GLENDALE — Many of the men dressed in suits and hunched over backgammon boards at the Victory senior center were not registered to vote a month ago. Neither were the women chatting in Armenian. Most are now.
As swing voters in a congressional race pivotal to which party will control the next Congress, Armenians in the Los Angeles suburbs of Glendale, Burbank and Pasadena are emerging as a key political force. They are being courted aggressively by candidates — with Armenian-language ads, speeches in Armenian and appearances on Armenian cable channels — and signed up to vote in record numbers.
“We’re taking this election very seriously,” said Agavni Baroyan, 75. “It’s a very important campaign and I think it’s very important to raise my voice.”
Republican Rep. James E. Rogan, who became a national figure as a House manager of President Clinton’s impeachment trial, and his challenger, state Sen. Adam B. Schiff, are running the most expensive House race in history, with a combined $9.5 million raised so far.
That means vigorously pursuing members of the area’s Armenian community, at 75,000 the largest outside Armenia itself and 8 percent of the registered voters in California’s 27th House district.
“Democrats are for Schiff solid, Republicans are for Rogan solid, so you’re looking for niche votes,” said Jim Hayes, president of Political Data, a Burbank firm that sells voter information to candidates.
“The Armenian community is pivotal because it doesn’t appear to have any allegiances.”
Rogan made what many viewed as a grab for those votes recently, working with House leaders to schedule a floor vote on a resolution that would recognize as genocide the mass killings of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1923.
Armenians say 1.5 million of their people were slaughtered as part of the Ottoman Empire’s campaign to force them out of eastern Turkey. The Turkish government says the death count is inflated and the people were killed as the Ottoman Empire tried to quell civil unrest.
The Ottoman Empire became Turkey in 1923. Armenia, which borders Georgia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iran, was one of the 15 independent republics that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The measure is of supreme importance to Armenians. It also has angered the government of Turkey, a key U.S. ally in NATO, and is vehemently opposed by the Clinton administration.
So much so that President Clinton wrote Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., on Thursday urging him “in the strongest terms” not to bring the issue up to a vote.
Otherwise, he said, there could be “far-reaching negative consequences for the United States” and its interests abroad.
A Rogan campaign spokesman denied the timing of the effort was political. But both campaigns are going to lengths to reach out to Armenians.