HK: What keeps you going day in and day out?

MM: Especially during COVID what has been really helpful is just being in touch with the community. We’ve been doing a lot of phone banking and touching base to make sure people are OK, seeing if there’s any different services we can get them, or questions they might have. That’s something that’s really been great, but I do want to highlight, especially this week [the week of her appearance on the virtual Democratic National Convention] it’s been kind of a whirlwind of events. What has been really great is to see how many young Armenian girls were excited about seeing me on TV, and talking about how they kind of see that there’s a possibility for them, not just in politics, but in doing something as big as this, and just seeing that, I can even serve as a small inspiration to kids is a huge deal for me, and definitely keeps me going when times are difficult.

HK: Has there been a situation where you felt you made a real difference?

MM: Right now, there are a lot of challenges with some people getting access to their unemployment benefits because the system has been so overwhelmed. One of the big challenges in government just generally is that it’s clunky and antiquated, and, our computer systems are updated, and things crash all the time. They’re not super user-friendly, so it makes it really hard for people to have trust that the system’s actually working for them. And so truly, anytime I’m able to get somebody access to a benefit that they were deserving of … I have a close friend in the Armenian community whose teacher pension for some reason was messed up. We were able to fix that for her. It’s these small things, that are seemingly small, they are not big pieces of sweeping legislation but they’re meaningful differences in people’s lives and that’s what this is really all about.

HK: Who are some of your mentors in terms of your career? Who are some of your role models and why?

MM: Rep. Kristy Pagan who is from Canton, she is a third-term representative, and she has been a mentor of mine since I announced my run for public office. She’s someone who was also an underdog who won a really tough primary and a tough general election, and she’s actually my seatmate on the floor of the house. It’s really beneficial to sit next to her and talk about different legislation and different ideas we have. I serve as the treasurer of the Progressive Women’s Caucus and she’s the chairwoman so we spend a lot of time together. And of course, Governor [Gretchen] Whitmer and I are pretty close. I’m really fortunate to have her in my corner and she’s been incredibly supportive of me this week, because I was quite nervous before what aired for the DNC speech (laughs) so it was really great to have her. And then of course my parents have been super supportive and the work that my mom did in her field, although it’s not exactly the same thing, she’s such a role model and inspiration for me. She’s someone who got her education later in life. She went back to school when she had two kids and got a PhD. She’s served as a role model and inspiration for me as well.

HK: Do you have any sort of political role models when you were getting into politics at a young age, was it like, “oh I want to make a difference like this person…”

MM: Yes, I mean there are certain figures in politics that I’ve looked up to. I really was inspired to get into public office because of Barack Obama’s historic presidential run. He had a campaign office in Birmingham down the street from my house and it was the first presidential campaign I saw actually make an effort to talk to people in Birmingham. That said, I worked for Congressman John Dingell on the Hill in 2012 and the work that he did and the work that his wife continues to do for conservation and for the environment is something that’s super important to Michigan and it’s an issue that I continue to champion. We secured $120 million for replacing lead and copper service lines [for water] around the state and I like to think that’s something that the late Congressman would have loved to see done.

HK: So that ties into the whole Flint crisis, they had lead still in their pipes which was causing the problem.

MM: Yes, yes.

HK: That’s interesting that you mention environmentalism with Dingell, because most people hear Dingell and think of the auto industry.

MM: Yes, there’s a wildlife refuge actually named after John Dingell in his district; it’s a huge deal. He was an avid outdoorsman, an avid hunter. When we would walk into the office there was an amazing picture of him and Bill Clinton in a duck blind, which was hilarious, and when you walked into his office he had stuffed deer mounted on the walls and things, but you know what’s kind of surprising that people don’t really understand if they’re not from Michigan is, you know, folks who are hunters in our state are huge outdoorsmen and they’re very much into being conservationists. They understand that the sport of hunting is that, it’s a sport, but it’s really important to protect the environment so you can continue to practice your sport.

HK: That’s like a Teddy Roosevelt [idea]…

MM: Yes, it’s very much, exactly! The first memo I wrote when I was an intern there [for Congressman Dingell] was about Zebra Mussels and their expansion into the Great Lakes and sort of what we could do to prevent ships from dropping ballast water into the Great Lakes, because they would take their saltwater that they had put into their ships and they would dump the saltwater into our Great Lakes, and with that, all of these mussels and basically invasive species that live in the ocean were introduced to our ecosystem. It’s totally changed the ecosystem of the Great Lakes. The fisheries are totally impacted by a changing ecosystem, absolutely.

Rising Democratic Star Mari Manoogian of Michigan Gets a National Stage
In this image from video, former Georgia House Democratic leader Stacey Abrams, center, and others, speak during the second night of the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. (Democratic National Convention via AP)

HK: You were one of just 17 young Democratic Party VIPs from across the US in the first virtual DNC convention. Why were you picked and how did you feel when you were asked?

