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A momentous occasion
When a president says it, a word is more than just a word for Richmond's Armenian community

A week ago, President Joe Biden uttered the word that no other U.S. president had been willing to say when speaking of the deportation and mass murder of more than a million Armenians over a century ago.

“Genocide.”

The word carries a precise legal definition and diplomatic entanglements, and Biden’s use of the term is largely symbolic, yet momentous for Americans of Armenian descent for whom “genocide” is “not just a word,” said Charlie Diradour, a Richmond real estate developer whose maternal grandparents escaped the massacre.

“It’s hundreds and thousands of stories that we as first- and second- and third-generation Armenians here in America and other places around the world have heard,” Diradour said. “It’s not just a word. It was an experience that we as children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who actually went through it took it upon [ourselves] to make it known to the world that this happened.”

Biden made the reference in a statement on April 24, the annual Armenian Remembrance Day when the Armenian diaspora around the globe commemorate those who were lost in the purge by the Ottoman Empire that began April 24, 1915, with the deportation of Armenian intellectuals from Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul).

According to historical accounts, more than half of all Armenians in the Ottoman Empire — perhaps as many as 1.5 million — were killed between the spring of 1915 and the end of World War I in 1918. Many were driven into the Syrian desert on death marches.

On the 100th anniversary, the Armenian Apostolic Church canonized the victims of the genocide as saints.

“It’s really kind of changed the perspective of Armenians on those martyrs in the sense that it went from looking at those who died as victims ... [and] seeing them instead as victorious in a sense,” said the Rev. Fr. Samuel Rith-Najarian, pastor of Richmond’s St. James Armenian Apostolic Church. “Changing our perspective has really changed the feeling of our community. There was an attempt to exterminate Armenians and here we are singing and praying 106 years later in an Armenian church in Richmond, Virginia.”

Rith-Najarian’s great-grandmother was orphaned at age 13, her parents killed in front of her during the Ottoman campaign against the Armenians. She managed to flee to Egypt and eventually to the United States. Rith-Najarian was 12 when she died.

“So I was old enough to hear her tell the stories. In the last few years of her life, she was starting to get Alzheimer’s, and it was almost as if she was having flashbacks to that time,” he said. “I remember my cousins and myself were visiting her and she would see us running around and playing and would start crying thinking that the [Ottomans] were coming to take us and she had to protect us.”

Rith-Najarian said one of the most healing parts of Biden’s statement was when he said of the Armenians who experienced that period of horror, “We honor their story. We see that pain. We affirm that history.”

“Hearing her stories and what she went through has always been a difficult thing for me,” Rith-Najarian said. “Those few lines [of Biden’s statement] especially struck me that here’s my great-grandmother and other ancestors being affirmed in what they went through,” Rith-Najarian said.

***

Bedros Bandazian, grew up knowing similar family stories.

His father was about 4 or 5 when members of his family, except for his mother and aunt, were killed. The Ottomans rounded up many of the children, and Bandazian said his father was taken to a military school. He was held there for about two years before somehow his mother found him and helped him escape. At first, he remembered neither his mother nor how to speak Armenian, as his memory had been erased during his separation.

They fled first to Lebanon and then France. Bandazian’s father, at age 21, made it to the U.S., which was in the depths of the Great Depression.

And yet he called coming to America “like coming to heaven,” Bandazian recalled.

Bandazian questioned his father: How could Depression-era America have been anything close to “heaven”?

“He said, ‘Son, if you ever had to live through the oppression of the [Ottoman] government, even America in depression was like coming to heaven.’”

Bandazian’s father worked as a tailor at Thalhimer’s department store and later ran a family grocery in Hopewell. Bandazian, who is active at St. James Church and is founder of Bandazian & Co., a real estate firm, served as chairman of Virginia’s Armenian Advisory Commission.

Although other nations have used the term “genocide,” Biden’s declaration carries the weight of the U.S. government — “It’s different when America does it,” and it’s an important step toward justice, Bandazian said. He believes somehow reparations should be paid to Armenians who lost their homes and businesses.

“If there’s no confession and there’s no penance ... the crime continues,” he said.

As for why it took so long for an American president to call what happened a “genocide,” Bandazian said simply, “The truth is difficult for people to say.”

******

Biden’s statement is the culmination of many years of activism and lobbying by the American Armenian community. Armenians thought they were close to having other administrations make that step, but none did.

For the U.S., much of that difficulty in modern times is rooted in diplomacy and its strategic and military alliance with Turkey, which was created following World War I after the Ottoman Empire crumbled.

