In the costliest and most vicious City Council race of the Los Angeles election season, the battle for Hollywood has shattered beliefs about Armenian solidarity, with Paul Krekorian's role seen as causing deep rifts in the community.
Little Armenia in East Hollywood is a key battleground area where Krekorian's endorsement of labor union darling John Choi and the heavy-handed tactics that are being employed against Mitch O'Farrell, a popular council staffer, have enraged many local community leaders.
They claim Choi, a new resident of the district, with Krekorian's help, hired Armenian campaign workers from Glendale to staff phone banks and walk door-to-door to confuse thousands of newly registered voters who are mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
"Choi workers are telling voters they're calling from my office and going to people's homes and using my name and saying that I'm for Choi and telling old people that they'll lose their low-income housing and benefits," said Sam Kbushyan, son of a prominent Little Armenia restaurateur and the third-place finisher in a primary field of 12 who more than doubled Armenian voter registration during his campaign.
Choi, for his part, has repeatedly denied the accusations, claiming its actually O'Farrell's workers misrepresenting themselves.
Kbushyan's harsh words are repeated over and over by Little Armenian community leaders who are working hard to elect O'Farrell, a veteran staffer in mayoral candidate Eric Garcetti's council office who is highly regarded in the neighborhoods as responsive to their concerns.
Between them, Choi and O'Farrell got barely a third of the votes in the March primary. They have raised close to $800,000 combined, gotten $436,000 in public matching funds, and received, at last report, nearly $800,000 in independent expenditures, with Choi having better than a 2-1 money advantage.
"They're calling Paul a traitor — it's so unfair of them to ignore all that he has done for the Armenian community as a private citizen, a Burbank school board member, a state Assemblyman and now a councilman," said Krekorian spokesman Jeremy Oberstein.
He suggested Kbushyan and others prominent in Little Armenia groups are not authentic community leaders and pointed to Krekorian's original statement of why he was backing a candidate in the 13th District, especially one perceived as an outsider being promoted with union money to consolidate power on the council.
"John Choi has shown he knows what it takes to preserve vital city services like street paving, filling potholes and building parks despite budget cuts. He's my choice for City Council because we need strong leaders like him in the tough days ahead," Krekorian had said.
Others in the community offer a different take on why Krekorian, who represents a North Hollywood-based district in the East San Fernando Valley, would put his credibility on the line in this race.
"He's trying to show to the unions that he did something they wanted, that he supported John Choi, so later, when he runs for mayor, they will support him. It's all politics," said Edgar Makhshikyan, a long-time resident who co-founded the Little Armenia Chamber of Commerce and heads the Little Armenia Homeowners Association.
"When Sam Kbushyan was the candidate we had no problem, we were all together and working hard for him and for our community. Then, after the primary, Paul Krekorian got involved and because of him, we have these problems.
In contrast to Choi, O'Farrell is seen as "a good person, an honorable person who has helped us every time," said Garo Keurjikian, honorary mayor of Little Armenia and owner of a towing and auto repair business.
"I don't want trouble, but Krekorian is dividing the community. It's a dirty business. They just want to take votes from the old ladies and confusing people. They are doing the wrong thing. I don't like that."
In its endorsement of O'Farrell, the L.A. Times sounded similar concerns raised by the Little Armenia community leaders, noting Choi's lack of history in the district and his deep union ties.
The Times said, "It was troubling during the primary when he promised at an endorsement meeting with the Service Employees International Union: "You are going to be on the inside. We are going to decide who to open the door for."
For my money, that goes directly to why Krekorian unnecessarily got involved. I helped him win the special election to City Council after a long discussion about issues and values and watched him do all the right things for six months as he used his intelligence to learn the nature of the L.A. political game.
Then, he became its most eloquent and articulate defender of its most preposterous policies that ignored the concerns of residents, policies that served the unions, developers, contractors and the corrupt political machine itself, rising day by day to positions of greater importance and influence.
To my mind, he's got that "lean and hungry look" that makes those with too much ambition dangerous. That's sad, since he has the brains and talent to stand on his own and be a real leader, instead of a panderer to special interests.