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Drawing Flak but Not Retreating

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

He’s an ex-Marine fond of citing the old French Foreign Legion motto--"March or Die"--when the going gets tough.

It has been that way often during Pasadena Mayor William Paparian’s public life, marked by risky crusades on behalf of people like former Black Panther Party leader Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt and an Armenian American man convicted in the terrorist murder of a Turkish diplomat. He once engineered the city’s David vs. Goliath battle against aerial malathion spraying that sent a police helicopter aloft to ticket state choppers.

In recent months, Paparian, 47, has found himself embroiled in an odd string of fresh skirmishes that have inspired new levels of both admiration and ridicule around town. In an age when City Hall so often seems the preserve of drab technocrats, Paparian is the conspicuous exception: a risk-taking renegade no focus group would ever build.

First, there was his trip last year to Cuba, where he was received as a dignitary. His calls for ending the U.S. economic blockade against Cuba were read by some as endorsement of the Castro regime, prompting angry threats back home for his recall. Paparian insists he is no fan of Castro, but views the 34-year-old blockade as inhumane and bad for U.S. business.

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The dust had barely settled from the Cuba controversy when Paparian declared bankruptcy. And when a local newspaper put his financial woes on the front page, he hit back with a lawsuit charging that the reporter improperly used confidential credit records. Paparian accused the paper of trying to embarrass him by printing the story on a day when thousands of people flocked to town for the USC-UCLA football game. The lawsuit against the Pasadena Star-News was dismissed earlier this month.

Paparian also has filed suit against the city’s venerable University Club; he says its leaders slandered him over disputed unpaid bills because they were angry about his Cuba trip.

The latest flaps have added to Paparian’s go-it-alone mystique. To supporters, he is an important independent, progressive voice on the City Council. To detractors, his antics have undercut some otherwise good works and tarred Pasadena’s stately image.

The controversies also have underlined the sometimes puzzling complexities of a former Republican (now an independent) who admires both leftist revolutionary Che Guevara and the U.S. Marine Corps, who speaks out on Cuba and for the rights of American gun owners like himself. Paparian’s views may seem an incongruous marriage of right and left, but his friends say they mark an independent-minded populist who favors the underdog and answers no clarion but his own.

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“Bill can thrive on controversy,” says one friend, Rick Cole, a former Pasadena mayor. “It’s as if he gets an adrenaline rush from using city government to tackle unpopular causes or startle people into new ways of thinking.”

His style has created no shortage of turbulence in a council district that is one of the most conservative in the city. And it has left colleagues occasionally watching in befuddlement.

“I don’t know if he is a lone wolf or a rogue elephant,” said Councilman Paul Little, who has clashed at times with Paparian despite their shared views on most issues. “Sometimes he is an elephant who runs until he hits a big tree.”

Whatever is said about his headstrong style, Paparian has succeeded in raising the profile of causes he holds dear, from defending affirmative action and fighting hate crime to boosting public safety and seeking to save a local Marine Corps reserve center.

“He doesn’t seem to worry about, ‘Is this the popular thing for me to do? Is this going to get me elected next time around?’ ” said another friend, former deputy city manager Edward Aghjayan.

Paparian, who made his name as an advocate for Armenian Americans and has run unsuccessfully for county supervisor and municipal judge, said the recent travails have left him weary. The bankruptcy, he concedes, was an embarrassment. Paparian said his one-man law practice collapsed as he threw himself into mayoral duties.

But he is unapologetic about his stands. “I’m a loyal American. I’m a patriotic person. I’m not some subversive person trying to overthrow the government,” he said.

Paparian said his opposition to the Cuba blockade stemmed in part from the troubled history of his grandparents’ Armenian homeland. “Turkey today prevents humanitarian aid to go overland to Armenia. So there is . . . a sensitivity on my part,” he said.

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He complained that the attention to his high-profile stances--such as his call for a new trial for Pratt, the Black Panther leader who is serving a life sentence for murder--has obscured his more mundane constituent work. “There’s a difference between my thinking it’s important to speak out publicly on a case like Pratt and what I do in representing the interests of my constituents . . . making sure the trash is getting picked up and the stop sign is where it should be.”