The modern-day Turkish government has always denied any systematic killing of Armenians — in 2017, the Turkish parliament even banned the use of the phrase “Armenian genocide” within the legislative body — and instead says conflict between Muslim Ottomans and Christian Armenians led to many casualties on both sides during the chaos of World War I.

However, many historians contend the evidence is clear the Ottomans engaged in ethnic cleansing, and the Armenians weren’t the only Ottoman minority group within the Ottoman Empire to suffer during that period — Greeks and Syriacs were others — though the Armenian losses were the most pronounced.

The word “genocide” wasn’t coined until the 1940s in response to the Holocaust, the systematic murder of millions of European Jews during World War II. Genocide was first recognized as a crime under international law in 1946 by the United Nations General Assembly.

***

Modern Armenia is a land-locked country — bordered on the north by Georgia, on the east by Azerbaijan, on the southeast by Artsakh, on the south by Iran and on the west by Turkey — with a population of about 3 million. It is estimated more than twice as many ethnic Armenians live outside the country. The Armenian embassy to the U.S. estimates between 500,000 and 2 million Armenians live in the United States.

Though his maternal grandmother died before he was born, Charlie Diradour has the tags from her clothes bags and the identification papers she brought with her to America.

“I’ve got all that stuff framed,” he said.

Her first three children died in the genocide. She and Diradour’s grandfather started a new family when they arrived in the U.S. and had four children.

As a member of the National Democratic Ethnic Coordinating Council, a wing of the Democratic National Committee, Diradour has lobbied elected officials for years to have the U.S. government officially recognize the genocide. He also recalls talking to his paternal grandmother’s sister — with his father translating since the great-aunt spoke little English — about her family’s experiences, including those of an uncle who survived because as he was being herded into the desert by Ottoman soldiers, a judicial circuit-rider came upon the group of prisoners and demanded they be freed.

“It might be politics at the international level,” said Diradour, “but it’s personal at the kitchen table.”

And he has shared those stories with his own children.

“If I don’t teach my children about it, then they can’t know what they came from, and to get anywhere in this world you’ve got to know where you start,” he said. “What is the experience that brought you to this place? Not only your experiences, but the experience of your grandparents, your great-grandparents. What makes you who you are?

“The suffering of the people who came before me ... I stand on their shoulders. I stand on my own two feet, but I stand on their shoulders every day of my life.”


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State-and-regional
breaking
Va. prison inmate wrongfully convicted of 1979 rape and in hospital with cancer is granted release

A man wrongfully convicted of a 1979 rape, exonerated by DNA testing and who is now seriously ill from cancer was released — much to his surprise — from the custody of the Virginia Department of Corrections on Monday.

The Virginia Parole Board last week approved a conditional compassionate release for Calvin Wayne Cunningham, 68, according to his lawyer, who did not want him to die in prison. A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections’ confirmed that he was to be released Monday.

Cunningham is suffering from stage 4 pancreatic cancer, and his lawyer, Jon Sheldon of Fairfax, said the release came as a complete surprise to Cunningham, who was moved from the security care unit at VCU Medical Center to another ward in the hospital Monday afternoon.

“He didn’t know anything,” Sheldon said. “He didn’t know we had asked for his release. He didn’t know his release had been granted and he was overwhelmed. I thought that Calvin knew that we were in the process of advocating for his release, and Calvin didn’t know anything.”

Sheldon said Cunningham did not have access to a telephone and no one had informed him of the effort to get him out of prison. He said it is still unclear when Cunningham will be able to leave the hospital to live with his daughter, Alicia Randall, of Portsmouth.

“He is no longer an inmate. He is on probation; he does have conditions,” Sheldon said. The conditions include him either remaining in the hospital or living with his daughter. Sheldon said, “Anyway, the good news is, he was released.”

The prognosis at this point has not been determined. But, Sheldon said, “It doesn’t look good.” It was last week that test results showed he was seriously ill from cancer and his course of treatment has yet to be determined, he said.

Sheldon filed a petition for emergency compassionate release for Cunningham with the parole board. Cunningham was serving sentences for grand larceny, contempt of court, obstructing justice and falsely identifying himself to law enforcement.

A former Virginia Commonwealth University student, Cunningham was exonerated of his Newport News rape and burglary convictions in 2011 as part of Virginia’s post-conviction DNA testing program.

Cunningham told the Richmond Times-Dispatch last year that following his 1988 parole from prison from the wrongful rape conviction — the result of mistaken victim identification — he could not find employment. He said he turned to drugs and his life spiraled out of control.

He went back to prison in 1999, 2001, 2005 and 2009, and his projected release date was not until 2023. He told The Times-Dispatch that he was hopeful he could be compensated for his time in prison for the crimes he did not commit.

