Congressman Hank Johnson sparked outrage in Jewish Atlanta and beyond this summer when he told a pro-BDS crowd in Philadelphia that the growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank was like the spread of termites.
But the Democrat spoke long after Georgia’s primaries, meaning that voters in the 4th District, covering parts of DeKalb, Gwinnett, Rockdale and Newton counties, were left with only one alternative to handing Johnson a sixth term: Republican Victor Armendariz, a lifelong resident of the heavily Democratic congressional district who has never held elective office.
“I get asked all the time, ‘Victor, you’re Hispanic, and you’re running against a Democrat.’ No, I’m an American, and we can do better,” Armendariz said. “Yeah, I am of Mexican descent, but if it wasn’t for this great country, I wouldn’t be here.”
His ancestry also has a twist, Armendariz revealed in an interview with the AJT: Through paternal great-grandparents, he is descended from Spanish Jews.
“My father taught us basic knowledge of Judaism just because he felt we should know our heritage. And he always referred to it as my people or our people,” Armendariz said.
Armendariz Optimistic Election Will Be Interesting
Two of the world’s biggest soccer rivals are Barcelona, led by Lionel Messi, and Real Madrid, led by Cristiano Ronaldo.
Those teams have battled for dominance in Europe as well as Spain while fans have argued over which star striker is the best player in the world.
Victor Armendariz, who plays soccer for the Atlanta Silverbacks, loves both Spanish teams.
It’s the kind of unexpected, compromise position that typifies Armendariz’s long-shot campaign to unseat five-term Democratic Congressman Hank Johnson in Georgia’s 4th District.
He’s an athlete who by his own description tops 5-foot-2 only in his best shoes.
He’s a soccer player who fell in love with hockey watching his cousin play in Mexico and around age 16 picked up the street version, which he sees as being like soccer with sticks and inline skates.
He’s the son of a Mexican immigrant and a Republican who is concerned about illegal immigration but wants a solution that doesn’t involve deporting 11 million people.
Armendariz, whose father came to Georgia on a student visa and stayed after he met and fell in love with Armendariz’s mother, producing a marriage that has lasted more than 50 years, was born and raised in DeKalb County and lives in Chamblee.
Noting that his father didn’t know English when he arrived and had to work jobs washing dishes, busing tables and cleaning hospital beds but retired as a company’s chief financial officer, Armendariz said, “I grew up watching the American dream.”
The only child he and wife Renata have is the four-legged kind, a Korean Jindo dog named Duchess, but Armendariz has two sisters who live in the area and a brother in Orlando.
When he was 5, he lost a 7-year-old brother to leukemia, which added to his trouble in 2010 when he learned that the pain he’d been feeling in his lower abdomen was caused by a cancerous tumor that had grown like a tree into his upper abdomen and metastasized behind his stomach.
He said the hardest part was telling his parents. “When I got diagnosed, I waited 24 hours before I told my parents, and if I could have gotten away with not telling them, I would have. But the wrath from them would have been worse.”
Even for a naturally optimistic person like Armendariz, cancer brought some dark moments, but he recovered and has been free of the disease for almost five years.
“It gives you faith, I think, and faith in people,” Armendariz said.
He has a marketing degree from Georgia State University and recently left a 16-year position as director of media for an Atlanta company so he could concentrate on his campaign, which has taken him to every part of the four-county district so he could talk with voters, something he said Johnson rarely does.
Armendariz spent two hours with the AJT on his 47th birthday Sept. 28 at an Oak Grove pizza place to share his story of how an immigrant’s son hopes to make his way to Congress.
This is his second bid to unseat Johnson.
In 2010, he was the fourth and last Republican to qualify for the primary. Having become involved with the FairTax movement, an effort to replace the federal income tax with a national sales tax to target consumption instead of production, Armendariz was frustrated that no one else was talking about taxes.
He said he surprised himself by not finishing last. He also took note that Johnson, facing a couple of Democratic primary challengers as well as the Republican hopefuls, didn’t attend any debates.
To Armendariz, Johnson is typical of career politicians: making the same promises every couple of years, then disappearing and failing to deliver until it’s time to run for re-election.
That’s not how the nation’s founders envisioned the system, he said. “We’ve gotten to where we just let people go, and it’s both sides, it’s Democrats and Republicans. We get people who are just way too comfortable in their Washington lives.”
Residents of the 4th District, whose unemployment rate is about 16 percent, hardly see their congressman because, since unseating Cynthia McKinney with the support of a Jewish community angry at her anti-Israel and anti-Semitic comments, he hasn’t felt challenged, Armendariz said. “One of the things I’m promising every voter in District 4 that I come in contact with is that if you give me the honor of representing you, even if it’s for one term, every month we’ll have a town hall. Because if you can’t reach and touch your representative, then how are they representing you?”
Armendariz said he chose to run for Congress instead of local government because he can bring the biggest change in Washington, in part by helping shift power back to the state. Just electing a Republican Mexican-American from the 4th District would cause shockwaves at the U.S. Capitol, he said.
“It’s about sending a message and how we can make a difference,” he said.
His decision to try again against Johnson predated the congressman’s offensive appearance before a group supporting the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement at the start of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July.