MM: (laughs at being referred to as a VIP) So, I think, I can’t really say why I was picked necessarily. I got a call from the deputy political director on Biden’s campaign that I’ve been working with since Joe Biden campaigned in Michigan to win the Michigan primary. From the beginning, from endorsing Vice President Biden prior to the Michigan primary, I told his campaign, “My family, my dad in particular, has been a longtime fan of the Vice President and whatever I can do to lend my voice to assist him getting elected I’m more than happy to do.” When the opportunity presented itself, I was just really excited to accept the offer to speak. (You can see her in action at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1rNwOH7jxsE)

HK: Were you nervous about speaking before millions?

MM: I don’t know that I was that nervous. Obviously I was worried about how the speech would turn out and how people would receive it but as a young elected official, I’m asked to give speeches all the time. The other day I spoke on the floor of the Michigan House about a resolution to request Congress to get aid to Lebanon to rebuild Beirut. And I saw that as an opportunity to get a practice in, and it’s important to speak on that issue, but it’s part of my job. Obviously there are always butterflies when it’s before a big stage but I view speaking in public and being an effective communicator as an important part of the job.

HK: I think from a lot of peoples’ perspective, someone at the DNC just wrote that whole script, but you told me that you actually wrote some of that stuff, on issues that you thought important.

MM: Yes, so we worked with speechwriters to make sure that we were effectively representing our communities. There was a question about “what did I want to speak about,” and I said, I specifically wanted to highlight small businesses in our district because we have a really thriving downtown area, and you know, I grew up in downtown Birmingham so I thought it was really important to highlight them and shout them out. Also, obviously as a native Michigander, the auto industry’s really important. If I had to think of things that reminded me of Michigan and Joe Biden, I would think the auto industry and what happened in 2008 [the federal bailout]. And then of course also, the issue of healthcare. It affects everybody, so to be able to deliver the punchline of the whole speech was really an incredible opportunity, and as much as it was a silly moment, people are talking about it, and if it gives Americans an excuse to talk about healthcare, I’m here for it. [Manoogian delivered a punchline in the convention speech about Biden’s support for healthcare reform, by leaning into the camera as if telling an inside joke and then saying “That’s A Big Effing Deal,” which was a humorous yet pointed reference to Biden’s accidentally saying the same thing on a hot microphone — but using the real “f-word” — during the passage of the Affordable Care Act]. My good friend [Representative] Colin Allred tossed me the alley-oop on that one.

I didn’t expect it to be what it turned out to be, and now I’m like a meme on Twitter. If it gives people an excuse to talk about the risk that we have — just this week it was announced that the Supreme Court is hearing the case before them that could repeal the entirety of the Affordable Care Act — I’m here for it, I’m happy to make that joke.

Rising Democratic Star Mari Manoogian of Michigan Gets a National Stage
State Rep. Mari Manoogian at her swearing in

HK: What sort of feedback have you gotten?

MM: It’s mostly been very positive. Both from and non-Armenians alike, people in the district. My dad is a huge volunteer, and he drops off the yard signs to peoples’ homes, and he was out in the community dropping off yard signs just a couple days ago. And someone said to him, “you know, obviously I really love what she’s doing and I’m happy to count on her to do the right thing but we’re just really grateful that she’s now a national voice for the issues in Michigan.” And so, you know to be able to shine that spotlight on our district and our community … and the things that we are doing here that are amazing, that make us a really strong community, and the things we need to do to improve it, I think is really great.

HK: We saw on Twitter your message about the negative comments you get from your own Armenian community, particularly some men. How do you cope with that?

MM: Oh boy…(laughs)… I mean, seriously, this is the thing that is really important to understand, that Armenian women have been the backbone of Armenian history since the dawn of our people, and for me, I see that [negative commentary] as, people view me as a threat because I’m an Armenian woman with power. I know people don’t always agree with what I do, and that’s completely OK, but the most important thing here is that Armenian-Americans have a voice in government in a way that they may not have had before. And I always try to center being Armenian whether it’s implicitly or explicitly. And so, for example, if you are Armenian and you tuned into the speech you saw that I was wearing an Armenian necklace. You knew that I was here for the community; you could see it in my name but you saw it implicitly in what I was doing. And to have Armenian young girls look up to the speech, that’s how I deal with the negativity. There’s so much more positive reaction that drowns that out. And “haters gonna hate.” And you can put that in there. Armenian women stepped up for me and went to bat in a way that was something I’d never seen in the community before. They totally rallied behind me and just shut these guys down.

HK: Well, and I mean, this is the problem with the internet, anyone who wants to say something completely off the wall, comes on the Internet.