In his feud with the 75-year-old University Club, Paparian says the club’s president slandered him in published comments about the club’s attempt to collect $489 in allegedly unpaid dues and charges dating to 1993. A judge dismissed the small-claims action for insufficient evidence and Paparian sued after club President Fred Flinn commented on the matter in the Pasadena Weekly.

Paparian charged that those comments suggested he skipped out on meal tabs and therefore was “of dishonest and corrupt character,” according to the lawsuit. Paparian said in an interview that officials at the club were out to embarrass him over his trip to Cuba--even serving its small-claims legal papers during a break in a public City Council meeting.

Club officials deny any revenge motive, contending they filed the small-claims action months before the Cuba visit and presented the papers at City Hall because they were unsuccessful in earlier attempts.

“It has nothing to do with his going to Cuba. Personally, I could care less if he went to Cuba,” said the club’s treasurer, John D. Peck. The suit is pending.

Paparian two years ago filed a $100,000 defamation claim against a Burbank councilman who criticized travel spending by members of the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority, to which Paparian belonged. Paparian later dropped the claim.

“I don’t understand Bill,” said the Burbank councilman, Ted McConkey. “I don’t believe I ever will.”

Paparian traces his bent for sometimes-unpopular causes to “an intolerance for intolerance” born of his upbringing in a family of Armenian immigrants.

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Paparian grew up in Van Nuys in the 1960s, a surfer who played guitar but also was the butt of jokes because of his mother’s foreign accent. Paparian said his ethnic background spawned an affinity for the concerns of racial minorities--a concern that has shown up in his campaigning against state ballot measures to scale back affirmative action and services for illegal immigrants.

“I see it all around me--the scapegoating of immigrants, the legitimizing of intolerance,” Paparian said.

He protested the Vietnam war while a theater student at Cal State Northridge but, imbued with the strong patriotism of his parents, joined the Marines in 1971. He was stationed at Camp Pendleton.

As a young attorney, Paparian plunged into causes dear to local Armenian Americans. He helped gain a medical furlough for Gourgen Yanikian, an immigrant convicted in the 1973 assassination of two Turkish diplomats, and served on the defense team for Harry M. Sassounian, a Pasadena man found guilty in the fatal 1982 shooting of a Turkish consul.

Paparian remained active in the Armenian National Committee, which successfully lobbied Pasadena to become the nation’s first city to enact legislation recognizing Armenians as a protected class for purposes of affirmative action.

Paparian was elected to his third term on the City Council in 1995 and assumed the mayor’s post. In 10 years on the council, Paparian also gained notice by challenging the use of some Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies for Rose Bowl security on the grounds that deputies at the Lynwood station had been accused of forming a white supremacist group.

In one of his best-known moments, Paparian led the city’s 1990 battle to block the local spraying against the Mediterranean fruit fly by outlawing formation-flying at low altitudes. The showdown, in which a city police helicopter was dispatched to tail and cite the state’s aircraft spraying, won national media attention.

Last year Paparian dismayed members of city’s conservative establishment by leading the Rev. Jesse Jackson and other demonstrators to a ritzy Pasadena neighborhood to protest Proposition 209 outside a Republican fund-raiser that included Gov. Pete Wilson. Paparian has continued to fight implementation of the measure, which would dismantle public affirmative action programs.

Paparian has stuck to his calls to end the Cuba blockade despite the stinging public reaction to his last trip in some quarters. He helped sponsor a conference on U.S.-Cuban relations last month and hopes to join a San Francisco trade group on a visit this spring.

“I would hope it would be a catalyst for a broader dialogue,” Paparian said.

Some critics grumble Paparian’s far-flung interests have distracted him from his neighborhood duties. “The ill-advised trip to Cuba brought considerable condemnation on him,” said Councilman William Thomson Jr. "[These actions] damaged things he’d like to accomplish and made it hard for him to get public support.”

But even observers who have clashed with Paparian in the past see his style as an amalgam of a particular time and background. “The world Bill Paparian grew up in were revolutionary times and that, mixed with his Armenian cultural sense of togetherness, is what he still carries with him,” said Councilman Chris Holden.

Cole said Paparian’s quirky activism taps a political sentiment that defies the city’s staid image.

“I think it is a populist streak--the little guy against the big guy,” said Cole, who ignited his own share of controversy while on the council. “Sometimes it sounds like a conservative streak. Sometimes it sounds radical.”


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