The Armenian factor

Armenian-Americans seem like an odd group to go to battle over, but both 39th district state Senate candidates are vying for their support.

It’s common for politicians to court specific ethnic groups if they’re numerous enough to have an impact at the polls, but what makes Armenian-Americans different is their tiny population. There are just over 8,200 Armenians in Bergen County, according to the 2000 census, and about 17,000 statewide. But despite their small numbers, they’re cohesive and politically active, and they can be a powerful political force if they coalesce behind a single candidate. Now the support of the Armenian-American community has become a point of contention between Democratic state Senate candidate Joe Ariyan, who’s of Armenian heritage, and long-time Republican incumbent Gerald Cardinale, who just sponsored a Senate resolution that will appeal to many in the community.

Ariyan has demonstrated impressive fundraising prowess considering he’s never held a competitive elected office, raising about $200,000 so far. And a lot of that money has come from Armenian-Americans.

Ariyan’s first major fundraising event was a reception hosted by an Armenian friend, and about 60 Armenian sounding names – which generally end in “ian,” according to Ariyan – appear in his campaign filings. Using that rule of thumb to recognize Armenian names, it appears that Armenian-Americans had donated about $80,000 to Ariyan’s campaign as of his last filing.

The last high profile Armenian-American politician in New Jersey was former Assembly Speaker Chuck Haytaian, a Republican who challenged Frank Lautenberg for Senator in 1994. The Armenian-American community rallied around Haytaian during his years in office, and the same kind of support has gone to Ariyan, a Democrat. But Ariyan insists that his background isn’t an automatic in with local Armenians.

“It’s not just like ‘you’re Armenian, here’s a check’ believe me. They see me as a viable candidate because I’m a moderate, objective, rational person,” said Ariyan. “When these Armenians step up, they’re stepping up just like everyone else, because they see a moderate, credible person who wants to serve the public.”

While Armenians are as economically and politically diverse as any American ethnic group, they tend to share one common political goal: national recognition of the 1915 Armenian Genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. Many countries have classified the event as a genocide, but the United States has not.

Jason Capizzi, Executive Director of ARMENPAC, a federal Armenian-American Political Action Committee, said that most issues of concern to Armenians need to be addressed on a national level. But one way to achieve that is to get state governments to pass resolutions.

“Joe comes from an area where there are a lot of Armenians who believe he’s qualified and has got a real chance,” said Capizzi. “It’s really easy for everyone to get behind him.”

Just last month, Cardinale introduced Senate Resolution 115, which designates April 24th as “Armenian Martyrs’ Day” to commemorate the Armenian Genocide. Resolutions on the Armenian genocide have been introduced before in the Assembly by Chuck Haytaian, and more recently by 38th district members Joan Voss and Bob Gordon, but this was the first time Cardinale ever sponsored one.

“Some of my Armenian friends asked me to do it,” said Cardinale, a legislator since 1980. “They’re doing a fundraiser for me, and one of them said ‘Since Chuck has been gone this hasn’t been reintroduced, would you do me the favor of reintroducing it?”

Cardinale’s sponsorship of the resolution would almost certainly be uncontroversial under normal circumstances. But it has Ariyan’s campaign accusing Cardinale of trying to take a small but loyal and well-paying chunk of voters away from of his base.

“It’s blatant pandering 26 years too late. He’s never done it before. Coincidentally it’s an election year, and he submits this ten months before (April 24th),” said Ariyan. “If it weren’t disingenuous, it would be a commendable gesture, but the fact is this is the first time in 26 years.”

Cardinale insisted that he has long ties with the Armenian community, nothing that he suggested the judicial nomination of Edward A. Jerejian, who became Bergen County’s first Armenian-American judge.

“I think its fair to say that when some of my Armenian friends saw this activity on behalf of the Armenian community, they were a bit outraged, being that there’s a very positive impact on the Armenian community here in Bergen county through my efforts of getting the first Armenian-American judgeship,” said Cardinale.

He added, “If you’re a political candidate, you don’t want to allow your opponent to get a whole homogenous group….. I’ve enjoyed the support of a lot of Armenian Americans in the past….. I want them to understand that even though I have an opponent who has a common heritage with them, that doesn’t mean I’m going to write them off.”

The Armenian factor