California's 43rd Assembly District includes entertainment giants such as Warner Bros. and the Walt Disney Co. in Burbank, hipsters in Los Feliz and Silver Lake, and the rich and famous of the Hollywood Hills.
But there's one group politicians seeking votes have been wise to pay attention to here: Armenian Americans.
There's an unspoken guideline in this portion of the southeastern San Fernando Valley: Win over the Armenians and you have won the race.
FOR THE RECORD
8:23 a.m.: An earlier version of this article stated that the 43rd Assembly District is in the western San Fernando Valley. It is in the southeastern San Fernando Valley.
For more than a decade, candidates here have been running political ads on Armenian television, inserting clumsily muttered Armenian phrases in speeches and sending translated mailers in an effort to capture attention of this formidable political machine that's been known to swing elections.
In the most heavily Armenian district in the state, Armenian Americans make up about 15% of the population.
Ardy Kassakhian, city clerk of the city of Glendale and a second-generation Armenian American, would seem to have a strong upper hand in an expensive battle being waged over the seat being vacated by Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Glendale).
But with a stubbornly unpredictable primary season and more than $1.2 million in outside spending pouring in, political observers say many of the rules are going out the window.
"There are people that think I'm the longshot in the race," says Laura Friedman, 49, a Glendale city councilwoman and Kassakhian's main rival in a crowded race of eight candidates. "I don't feel that way. I have shown that I've been able to represent a diverse community … for years."
Other Democrats running in the race include Rajiv Dalal, a former appointee of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti who built up support and a war chest early on, but whose campaign has since tapered off; Andrew Blumenfeld, a fifth-grade teacher and former president of the La Cañada Flintridge school board; and Dennis Bullock, former dean of a private high school in Burbank. The California Democratic Party has declined to endorse any of the candidates.
Two Republicans, retired Army Gen.l Mark MacCarley and political unknown Alexandra Bustamante, also are running, as is Aaron Cervantes, a former detention officer who is a candidate for the American Independent Party. The top two finishers in the June 7 primary advance to the general election.
But in a district where Democrats have a 45%-22% voter registration edge, it's Kassakhian and Friedman who have divvied up the most powerful — and deep-pocketed — supporters.
Friedman, for example, has won support from the California Nurses Assn., environmental groups such as Sierra Club California and the California League of Conservation Voters, Emily's List and the Democratic Legislative Women's Caucus. She's also been endorsed by Gatto, who is leaving office after six years because of term limits. (He has announced plans to run for state treasurer in 2018, after abandoning a state Senate campaign late last year.)
The two-term councilwoman and former film industry executive has cast herself as a working mother who has defied the odds to launch a political career. One campaign mailer features Friedman as Rosie the Riveter in rolled-up denim sleeves and a red bandana, the words "Yes we can!" in heavy lettering above the drawing.
Kassakhian, 39, has earned the backing of several of labor's heavy hitters, including the California Labor Federation , the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and the California Teachers Assn. He's also consolidated support from more than a dozen local school board members, including LAUSD Board President Steve Zimmer, and Garcetti.
His campaign has touted Kassakhian's deep roots in the community and his work to improve elections as city clerk of Glendale.
A columnist for Asbarez, a prominent Armenian newspaper in Glendale, recently called Kassakhian a "home-grown candidate" and urged voters to "please, even if you are not a registered Democrat, vote for him."
Kassakhian has been endorsed by the influential West Coast arm of the Armenian National Committee, the largest Armenian American political organization in the country.
"Ardy has a very strong track record of community service and a really good understanding of our issues. It's really a no-brainer," said Elen Asatryan, the group's executive director.
The organization sponsors a well-oiled nonpartisan get-out-the-vote effort called HyeVotes, which claims to have helped register more than 20,000 Armenian American voters since launching in 2012. The campaign provides translation help for Armenians, the vast majority of whom speak a language other than English at home, and makes house calls to assist with voter registration and vote-by-mail questions. In the last five months alone, the group has registered more than 7,000 Armenian American voters, Asatryan says.
Paul Mitchell of Political Data Inc., an expert in voting trends who grew up in the district, says Armenian voters make up an especially cohesive and effective voting bloc that lines up behind its own. "It happens in large extended families, at churches, at restaurants," he said.
