April 7, 2011

Iranian-American Reflections from the Campaign Trail

Mark Ameli

Mark Ameli, former candidate, LA Superior Court

Los Angeles, CA – Despite the large Iranian-American population here in the United States, the number of Iranian-Americans elected to public office can be counted on two hands. Why is this the case? Why have Iranian-Americans flourished in the private sector, while failing to make waves in the public sector? Is it because we’re still wary of government and politics? Is it because we don’t know what running for office entails?

Fortunately, there is some positive news on this front. The number of Iranian-American candidates is increasing each campaign cycle. In fact, during the 2010 election cycle, there were at least six Iranian-American candidates vying for office. While one candidate – Farrah Douglas of Carlsbad, CA – succeeded, some of the other candidates were unable to secure a victory despite their formidable campaigns and respectable showing at the polls.

NIAC spoke with one such candidate – Mark Ameli – who ran for a seat as a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge in the largest county in United States. Mark’s reflections from the campaign trail provide good insight into the high stakes game of politics.

How and why did you decide to run?

“When I became a lawyer, I made a very comfortable living in my chosen field of endeavor. I gained the experience and have the temperament needed to make a good judge. I decided that this would be my way to give back to the community that has given so much to me. And secondly, I would be the third generation of judges in my family had I won the election. I wanted to continue the legacy of my father and grandfather.”

What were the steps taken to launch your campaign?

“I did my research and hired the best campaign consultant for judicial campaigns. This was imperative. We discussed the various factors that were needed to win. At the beginning, there were seven others running against me. Among them were three prosecutors, two candidates with a Latino surname (one of whom was a prosecutor as well) and a Superior Court Referee. Our concern was with the prosecutors and the Superior Court Referee. At the Primary election in June, I was able to prevail against all the prosecutors and both Latinos, but came in second to the Referee. This was a huge win for us. Now the race was only between me and the Referee. We knew he had an advantage in that his designation was “Superior Court Referee,” and historically Referees have a higher win rate because of the words “Superior Court” in their title. (Designation is the title of the candidates which appears just below their names on the ballot.) My designation was “Mediator, Arbitrator, Litigator.” With the advice of my consultant, I attempted to change my designation to “Superior Court Litigator.” The County Registrar’s Office first accepted this designation, but rejected it the next day. My campaign filed suit in court to force the Registrar’s Office to accept this designation, however, the decision was not reversed and my designation remained as “Mediator, Arbitrator, Litigator.” We believed that the designation would bring my opponent about 10% more votes, but we would be able to overcome this shortage due to the large number of endorsements I had received from political figures throughout Southern California. At the last count, I received 744,000 votes, but my opponent prevailed with less than 5% of the votes. Although I did not prevail, I am very proud that I was able to carry as many votes as I did in the largest county in the United States.”

What were your time and financial commitments?

“There was a tremendous amount of both time and money involved in this campaign. I started my campaign in June of 2009 and went through to November 2010. In my practice, I do business litigation, personal injury matters, and mediations. During the last year, I would spend a minimum of 7-8 hours per day, every day on the campaign in addition to the duties of my legal business. This obviously cut into my business and I was not able to accept new cases for a long time. We were able to raise $300,000 from my campaign contributors. The total expenses of the campaign were approximately $550,000. The balance was financed with my personal funds.”

How did you involve your fellow Iranian Americans in your campaign? How did you involve other non-Iranians in your campaign?

“I have been involved in a number of Iranian-American organizations. Additionally, I’ve been active in the Iranian-American community as an attorney for past 31 years – including some pro bono work. Therefore, I have both name recognition and an established network of friends/colleagues from within the community, many of whom were willing to support my campaign. This was evident by the fact that most of the campaign funds were raised from within the Iranian-American community. I have also been involved in the American community. Through my work with the Rotary Club’s Gang Violence Prevention Program as well as with the Democratic Party and Democratic clubs, I have been able to get my name out and meet key community leaders and contacts. My professional and educational backgrounds, as well as my continued involvement in the community, helped me get the endorsement of the LA County Democratic Party and several Labor Unions. Being involved in the community is the only way to get the support of the community.”

Did you experience any setbacks or difficulties during your race because of your heritage or Iranian name?

“Not really. One must remember though that my name does not sound very Iranian or Middle Eastern. If it were, there may have been some repercussions. However, I never denied my heritage. When asked, I told everyone that I am an American with Iranian heritage and that I am proud of both. In fact, I used it to my advantage in areas or among groups who were more liberal and open to accept peoples from other ethnicities or national origins. I remember that in one Democratic group my opponent attempted to distinguish himself as being born and raised in the US and it backfired on him. “

Do you have any advice for other Iranian-Americans who may want to run for office?

1. Only run for an office for which you are qualified. Unless you have paid your dues and gained the necessary experience, you cannot convince others that you are the most qualified person.

2. Determine the funds that are required for a campaign. Campaigns are very expensive and one must have the funds available to finance the campaign.

3. Hire the best consultant in the field. A candidate is usually the worst consultant for him or herself. There are experts in this field, use them.

4. Regardless of where you are running, the Iranian-American vote is not enough. Of course you should have those votes as your base of support, but you will need non-Iranian-American votes to prevail. Decide early where you will be able to garner such votes and direct sufficient amount of your time and finances in that direction.

5. Get your name out in the community by performing or participating in various projects within the community. Your good name will go a long way to get you support.”

What are you currently working on, and do you have any concluding thoughts on your run?

“Now I am back to my work and practicing in Business Litigation, Personal Injury and Mediation and Arbitration. As I look back, I ran a great and clean campaign. I made a number of new friends and made my old relationships even stronger. I wish the best of luck to all who will venture into the field of politics. I know that regardless of the result, you will come out stronger.”

Thanks to candidates, like Mark, for paving the way for future Iranian-Americans who aim to seek public office. His reflections are valuable lessons-learned and will, hopefully, inspire future generations of Iranian-Americans to either volunteer for or run their own campaigns.




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