenian (and pro-Israel) incumbents in the same district: House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Howard Berman (D-CA) and House Foreign Affairs member Brad Sherman (D-CA), both champions on Armenian issues. Rep. Sherman has a decades-long record on Armenian issues, particularly the Armenian Genocide. Congressman Berman has a similarly strong record and as Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in 2010, ensured the successful passage of H. Res. 252, the Armenian Genocide resolution. Berman is the favorite in the race, having ratcheted up over 30 endorsements, and enjoys the backing of three SuperPACs. A product of the 2010 Citizens United vs. FEC Supreme Court ruling, SuperPACs are independent expenditure only committee’s that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money.

In addition to working with our friends in Congress, electing Armenian-Americans is long overdue. This year we saw a new face emerge, Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian who sought the Democratic nomination for the 1st Congressional district. Although unsuccessful, he was able to garner 22% of the vote in the primary, no small feat. As of this writing, only one Armenian-American has officially filed papers to run for Congress, while another is preparing to jump in: David Krikorian and Danny Tarkanian, respectively.

David Krikorian is no stranger to Armenians, having unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-OH) in 2008 and 2010. Schmidt, the top recipient of Turkish PAC money, filed a complaint against Krikorian with the Ohio Elections Commission (OEC) after Krikorian accused her of taking Turkish “blood money” on campaign advertisements in the 2010 race. The OEC ruled in Schmidt’s favor. However, following the election, the House Ethics Committee began an investigation into the free legal services provided to Rep. Schmidt by the Turkish American Legal Defense Fund and the Turkish Coalition of American. Although the House Ethics Committee found no wrong doing on Schmidt’s part, she was ordered to repay the $500,000 legal bill and amend her financial forms to reflect this in-kind contribution. According to a December report in Roll Call, Schmidt “has yet to amend her financial disclosures or begin repaying the debt.”

Danny Tarkanian, the son of former University of Las Vegas basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, is preparing to run in the new 4th district of Nevada. According to a December poll by the conservative Pubic Opinion Strategies, Tarkanian overwhelmingly leads his primary challenger (73% to 9%) and when matched up with the Democratic front-runner, he holds an 11-point advantage. Tarkanian has not officially filed and has stated that he will announce his intentions in January.

Turning to the presidential race, we have President Obama, whose record on Armenian issues is not unfamiliar. Obama deserves acknowledgement for his audacity to speak about the Armenian Genocide inside the Turkish Parliament, something no U.S President has ever dared, and for overseeing the signing of historic Protocols by Turkey and Armenia. However, his broken promise of employing the proper term, Armenian Genocide, in the annual April 24 statement, as well his policies toward Azerbaijan, from disproportionate military funding to Ambassador Bryza’s recess appointment, leaves many Armenian-Americans skeptical.

Looking at the GOP field today, we have two front-runners: Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. Neither can be viewed as favorable through the Armenian-American lens. During President Bill Clinton’s second term, then-Speaker Gingrich built a leadership team that consisted of Dick Armey, Robert Livingston, and Dennis Hastert; all of who went on to lobby on behalf of Turkey against U.S. reaffirmation of the Armenian Genocide. Turning to Mitt Romney, it was positive to see pro-Armenian officials, such as former Senator Robert Dole (R-KS), Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) and former Congresswoman Susan Molinari (R-NY), endorse Romney for the GOP nomination. However, from a legislative standpoint, it is cause for concern that Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) is his Congressional liaison. In 2007, Blunt, then-House Republic Whip, was appointed by President Bush to the Foreign Affairs Committee the day before a vote on the Armenian Genocide resolution, in order to whip his Republican colleagues to vote against the bill. Recently, Senator Blunt won a top post, securing his position within the Republican Senate leadership, and is working to rake up Congressional support for Romney.

It’s definitely too early to say what is going to happen between now and November 6, especially in the race to the White House. While the focus is on the Republican primaries, Democrats are activating their grassroots in what is likely to become one of the nastiest and most expensive campaign seasons ever. In politics, anything is possible and there is certainly a long road ahead. In the meantime, it is critical that Armenian-Americans know where our elected officials stand, with whom they are associated, and their record in support or opposition to Armenian issues.

Taniel Koushakjian is an independent political commentator for Florida Armenians. He received his bachelor’s degree in political science from Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida, and is currently enrolled at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management in Washington, D.C.

This article originally appeared in Massis Post.

*Correction: An earlier version mistakenly referenced Dan Kildee as his uncle, current Rep. Dale Kildee and misattributed Ranking Member Howard Berman’s 30 endorsements to his challenger Rep. Brad Sherman.

Updated January 9 at 6:00 pm.