Sheldon heard about the case last year and agreed to help Cunningham in his effort to win compensation.


Govt-and-politics
breaking
GOP candidates for governor make final pitches ahead of Saturday's convention

About a week ahead of Saturday’s GOP convention, Beth York, a convention delegate in Hampton Roads, remained undecided on which Republican should become the party’s nominee for governor.

She’s looking for a candidate who is unflinching in support of the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but who also can trounce Democrats in the fall.

“I know most of them, so that makes the choice hard,” York said. “But it really comes down to who can win.”

Another undecided delegate in Hampton Roads said she simply didn’t want to elect a “doormat.”

“[Democrats] are taking away our gun rights, trying to take away our freedom of speech,” said Jena Rice, who plans to vote in Suffolk. “I know [President Donald] Trump was a bull in a china shop, but that’s kind of necessary.”

Undecided convention delegates and those with loose plans to vote are the target of GOP candidates making their final pitches in the lead-up to Saturday, when close to 54,000 delegates selected by party leaders will choose the Republican nominees for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

The election process, which has beleaguered party leaders and frustrated voters, will kick off with limited voting Friday afternoon and run through Saturday. The party expects to announce the results sometime between Sunday and next Thursday.

Seven candidates are seeking the party’s nomination for governor in a “disassembled convention” that will feature polling places in each of the 11 congressional districts. In alphabetical order, the candidates are state Sen. Amanda Chase of Chesterfield; Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights; Sergio de la Peña, a former Trump Pentagon official; Peter Doran, who headed a D.C. think tank; former Roanoke Sheriff Octavia Johnson; entrepreneur Pete Snyder; and Glenn Youngkin, former co-CEO of a global investment firm.

At an event in Chester, Youngkin told a crowd to select a business leader who could build up Virginia’s economy and create more jobs. “Political folks make promises and don’t deliver a whole lot. Business people get it done or get fired,” said the former venture capital CEO, who is heavily funding his campaign with personal wealth.

Youngkin and Snyder are pitching themselves as outsiders whose funding can compete with the most powerful fundraiser among the Democratic candidates, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. (Democrats will choose their nominee in a June 8 primary.)

Snyder’s closing pitch, fueled by an ad called “Insanity,” is focused on education and taps into frustration of conservatives who decried the closing of schools due to COVID-19.

“Terry McAuliffe won’t stop the insanity, but I will,” Snyder said. “As governor, I’ll take on the liberal unions, reopen schools five days a week and ensure kids are challenged, and not held back by political correctness.”

He’s capping his run with the same aggressive style for which he is known. He is calling his final tour across the state before Saturday’s convention the “Conservative Outlaw” tour, branded with fire, BBQ and the slogan: “Breaking the teachers unions, making woke liberals cry and backing President Trump’s policies.”

At an event in Henrico County on Monday, Cox said he’s urging Republicans to think about November and is presenting himself as the best option against McAuliffe.

“All of the polls show that he’s ahead, and I’m the best candidate by far to run against him,” Cox said, adding that McAuliffe is leading with promises on education, which Cox, a former teacher, worked on during his time in the House majority.

Cox’s closing pitch, which in a one-site convention he would have delivered on the day of the vote, focused on Democrats and on Republicans’ need to “unify” to regain control of the Executive Mansion.

“Conservative voices are sidelined while Democrats just go unchecked. ... Higher taxes, closed schools, neighborhoods threatened because cops are now the bad guys,” Cox says in a video. It kicks off with Gov. Ralph Northam celebrating on the night Democrats seized control of the legislature in 2019 and declaring Virginia “officially blue.”

The GOP convention will use ranked-choice voting, in which convention delegates will list their choices in order.

In recent days, Cox has focused much of his energy on seeking the support of delegates who have already decided on their first choice.

“The task ahead of us in November is important, so I’m respectfully asking those who support another candidate to consider me as their second choice,” he said in a video posted 11 days before the convention.

Addressing a crowd on the patio of a restaurant in Virginia Beach, Chase said she is running as an outsider, embracing the rejection she has faced from party leaders in the legislature after she called people who invaded the U.S. Capitol “patriots.”

Chase said the fact that the top lawyer for the Republican Party of Virginia is also a paid adviser with the Snyder campaign is a sign the establishment is against her.

“Every time I turn around, they’re trying to cancel me. It’s like the ‘Hunger Games,’ y’all,” Chase said.

“And you’re our girl on fire,” a supporter yelled from the crowd.

Chase said she has a conservative voting record no other candidate can match. (Chase and Cox are the only two of the seven GOP candidates who have served in the legislature.)

