PROVIDENCE, RI—Newly elected RI House Majority Whip Katherine Kazarian wants to help the people in her community. In fact, this was the primary motivation behind her successful first run for representative in 2012 as the only woman against three male opponents at just 22 years old. “Why not?” she thought. “I’m young and I have a solid background from Barnard.”
Kazarian was a recent graduate of Columbia University’s Barnard College where Pres. Barack Obama had served as commencement speaker; his speech inspired her to revisit her post-graduation career plans. In an address she called “nothing short of inspiring,” Pres. Obama encouraged the graduates to consider running for office and urged them to lead by example and to persevere through adversity. “He found a way to make politics positive and make it about helping people,” she explained in a recent conversation with the Weekly. Her original intent was to remain in New York City for work upon receiving her degree in urban studies and economics. After Pres. Obama’s speech, she decided to return to Rhode Island and the city where she was born and raised: East Providence.
With the encouragement of her mother and sister, along with the support of the Armenian National Committee of Rhode Island (ANC-RI), Kazarian set out to meet as many people in her community as possible, knocking on every door and listening to the concerns of her soon-to-be constituents. She had returned to a state experiencing difficulties following the 38 Studios debacle and a hometown heading toward receivership with the state sending in a budget commission to manage its finances. Through ongoing conversations with her city’s residents, Kazarian came to the realization that essentially people shared many of the same concerns and wishes. This solidified her desire to find solutions for the community’s problems. “I look at my goal in politics as trying to build that bridge, to try and bring people together, to try and help people to see that we’re really not all that different and we really all want the same things,” she elaborated.
Incumbent Kazarian was re-elected on November 3, 2020, continuing to represent the residents of District 63 in East Providence. Then, in January 2021, she was unanimously elected as House Majority Whip by her Democratic colleagues after being recommended for the number three position in the House leadership by Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi. According to the Senate definition of a whip’s responsibilities, they are “assistants to the floor leaders… responsible for mobilizing votes within their parties on major issues. In the absence of a party floor leader, the whip often serves as acting floor leader.” Kazarian sees her role as a facilitator for passage of legislation, working with the leadership team and addressing legislator’s concerns relative to bills. While she primarily serves the majority party, in this case the Democratic party, she is “open and accessible to all elected officials in the House of Representatives.”
“The most important thing to me this year is trying to help people through this pandemic,” she said about legislation that she considers a priority. Bills ensuring that emergency and front-line workers get vaccinated and that they are appropriately compensated are a focus, along with making sure that long-term care facilities have enough staff as they navigate the challenges of the pandemic. Aside from these essential goals, Kazarian has also sponsored and firmly believes in a bill that will ban guns from school grounds. This legislation would essentially place schools in the same jurisdiction as the State House and post offices and enjoys the support of educators and police departments.
One piece of legislation, however, remains very close to Kazarian’s heart. In 2016, she co-sponsored legislation requiring Holocaust and genocide education in RI’s secondary schools. “Growing up as an Armenian American within our Armenian community here in RI, it always bothered me that the Armenian Genocide was not recognized by the US government, and even more it bothered me that it wasn’t taught about in our schools,” she explained. “Education is the most powerful tool for teaching all students about it [the Armenian Genocide].” The ANC-RI noted that Kazarian has been an ardent supporter of Armenian issues, with a focus on Genocide recognition, and has served as the main sponsor of the annual House Resolution since she assumed that role.
Kazarian is the great-granddaughter of eight Genocide survivors who, like so many others, were forced to leave their homes and emigrate to the US and Canada. She grew up with stories of their struggles adjusting to new lives after trauma, relayed through her grandparents and parents. While introduction of the annual resolution is very sensitive to her, Kazarian became very emotional while telling one of the many survivor stories she has heard. As she recalls:
My maternal great-grandmother was on the run with her two younger siblings, a brother and sister. They were running through the fields and at one point had to cross a river. Because her brother was so little, she tied him to her back and held her sister’s hand and started across the river. Suddenly, a big wave crashed into them and swept her little sister away. My great-grandmother could not get to her little sister, who was lost in the water, but ultimately made it to the other side with her little brother. Eventually, the siblings made it to an orphanage with the help of the Red Cross.
Kazarian said that this was just one personal example, but that all the survivor experiences serve to guide her work on behalf of Armenian issues. “I am so grateful to the Armenian community, especially the community in RI, for teaching me about my culture, creating an environment that made me feel comfortable and like I belonged and then being so supportive when I ran for office,” she said. In fact, she credited Ani Haroian and the ANC-RI for offering full support and for helping her to navigate the process of running for office, knocking on doors with her and continuing to work closely with her as a state representative, and now as House Majority Whip.
Relative to future goals, Kazarian shared that she plans to attend law school in the fall. While she has not made a final decision yet and continues to look at local universities, she did tell the Weekly that Roger Williams University and Northeastern University have both offered her full scholarships and are being considered. She plans to study public policy and human rights law. In addition to pursuing her law degree, Kazarian is very happy to continue serving her community in state government. She hopes to inspire more women, and in particular Armenian women, to run for office. “Wherever I can see myself helping people, especially when it comes to the Armenian community,” she said, “I am happy to jump in and serve in any way I can.”
In addition to her election as House Majority Whip, Kazarian excitedly shared the news of her engagement to Sam Daniel—an honorary Armenian, especially after trying and liking kheyma. She enthused that her fiancé is very supportive and regularly accompanies her to all Armenian events, including the recent rally at the RI State House protesting Azerbaijan’s attacks against Artsakh and Armenia at which Kazarian was a speaker. The couple are hoping to set a wedding date for 2022.
When asked about the possibility of a future run for the nation’s highest office, RI House Majority Whip Kazarian replied, “I would run for president solely on the fact that I would make sure that the Armenian Genocide would be appropriately recognized.”