Election hopefuls reflect diversity

Candidates hail from around globe
By Naush Boghossian, Staff Writer

Los Angeles Daily News, CA
Article Published: Sunday, March 27, 2005 – 12:00:00 AM PST

Election hopefuls reflect diversity

GLENDALE — City Council candidate Hovik Gabikian lived through
the shah of Iran’s monarchy, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime, the
Iran-Iraq war and Armenian socialism.

School board candidate Maria Prieto Rochart fled Cuba, where her
father had been imprisoned for four years for opposing Fidel Castro.

Although they appear to come from seemingly different backgrounds,
both now find themselves realizing democracy in action: They are
among more than 40 candidates seeking the eight offices on the ballot
in Glendale’s April 5 municipal election — the largest field of
candidates in the city’s 99-year history. That’s as many candidates as
ran for 17 offices on the ballot in the Los Angeles election March 8.

Aside from the sheer number of candidates, what distinguishes the
Glendale election from others is its diversity, with candidates from
Cuba, Iran, England, the Philippines, Lebanon, Germany, Armenia,
Nicaragua and Hong Kong.

It’s the American dream for those to whom America was a dream as they
grew up in countries where they were oppressed, denied basic rights
and prohibited from having a voice in government.

“When we first got here and were going through the immigrant
experience, we always put the finger of blame on the government,” said
Gabikian, a 35-year-old social worker at the Los Angeles Department
of Social Services.

“Then I realized, as I tried to understand this huge system, how it
tries to integrate people from different backgrounds and lifestyles
and ideologies in a powerful and amazing way.”

What the large turnout reflects is a thriving grass-roots democracy
in the city of 200,000 whose residents speak 67 languages, said
Harry Pachon, a professor of immigration policy at the University of
Southern California.

“What it does is it refreshes American democracy, because what you
have is persons in ethnic neighborhoods or barrios that believe in
the American system even more so than native Americans,” he said.

“It’s almost civic naivete that they believe what we Americans take
for granted.”

For most immigrants coming from countries that quash their voices and
ideas, their concept of America is simple: The land of opportunity
where anything is possible — and obtainable.

Mayor Bob Yousefian remembers when, at age 17, he arrived in New
York City from Iran, speaking only a few words of English, staring
in wonderment at the skyscrapers.

“If somebody were to walk over to me and say that one day you’re going
to be mayor of one of these cities, I’d think they were crazy because
you’re coming from a country where you either have to been born into
it or you need to be one of the privileged,” said Yousefian, now 48.

“When you’re able to accomplish such a goal, then you really realize
what America is all about. It’s all up to you. If you want it, and
you work hard for it, you can achieve it.”

It was the absence of freedom in her native Cuba that prompted Rochart
to get involved in the community in which she now lives — and where
she realizes it’s a privilege to be able to vote.

“I have a very keen interest in politics and to be involved on a
local level and make a difference in our community,” said Rochart, 41.

“And because I come from a dictatorship, over here we take free speech
and all the things that come with the freedom here for granted.”

Gabikian, one of 19 candidates for four City Council seats, said he
wanted to run to serve as an example to other immigrants to take a
more active role in their community.

There are also nine candidates for three seats on the school board
and nine running for city clerk.

As with the Irish, the Italians and the Polish decades before, the
large number of candidates could also indicate the political maturation
of the ethnic groups, who traditionally start their political careers
by voting, then running for local office.

It’s especially true for the Armenians, who account for seven of the
18 City Council candidates, five of the nine school board candidates,
four of the nine city clerk candidates — and 25 percent of the
city’s population.

Diversity among elected officials in California is already becoming
more common and will only continue to grow as populations become more
diverse, said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of California Target Book,
a nonpartisan report analyzing political campaigns and races.

Hoffenblum cited the change in the state Legislature, where 15 years
ago there were six Latinos and there are 27 now.

“It’s phenomenal. We’re on the cusp of possibly electing a Latino for
mayor of Los Angeles and you’re seeing more and more of it. I mean,
look at Arnold,” he said, referring to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“One of the reasons they’re here in America is the right to vote
and to determine one’s own agenda. What new immigrants particularly
recognize is the power government has over them and the best way to
achieve that power is to go and get elected.”

Victor King, seeking re-election as a Glendale Community College
trustee and the first Asian-American elected official in Glendale
history, said that his cultural background never informed his decision
to run for the position.

But, the Hong Kong native said, his experiences allowed him to feel
sympathetic to the plight of new immigrants and the challenges they
face in their adopted country.

Historically, Glendale has been a haven for the displaced — from
those escaping the Dust Bowl in the 1930s to those fleeing strife in
the Middle East in the 1980s — King said, so he’s not surprised that
the election boasts such a large number of diverse candidates.

“There’s a profound connection between the two. Glendale has
traditionally been a place for people who come hoping for a better
life,” he said. “From the Midwest to the Middle East, Glendale has
been a place where newcomers have been welcome.”

Naush Boghossian, (818) 546-3306 [email protected]

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