Convention delegates will be allowed to rank as few candidates as they like. Few voters interviewed by the Richmond Times-Dispatch could recall all seven GOP candidates for governor.

Even some of the lesser-known candidates are gearing up for a contest that they say still has room for them: de la Peña is hosting daily Zoom conversations leading up to convention day titled “Seven Days with Sergio,” the most recent of which focused on gun rights.

In a campaign video on Monday, Doran asked, “why is it that educational dollars aren’t following the students?” — a calling card for school vouchers, often favored by conservatives.

Johnson’s campaign has a limited online presence as the nomination fight grinds to the end, and campaign finance forms show she raised little last quarter.

Manuel Bonder, a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Virginia, said in a statement: “This GOP primary has been a chaotic sprint to the right in which the Republican candidates have spent every day scrambling to prove their allegiance to Donald Trump. One thing is clear: whoever emerges from this week’s chaotic convention will be far too extreme for Virginia.”

Saturday will mark the beginning of the end of the process for Republican Party officials tasked with running the statewide convention, a beleaguered process in a year when election integrity has been a defining issue for their party. All GOP candidates for governor except Cox have called into question the integrity of last November’s elections; Cox early on acknowledged President Joe Biden’s victory but has called for reforms to the state and national election process.

Weeks of debate over the GOP nomination method sucked up a lot of attention from the party’s effort to regain control of the Executive Mansion. It was only days ago that the state party finally settled how it would handle appeals from more than 700 potential convention voters who were rejected by local Republican leaders.

The method to hear appeals Saturday? A smattering of panels reachable by phone or Zoom will make decisions on the spot.

Rich Anderson, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, said that despite hurdles, he is confident the voting and counting process will go smoothly.

Anderson said in an interview on Monday that the party expects to start counting ballots at 1 p.m. Sunday, beginning with the race for attorney general, followed by lieutenant governor and then governor. Anderson said it’s “impossible” to predict how quickly the process will go, but he said he hopes counting will be done by the end of the day on Tuesday.

Complicating the process is the ranked-choice method Republicans chose, which is gaining popularity across the country. Voters will list the candidates in order of preference, and one by one, candidates will be eliminated until one has more than 50% of the vote.

“I believe this is going to work very well. There are a lot of moving pieces and a lot of complexity, but I’ve got literally hundreds of people across the state working hard and so I think that their investment of time and energy and hard work will pay off,” Anderson said.

“You’ve got seven candidates for governor. The six who don’t get the nomination, I want them to go, ‘Well, damn. I did not make it, but it was fair, and I’m going to support the nominee.’”

Even if the process runs smoothly, many Republicans might be left frustrated over the process. Bruce Wright, a registered delegate from Virginia Beach, said the process to vote has been difficult.

“This is the problem with politics,” he said. “The parties don’t educate people. For instance, this process — it’s not a standard convention. And there are people that deliberately want to make things confusing to get you off track, to throw your hands up in the air, and maybe not even vote,” he said.

“You have to do a lot of homework yourself. I haven’t even decided who I’m going to vote for,” Wright added.

Asked what he wanted to see in order to make a final decision, Wright said: “I want to see the Lord Jesus put his hands on the right candidate because man clearly cannot do it.”


Local
Richmond City Council reaches consensus on changes to employee pay, civilian review board funding

All Richmond city employees’ wages will rise 3.25% or more next fall, according to budget amendments the Richmond City Council agreed to on Monday, ahead of a vote on the spending plan next week.

Revisions to the blueprint Mayor Levar Stoney introduced in March include changes to the city’s employee pay plan and partial funding for increases proposed for a new civilian-led police review board and attorneys in the Public Defender’s Office.

The changes leave $5.8 million originally budgeted for wage increases largely unchanged, but direct the mayor’s administration to give a 3.25% pay increase to all employees and targeted raises for people making less than the market rate for their job.

The mayor’s original budget proposal includes raises for most employees, but wages for several hundred people would have stayed the same. Administration officials previously said there was only enough to implement the targeted raises, but recently found that it could accomplish both goals with roughly the same amount.

Several council members sought to scrap the plans for targeted raises in favor of an across-the-board 5% pay increase for all employees, but the administration sought a compromise to still address concerns about wage compression and employee turnover.

“I would say this enhancement is a true win-win,” Acting Chief Administrative Officer Lincoln Saunders said of the amended pay plan.

A collective of city police officers and firefighters also lobbied for an overhaul of the city’s pay scale system for public safety officials. Council members have agreed to allocate funding to study the plan, though several members said more urgency is needed.