MM: Well, and, a few weeks ago I kind of went viral on Instagram because I explained what was going on between and Azerbaijan, and Khloe Kardashian reposted it, and it became a thing, Armenians and non-Armenians read it because there was a lot of exposure to it. And I actually had to work with Instagram and Facebook to monitor the comments because we were getting death threats in the office from Azerbaijanis.

HK: So, like a hundred years after we’ve been living in this country still, there’s…

MM: There’s still really gross negative misogyny and hate that’s out there and I have to educate my staff about how to deal with it, I have non-Armenian staff that work for me, so I’ve talked to them about all of this and sort of explained to them about it all. And that’s the thing, it’s sort of an interesting challenge, and I don’t mind it, I understand that that’s what comes with the territory, but, you know I want folks to understand, yes we have to work twice as hard because we’re doing our job but also dealing with this other sideshow insanity.

HK: Well, that leads to the next question. Please speak a little bit about your background: family, schooling, previous jobs.

MM: I’m really honored to represent the district I grew up in. I grew up in Birmingham, went to Birmingham Public Schools, graduated from George Washington University, started at Michigan State and transferred so I have the experience of being at an in-state school as well. I have a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the Elliott School of International Affairs at GW. I previously worked for Congressman John Dingell; it was my first job in politics as an intern, and then I have also worked for Ambassador Samantha Power at the US mission to the UN in 2013, and also worked in a couple different offices at the State Department prior to moving home and running for office.

HK: What do you plan to do when it comes to the Biden campaign in the coming months?

MM: Frankly, whenever the Biden team needs assistance on social media, or they need someone to write an op-ed or anything like that, I’m more than happy to stand in and help with that. A lot of what I’ve been doing is for their ethnic communities engagement, so helping lead their outreach to the Armenian-American community, also help a lot with young voters as well, and basically helping to rally the troops to get people to volunteer with the campaign, phone bank, etc. They also ask my opinion on policy every once in a while, which is nice.

HK: On your website, you put your personal phone number and email address. How many calls/messages do you get? Is it unusual to have such openness?

MM: I don’t know that it’s ever been that open in this district before but we get text messages and calls all the time. Even in the past week, I think I might have received — I get maybe two or three phone calls a day, and I get text messages even more frequently than that, and we maybe receive probably between, I don’t know, 10-15 emails a day. And that’s just on the campaign side.

HK: Do you think Armenians are involved enough in politics? If not, how would you encourage them to become more active? Why does it matter to get involved?

MM: Well in this district they are! In this district they’re very involved on both sides of the aisle. You know I think, relative to the population, for as small of an ethnic community as the Armenians are, we have an outsized role that we play in politics. We’ve seen Armenians get elected to governorships, we’ve seen them throughout different posts in the executive branch all the way up through presidential appointments, and even the 40th district, I’m not the first Armenian to represent the 40th district before, in Michigan, which is unusual. [Republican John Jamian was State Representative of Michigan’s 40th District from 1991-1996] And so I think that, while I say all of this, there could absolutely be a ton more engagement. I’m really fortunate to have a lot of Armenian-American volunteers that had never volunteered on a campaign before but they knew me, and they knew that I was running for office and so…friends of mine from St. John, they knocked doors for me in the rain two years ago when I was running. There’s always a bigger role that Armenians can play but, I think what’s really important is, yes Armenians are volunteering and doing all that good work, but I want to see more Armenian-Americans run for office because that’s truly where we can really push and have a true Armenian-American agenda, at all levels of government.

HK: But you think we are pretty active in this area, and do you think…the rest of the country?

MM: Mm-hm, yes, in Glendale the majority of the City Council is Armenian, I think at this point it might be entirely Armenian. And there are Armenians that are elected to the California State Assembly; the Speaker of the House in Maine is Armenian [Democrat Sara Gideon], and she’s running for Senate, so we may have our first Armenian-American Senator. And I will also say this; it’s a she. Right? You have Anna Eshoo, you have Congresswoman Jackie Speier, Sara Gideon is running for the Senate seat in Maine, so there’s a lot of, particularly a lot of elected Armenian-American women. And that’s a huge deal for our community.

HK: Do you speak to young people, both Armenian and non-Armenian, about getting involved with politics?

MM: Frequently, almost every day. I get messages – I’m very frequently active on Instagram, I get tons of DMs from kids who are in high school all the time, that went to my high school, asking about how they can get involved in politics, like I said they pitch me on bill ideas, they ask a lot of really good questions, it’s wonderful.

HK: That’s really interesting, so that shows the positive side of the internet, there’s so much more connectivity, and people are all of a sudden – it’s not as difficult to talk to somebody like you and get in touch, and then, like whoever heard of a high school kid pitching a bill idea 30 years ago, or 20 years ago?

