“I also heard too that one gentleman in particular was being watched because he has a reputation of busing in elderly Republicans from the day-care facility that he owns,” Gatto campaign political director Stacey Brenner wrote in an email response to questions about racial profiling of Armenians at the Jan. 12 election.
Serious specific allegations, so it didn't take long to find someone who fit the bill.
“She must be referring to me. I don't know who else she could be referring to,” said Berdj Karapetian, a soft-spoken businessman who denied ever having “been investigated for anything … or being found guilty of anything.”
Karapetian heads the state Adult Day Health Care Assn. that has protested steep cuts in state funding that provides services to so many frail elderly people. He's highly regarded in the community for his activism on behalf of Armenians and underserved minorities.
He brought two people from his center to vote at the delegate event, and both were challenged. A man suffering from Parkinson's disease was credentialed, but the other was rejected — though Karapetian says his Democratic Party voter registration later turned up in official records.
I went searching for Karapetian because I thought the enmity toward him, and the Armenian community's toward Gatto, was symptomatic of just how deep the rift had become — something that clearly was unhealthy for the party, the Armenian community, Gatto and the Glendale-Burbank region.
Karapetian traces the breakdown in relations to his role as chairman of an Armenian National Committee task force that organized support for Democrat Nayiri Nahabedian in the April 2010 primary special election to succeed Paul Krekorian, who had resigned when elected to the L.A. City Council.
“When Mike won, I helped introduce him to the Armenian community and got volunteers for him. I was under the impression he would do something appropriate and give more representation to the Armenian community. We thought he would do that and were critical when he didn't.”
At the delegate selection event, the phrase “good Democrat” was bandied about with the apparent meaning that it required blind loyalty to the party — or specifically to Gatto — something that was difficult for many in the community when an Armenian candidate, Democrat or Republican, was challenging the assemblyman.
So I wondered what Karapetian took the phrase “good Democrat” to mean.
“To me, government is supposed to be there to help those that are less fortunate, that have more difficulty, to also have a voice. It shouldn't be only those who are powerful, wealthy, to be able to get services and get benefits. There has to be a process of fairness and equality. Those beliefs are close to what our Democratic Party stands for. That's why I'm a Democrat.
“But the dilemma that many of us Democrats feel exists is this: An elected official gets to a point that they are a councilman, an assemblyman, a congressman, and they start using their position to use strong-arm tactics. It's like the old-style politics in Chicago where the elected officials were dictating what was going to happen. I thought we were done with that, where we were going to let the individuals themselves decide who were going to be the delegates in this case, not the assemblyman.
“Why did he have to force his people on us? He's allowed to get away with it because the Democratic leadership is not telling Mr. Gatto, ‘Behave like an assemblyman and don't turn this into a system where you can control everybody and dictate terms to them.' They have allowed this situation to exist. They should rein him in and stop turning a deaf ear when the Armenian community approaches and says things need to change.”
So where does the party's leadership stand?
Eric Bauman, chairman of the county Democratic Party and vice chairman of the state party, said he learned there were problems on the day of the event, and was deeply concerned about the situation.
“I believe that a formal complaint was filed with party officials, and it will be thoroughly investigated. If what is alleged happened, I can tell you that is not acceptable behavior by any stretch. Though I don't know the exact facts, the perception of the situation is one that does not comport with the big D-Democrat values or the Mike Gatto I know.”
The bigger issue is the anger that exists within the party, he acknowledged.
“As the chair of the county Democratic Party, if I can help people get through this and come together, I am absolutely willing to do that. It is important,” Bauman said.
It remains to be seen whether Gatto's role goes beyond boasting that the “Gatto slate” won all 12 seats or whether he in fact threatened school board candidate Steve Ferguson to abandon his teacher slate for delegate slots — as claimed — or whether he had a hand in singling out Armenian voters for challenges at the delegate selection event.
A politician as ambitious as Gatto needs to fix this if he expects to win other offices and, more importantly, he and the party leaders need to get to work to restore their credibility in the community.
--RON KAYE can be reached at email@example.com. Share your thoughts and stories with him.