“We’ve got to stop saying ‘a study, a study, a study,’” said Councilwoman Reva Trammell. “What kind of situation are we going to be in? We’re the ones that are going to catch the blame. ... We’re the ones that are supposed to adopt this budget.”

The city is still planning to freeze funding for 600 of the 3,700 positions in the general fund. In order to make up for projected tax revenue losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the administration is planning to leave those positions vacant through next year.

With limited funding available, the council agreed to give the city’s Civilian Review Board Task Force only $200,000 of the $600,000 it recently requested.

Amid calls for police reform and more accountability last summer, the council approved the creation of the task force in hopes of establishing a civilian panel that can investigate alleged police misconduct.

The council also agreed to give only half of the $1 million sought by several council members to supplement the salaries of lawyers in the city’s Public Defender’s Office.

Unlike city prosecutors, which are supported by funding from both the state and the city, the city does not currently give regular funding for public defenders, which is common for localities across the state.

In a letter to the council last month, Saunders pushed back on the proposed amendments, noting that the city classifies prosecutors as local employees.

“Before the administration considers supplementing the pay of state employees, we must first pay our own city employees equitably,” he said in the letter.

The council also agreed not to seek budget amendments to fund increases that members sought for the city’s affordable housing trust fund.

As the city stands to receive nearly $160 million from the federal American Rescue Plan signed by President Joe Biden earlier this year, city officials said part of that funding could be used for the housing fund, eviction diversion and homeless services.

The council will meet again Tuesday to continue working on the budget ahead of its scheduled adoption next Monday.


Govt-and-politics
Virginia Employment Commission study deemed urgent as JLARC tackles big issues in work plan

Legislators aren’t willing to wait until November for a report on progress in processing unemployment claims by the Virginia Employment Commission.

A study by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission will probe the problems that have beset the employment commission during the COVID-19 pandemic, including a bottom-of-the-nation ranking for unemployment claims that require additional staff review to determine eligibility for benefits.

But Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William, is reluctant to wait on a study that quickly rose to the top in urgency for a JLARC work plan for the year that also will address a number of other weighty issues, such as transportation funding, juvenile justice reforms, a more progressive income tax, the guardianship program for incapacitated adults and affordable housing.

“When folks need action and they’re not getting it, it’s a fundamental failure,” McPike said Monday in a meeting of the legislative commission to review its staff work plan.

Del. Ken Plum, chairman of JLARC, assured McPike and other members that staff will update them before the scheduled presentation of the study findings on Nov. 15.

Plum, D-Fairfax, also said he expects progress “along the way” at the employment commission, which faced a massive increase in claims because of the job losses caused by the pandemic and additional federal assistance in response.

“As we start to move into agencies [for studies], things start to improve,” he said.

Legislators acknowledged the enormous workload on the agency, but they also complained about basic shortcomings, such as the failure to return phone messages left by unemployed Virginians frustrated by the bureaucratic challenges of getting relief.

“If you listen to our constituents, one of the big problems is they just can’t get a call back,” said former House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, who has made problems at the employment commission part of his campaign for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

Tracey Smith, associate director at JLARC, said the agency has launched a telephone call-back system, but she said, “It has not consistently been used.”

Smith said the VEC also has resumed its information technology modernization program, which had been delayed because of the increased workload at the agency in response to the pandemic. The delay has prevented consumers from electronically tracking their unemployment claims and submitting documentation, she said, but the agency restarted the initiative last month.

The agency also has more than doubled its unemployment insurance claims staff since the beginning of the pandemic, redirecting some existing staff to new roles in processing claims.

Unemployment claims increased by tenfold last year, from 136,000 in 2019 to 1.4 million in 2020. But while the volume of initial claims had decreased by 57% in March from a year earlier, performance in resolving disputed claims has “not improved,” Smith said.

Through the end of March, the VEC was processing just 2.4% of claims requiring staff review within 21 days, putting Virginia at the bottom of a national ranking. The average duration of claims under appeal is 247 days. More than 612,000 claims were listed as waiting for more information about employee job losses, with 137,000 awaiting adjudication and 45,800 under appeal.

Last month, five women filed a class action federal lawsuit against the employment commission for failing to promptly consider their unemployment insurance claims.

The JLARC study will examine unemployment insurance claims to “measure timeliness and identify process inefficiencies; evaluate the IT modernization contract and management; review the experiences of other states in handling surges in unemployment claims; analyzing staffing and funding levels; and interview various stakeholders about their experiences.

Despite their concerns, some legislators also were sympathetic to the challenge facing the agency.

“The magnitude of this is overwhelming,” said Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt.


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