Armenian Weekly intern Lilly Torosyan recently conducted the following interview with Julia Tashjian, the former Secretary of Connecticut from 1983-91. Tashjian is an active member of St. George’s Armenian Apostolic Church in Hartford, Conn., and currently resides in Windsor, Conn.
Lilly Torosyan: Tell us a little bit about your background.
Julia Tashjian: Well I was born in Rhode Island, and moved to Connecticut when I was four years old. My parents were from Kharpert. My mother was from Iznik and my father was from Sursur. When they came to the United States, they went to Rhode Island because that was where a lot of Armenians from that area relocated.
LT: What brought you into elective politics? Was it a gradual process or a spontaneous decision?
JT: At that time, you had to be 21 to vote. I started out at 18 on the Young Democrats. The reason I got interested in politics in the first place was that the old neighborhood in Hartford where I grew up was very politically active. Around election time, there would be banners across the front porches and I thought, ‘Gee, well that’s a lot of fun. I think I’d like to do that!’
I started running peoples’ campaigns and fundraisers. When I decided to run for office, I had been helping one of the other legislators running for secretary of state, and when I was reading the background of others on the ballot, I noticed that I had a better background in government than they had, so I decided to give it a go. I was told that I shouldn’t bother because not only did I not have any elective experience, but there were not enough Armenians to fill a phone booth! So I had no ethnic group to back me. In fact, none of the reporters could even pronounce my last name. They told me that I had no chance at all, but when I won the convention, they started to pronounce my name properly. [She chuckles]
After I got elected, everybody said I was a lawyer but I was not. I am not a lawyer. In fact, I did not even start taking college classes until my early 40s, and I never finished college. But, I worked at the legislature from 1969 until I took office [in 1983] so I was familiar with how the state government worked and how you get things done.
LT: What’s your opinion of Connecticut politics today and the direction it is heading in?
JT: Well I like Governor [Dannel] Malloy, but I think one of the problems is that the legislature is no longer made up of professionals. We used to have plumbers, farmers, real estate workers—people from all different walks of life—so when they were making a decision, it was based on knowledge that was passed from whoever was in that field. We are now inundated with people who have chosen legislature as a career, rather than as public service. People have been in office too long and what happens is after so many years, you forget what it’s like for the man on the street. Before, in politics, it was understood that ‘Your word is your bond.’ Now, people change their minds and you don’t even know it until they get on the floor to vote!
LT: I understand that you have done a lot for the local Armenian community, even after you served as secretary of state. Describe your involvement in Armenian causes: events, charities, etc.
JT: For many years, I helped the organizers of the Martyr’s Day commemoration that took place in the state capitol building every year. In fact, it used to be in the Senate Chambers, but it just got so big that we had to relocate to the House Chambers.
I remember one year when [William] O’Neal was governor, his office called me, saying that a Turkish group was against having these events in the state capitol and asked what I thought. I told them that as the governor, he had the right to his own decision, but that if anything were to happen, there was nevertheless a much larger Armenian population in Connecticut than Turkish, so there would be demonstrations for sure. After that, they backed down.
Also, the governor put me in charge of the funds in Connecticut for the Armenian earthquake in Gyumri [Dec. 7, 1988]. I also worked with the representative for the Connecticut Board of Education to get the Armenian Genocide into the school curriculum.
I also served on the National Platform Committee for Democrats, which met in many cities from New England to California. No matter where I went, the Armenian community would always contact me every time. They would have coffee hour or something, regardless of which Armenian political party they belonged to. They all were proud that there was an Armenian running.
LT: Do you believe that it is important for Armenians to be involved in American politics? How would you recommend they become more engaged, especially for those who have never been politically active?
JT: I’ve been saying this for years! The problem is that a lot of Armenians came here to escape the genocide, and they were just thankful to be in a free, democratic country that didn’t persecute them, so they just didn’t get involved in politics—and that’s where it all begins. Many traditional Armenian families also stressed the importance of business, medicine, and law, pushing aside politics. Thank goodness for the internships in Washington because being in elected office, part of a newspaper staff, or in state and federal departments, is important in furthering Armenian causes. Little by little, because of internship programs, we’ve seen a lot more involvement, at least in the bureaucracy. We have seen this with the advancement of Armenians in political office, such as former California Governor George Deukmajian, and former Mass. Speaker of the House George Keverian. There have been many state legislators in Massachusetts that are Armenian, and they are only multiplying.
As a whole, Armenians are an ambitious and competitive people, and that’s why they succeed. Most are very bright, open-hearted, and hospitable, and they are good at whatever they take on.
LT: Speaking of hospitality and openness, how did your parents react when they found out you wanted to run for office?
JT: When I told my parents that I was running for secretary of state, my father asked me who was going to make the meals and clean the house—the whole housewife thing. Actually, when I was a National Convention delegate, the Armenian Assembly was having a special delegation from around the country, and everyone huddled together for a picture and all of the men were in front and the women were all the way in the back! So the whole woman-in-the-house typecast was really prevalent at that time, but ultimately, my parents were proud of what I did.
It’s funny because when I was elected secretary of state, my niece became the first Miss Teen USA [Ruth Zakarian], and my brother became the head of the Hartford PAL [Police Athletic League] Association. So, all three of us were in the news that year.
LT: What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment as secretary of state?
JT: You know those stickers that say ‘I Voted’? Well, I started that.