It was a week Zareh Sinanyan will never forget. The man who left the Soviet Republic of Armenia as a 14-year-old a quarter century ago took his seat as a Glendale City Councilman on Monday, faced harsh criticism from residents during public comment on Tuesday over hateful comments he posted on the Internet several years ago, attended several community events in his official capacity and then sat down to clear the air.
“I engaged people in conversation in an unacceptable and emotional way that I deeply regret,” he said, repeating the word “regret” more than 20 times during our 40-minute chat.
“They were conversations — antagonistic conversations — about the Armenian genocide, Armenian-Azeri relations, things my family experienced directly. They would say things like, ‘We should have done more to you. We should have finished the job.’
“It’s impossible for me to look at those conversations and even say that’s me. That does not justify it. I regret having made those statements. I regret having hurt anyone. I regret using that language. I’m not excusing myself in any way.”
Those were hard words for a proud man to utter, a man who like most Armenians will never be able to let go of what happened in 1915 and what has happened so often to Armenians over the years until there is official recognition of their suffering.
The anti-gay, anti-Muslim comments Sinanyan made on YouTube five years or so ago came back to haunt him in the campaign’s last month — “29 days before the election,” he says, and he was called to account on blogs, in the press and before the City Council, which wanted to know if he should be removed from a city commission.
His response was to stonewall the issue, a non-denial denial that left many in the community angry and seemed to jeopardize his chances to win the election. But he went on the warpath and rallied the Armenian community, which used its organizational and economic muscle to help him win the open seat created by Frank Quintero’s retirement.
“To say that I was jarred would be a gross understatement. The campaign ground to a halt. I lost weight. I kept thinking, ‘Who is doing this? Why are they doing this?’
“My reputation has been a positive one. I knew they couldn’t bring someone in who knew me who would say, ‘Yes, he’s a well-known racist, yes, a homophobe.’ But I was accused of those things. I wasn’t thinking straight. I needed to get some sleep to rationally think about this.”
Sinanyan talked about how his grandparents survived a death march from their home in Turkey across the Syrian desert, how his parents, both engineers in Armenia, arrived with their two teenage children in Burbank in 1988 with a few hundred dollars, how they worked hard to learn English and to provide a better life for the family.
He talked about his campaign platform to make city government more open and transparent, to hold council meetings in the community, to meet regularly with school officials, to impose term limits on elected officials — measures he believes will be “conducive to good governance.”
“I have a vision and I’m going to try to do my best for everyone in Glendale,” he said.
On Tuesday, at his first full City Council meeting, Sinanyan said little except to make the point that filling the seat vacated by Rafi Manoukian’s election as city treasurer should be an open process and not some political deal.
But he remained silent as several people stepped up during public comment to sharply criticism him for the hateful words he had used and his failure to respond directly — criticisms a supporter called “cheap shots.”
Mayor Dave Weaver told the critics to “can it” because Sinanyan is going to serve out his term unless he’s recalled.
The telling moment came when Glendale High freshman Zehra Siddiqui, who had read a passage from the Koran at the recent mayor’s breakfast, talked about how Muslim students are often “bullied for our religion.”
“The youth in Glendale should have people with such important titles as role models and it’s important for these so-called role models to take responsibility for their actions, whether good or bad,” she said.
Her words, her presentation, touched Sinanyan deeply and convinced him it was time to take responsibility for what he had said.
“She was the one who got to me. After she spoke all I could think about was, ‘Why would I say something that would insult someone like her?’ I would just hope that she would forgive me, I didn’t mean those things. They were obviously made in anger.
“I will do my best to represent her to the best of my abilities. I see her as the future of America. By my actions, I will show who I really am, that those words are not me.”
Clearly, Sinanyan will be living in a fish bowl for quite a while, at the center of tensions over the ascendance of Armenians in the political, economic and cultural life of a city that was very different a quarter century ago when his family arrived in the area.
For him, and for Glendale, this presents a great challenge to overcome divisions and a great opportunity to move forward and build a greater city together.