But “I became a lot more known really quickly when he made that comment” about termites, Armendariz said. He mentioned an elderly Jewish woman who volunteered to take his campaign cards around the neighborhood and the warm reception he received from a longtime Democrat at a networking event at Congregation Beth Shalom. “That in a weird way is the kind of gift Mr. Johnson gave me to get my name out there.”
He said he likes Johnson personally, but voters should judge the congressman by his actions, not by his later apologies.
“It wasn’t mis-scheduling that put him in front of that anti-Israel group,” Armendariz said. “He felt comfortable going there.”
He said it is important for the United States to stand with Israel and against violence, although everything should be on the table for negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.
But even if the pro-Israel vote moves from Johnson to him, the optimistic Armendariz is under no illusions about the odds against a little-known Republican defeating an entrenched Democrat in the 4th District.
“I don’t kid myself. It’s a long, hard road,” he said, adding that he does expect a close race and that he’ll be happy if he can get more people to talk about a tax overhaul and more people to think about people and policies rather than party labels.
His campaign depends in part on voters caring as little about those labels as Armendariz claims to. His policy positions don’t align perfectly with the GOP platform, and he’s no one’s vision of a conservative ideologue.
No Republican has ever campaigned so hard in Democratic parts of the 4th District, he said, excited about the “wonderful conversations” he has had outside a Sam’s Club in Lithonia and a Golden Corral in Decatur.
In addition to the economy, he said voters told him their concerns are education — he would like to shut down the Education Department and push all the money and decisions back to the state and local levels — and the high arrest rate for black youths — he envisions an expansion of community policing and the development of more activities for teens.
“I have been very humbled by the number of people who have said to me, ‘Victor, I have never voted for a Republican before, but I have never met one like you.’ … We’ll see what happens, but hopefully some good will come of it,” Armendariz said.
He said he began to turn to the Republican Party in college when he was repelled by the aggressive attitudes of students promoting progressive causes. After college, he didn’t appreciate assumptions that he was a Democrat just because of his ethnicity.
The Republicans he met were more open to discussion and didn’t seem to mind if he rejected some policies while accepting others. He still didn’t consider himself a Democrat or Republican until the issue of a better tax system led him to the Republicans.
“If you truly cared about people, then you would get down to the nuts and bolts of what would really help people,” he said. “You help people by helping the economy, getting things out of the way. It pushed me away from the progressive side because I think government just gets in the way.”
Taxes are the dominant message in his campaign, and Armendariz said that if he’s elected, he’ll talk about the switch to a tax on consumption every day.
“A consumption tax takes people at poverty level or lower off the tax rolls,” he said, adding that money leads to power. “The IRS is the most powerful agency, and it shouldn’t be.”
He added, “A consumption tax would be biggest transfer of power from the federal government to the people.”
The tax proposals of presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and not their party affiliations, personalities or other policies are decisive in his choice to vote for Trump, despite his less-than-flattering depiction of Mexican immigrants.
With three branches of government, Armendariz said, he’s confident that Trump’s excesses would be reined in.
“You vote where your heart tells you for president, but the president is a figurehead. You can’t pick up the phone and call the president,” Armendariz said.
He said that fixing taxes would correct many of the nation’s problems, including illegal immigration, because the economy would grow and offer more good jobs and more mobility.
“We have a lot of illegals here that are hardworking people,” Armendariz said. “Now I don’t think Americans have a problem with hardworking illegals here and coming up with a workers’ permit plan, which is something I would propose if I made it to Congress, to deal with the ones who are here. Now that’s not counting the ones who are committing crimes here.”
His optimism extends to the immigration debate.
He said he believes that even people who voice adamant opposition to amnesty and insist on rounding up and deporting illegal immigrants would go along with a plan that allowed the noncriminal immigrants to stay and become productive, recognized members of society — as long as the first step is to seal the border against further illegal entry.
“To me, immigration is also a security issue. Look what Israel puts up with on a constant basis,” with bombings, rockets and other terrorist attacks, Armendariz said. “We don’t want that here. … We have to protect the homeland.”
He said it’s not feasible or humane to deport more than 11 million people. He also said that once the border is secure and immigrants are out of hiding, he could see talk turning to a path to citizenship, but he denies that should be considered amnesty.
The hard-liners will come around, he said, because “Americans inherently want to help people.”
Not everything is a surprise with Armendariz, however. Asked to choose between Messi and Ronaldo, he gave the edge to Messi, who like him is an undersized striker who can drop into the central midfield to create opportunities for his teammates.
“I think Messi is a little bit more humble on the field in his demeanor, and sometimes Ronaldo can get a little too into himself,” Armendariz said.
He’ll have to wait until Tuesday, Nov. 8, to see whether voters give him a similar edge over Johnson.
“When people ask me why I am wasting my time, well, I am all of 5-foot-2 if I’m wearing the right shoes, and I’ve been told all my life that ‘Oh, you can’t ride that bike’ or ‘You can’t this.’ If I’d listened to them, I would have had a pretty rough life,” Armendariz said. “So I believe in the American spirit. If you see a problem, set your mind to it and see if you can make a difference. And that’s what I’m doing.”