MM: Well, and this is the thing that I really like to emphasize, is the way I ran my campaign I was super accessible. I knocked on 10,000 doors across the district in 2018 and, was very serious and it wasn’t just a line that I said about being accessible, you mentioned that I have my phone number and my email online; and also just my DMs are open on Instagram and so, there can be negative things that are said but by and large it’s a lot of positive things, especially young women who are messaging us, just saying how grateful they are to have representation. We have a really robust shadow program. So, prior to COVID happening, once a month I would have two students from the district come up and shadow me in Lansing, they’d spend the full day with me, I’d take them to lobbying meetings, I would take them on the floor and introduce them to the whole House. So they would get to see everything in action, I would show them my notes and how I know how to vote on things, they’d come to committee with me and see me debate bills. One of the things I really wanted to set out to do, which for me, being an elected official is not just about passing legislation, it’s about using the “bully pulpit” of my office to make a difference in the community, and making the office as accessible to the people as possible, and one of those things was making sure our young people had a lot of opportunity to be interacting with their government. With regard to the Armenian-American community, I’ve travelled the country speaking to young Armenian-Americans, different groups ranging from ACYOA to AYF have invited me, I spoke at a conference in California a year ago about this in particular, and it’s just a wonderful opportunity.

HK: How would you characterize our current era, when we have outspoken demonstrators for human rights as well as COVID and an administration that seems to be ignoring both issues.

MM: I think Joe Biden outlined it probably the clearest I’ve ever seen a politician outline it last night [Thursday, August 20], where he spoke about the big crises that our country is facing. We’re facing a pandemic. We’re facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. We’re dealing with the issue of joblessness as well, and dealing with the issue of racial injustice, and all of these things sort of created this perfect storm where Americans are sort of fed up with the way things have been, and none of these issues will be solved overnight. I think that’s something that needs to be really made very clear, but the reality is people are very tired and elections are often based on this, are you better off than you were two years ago, or four years ago, and that’s, I think, a really important way to frame the conversation. I was super inspired to see young people who graduated from the same high school I went to, and never in a million years did I think they would be able to shut down Woodward Avenue and have protest for racial justice in Birmingham [Detroit’s northern suburb Birmingham, Michigan], one of the whitest cities in my community, and yet thousands of people showed up. I think it’s just a testament to people being sick and tired of the way that this administration has just bungled the response to the virus. You know, I had a lot of hope that we’d be able to get it under control … but the unfortunate reality is we don’t have enough testing right now in our country, we’re not able to get the virus under control, and people just want to go back to their regular lives and I’m really hopeful that we’ll be able to get it under control soon.

HK: That leads to the next question, how has COVID-19 changed your life and your approach to both life and work?

MM: So, I’m just going to be really open and honest about this, the first six weeks of this were horrible. I live alone; I have parents that are older. My dad, he specifically said, “you know, we’re on the older side, if you’re going to be out in the community and you have to go work,” which I do as an elected official, I’m obligated to be there for votes, and I’m not going to miss a vote, but [Manoogian’s parents said] “we need to be protective of us.” And so, I didn’t see my parents for three months. And that was a huge challenge. Because the crisis came in a tidal wave, our office was inundated with questions. In the first weekend of the pandemic and schools shutting down, we received 3,000 emails. And we responded to every single one of them. We’ve done town halls on Zoom, have spoken to small business owners in digital round tables, and continue to try to do that kind of outreach that we have been known.

Rising Democratic Star Mari Manoogian of Michigan Gets a National Stage
State Rep. Mari Manoogian speaks at the Michigan House of Representatives.

HK: What are your hobbies?

MM: Do I have any hobbies? (laughs) I mean, I bought a basketball last weekend… I work out a lot actually, it was an investment but I bought a Peloton before COVID hit…. I take out my aggression on my bike, when I’m stressed out it’s a really good place to escape and I’m glad I made that purchase before things got really shut down, because I’m someone who was a figure skater and a basketball player when I was growing up and really appreciate being active, and truly, being able to stay active even though I had to stay inside was a huge escape. I also read, but who wants to know that?

HK: What is your ultimate goal in terms of politics?

MM: Truthfully I didn’t think I was going to run for office in the first place, so overall…I think what happened this week was an incredible opportunity, and it continues to be an incredible opportunity to, A., talk about the things that are really important to my district and my community, and B., give our district a voice that it’s never had before on the national stage, and so, whatever opportunity arises from it, I am hopeful that we continue to be able to have outsized impact on policymaking, and in a way that is meaningful to people here in our district, and so in whatever capacity I can do that, whether it’s as a State Representative or otherwise, is something I’m happy to entertain.

HK: What are your plans for the future decade?

MM: Hopefully I’m finishing up my third and final term in the House, and from there we’ll have to see. We’re excitedly looking towards redistricting, we’re unsure of what that may look like, but at the end of the day I’m just excited to run for re-election and sort of see where things go from there.

 

HK: Thank you for the interview!

 

 

 

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