Douglas Herman, a political consultant who ran an independent expenditure campaign against Gatto in 2010, says Armenian Americans have quickly become a political force to be reckoned with.
"They definitely play at a different level and they have a track record of being engaged and of being difference-makers in this district," Herman says. "These guys are emotionally invested, they're financially invested, they walk the neighborhoods and make the phone calls."
A turning point for the community came in 2000, when Paul Krekorian lost in a close primary to another Democrat in his bid to become the first Armenian Assembly member to represent the district. The presence of another Armenian candidate, a Republican, split the community.
Krekorian, who went on to win six years later, told The Times after his loss, "We did empower Armenian Americans for the first time."
Back then, Armenians made up 8% of registered voters, while Latinos were 15%. Today, there are about 45,000 Armenian American voters in the district, or about 17% of registered voters, close behind Latinos. Those large numbers can make a big difference in low-turnout elections like primaries, Mitchell said. In the last two presidential primaries, total turnout in the district has hovered around 50,000 votes.
According to Mitchell, a quarter of the roughly 3,300 vote-by-mail ballots submitted as of Thursday have been from Armenian voters, based on surname and birthplace analyses.
Parke Skelton, a consultant for Friedman, says Armenian Americans have traditionally been effective at turning out its base and organizing vote-by-mail efforts. "It's certainly an important factor," Skelton said, but not one that necessarily seals Freidman's fate.
Friedman also enjoys a wide base of support in Glendale, the largest bloc of votes in a district that includes Burbank and parts of Los Angeles, and is the only woman on the ballot running a serious campaign, he said. Gatto's endorsement is also "phenomenally important" to voters there, he added. An early poll released by her campaign showed Friedman ahead of the Democratic pack at 18%, behind MacCarley but with more than three times more support than Kassakhian.
Friedman also has benefited from nearly $1 million worth of independent expenditures made on her behalf by the California Charter Schools Assn. The committee, which calls itself the Parent Teacher Alliance, has been flooding voters' mailboxes with claims Kassakhian was responsible for uncounted ballots during elections and used his power to "yank" a female school board candidate from the ballot after she missed a filing deadline.
In a statement, the association said Friedman is "the only candidate in this race who will bring all public education stakeholders to the table, not just some," adding that voters "deserve to know" about Kassakhian's "failed leadership." Their last foray into local politics was support for opening a charter school in Glendale.
At a new conference on the steps of Glendale City Hall Wednesday, Kassakhian decried what he said were "dirty tactics" from a "sham group" trying to masquerade as the better-known Parent Teacher Assn.
"The association that has put up this money has found an individual … they think will do their bidding in Sacramento," Kassakhian said, after supporters called the mailers false and misleading.
(Internal city audits mentioned one instance of ballots being found after the election and called for specific improvements but otherwise stated that elections procedures were adequate. A report by Claremont McKenna College's Rose Institute of State and Local Government and commissioned by the city also called the city's elections operation "impressive, up-to-date, efficient and accurate.")
Friedman said pointed out she has no control over the outside group, which by law cannot coordinate with the campaign. "If you're going to decry outside spending, you might as well decry all of it," Friedman said, pointing out the $300,546 in pro-Kassakhian independent expenditures from the California Assn. of Realtors, the California Apartment Assn. and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.
He has raised $438,614, the vast majority of it from individuals in the Armenian community, and as of April 23 had $250,985 in cash on hand. Friedman has raised $502,704 and had $183,956 banked with less than three weeks left until the election.
It's possible the Democratic infighting could allow a Republican – or even a third Democrat – to slip through.
Dalal, 35, is one possibility. In a phone interview, he was frank about his "slim" chances of advancing past June.
"This is now a two-person race, and I am, unfortunately, not one of them," Dalal said. "The reality of this race is outside money is determining the winner and there's not much that a candidate without a machine can do."
Though he raised only $15,350 in the first quarter of 2016, Dalal has $170,484 banked, and with the potential support of entertainment industry figures and Asian Americans on election day and a deeply divided Democratic field, experts say he can't be discounted.
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