Global Politics

Washington state Iranian-American shatters ethnic glass ceiling

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Washington state Representative Cyrus Habib listens as his laptop reads his incoming email to him via text-to-speech conversion software. (Photo courtesy of the Washington Legislature.)

In the 1970s to mid-1980s, tens of thousands of Iranians fled repression and unrest in their home country and emigrated to the United States.

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Over the years, Iranian-Americans have ascended to corner offices in corporate America, academia and Hollywood — but are still largely absent from the political scene. But Cyrus Habib  has broken into politics in the Seattle area and become the highest-ranking Iranian-American elected official in the United States.

Yet, Representative Habib’s ethnicity isn’t the only thing about him worth noticing.

History was in the making last fall in the suburbs of Seattle. But voters didn’t know that when a young-ish, dark-haired blind man came knocking.

“I wear sunglasses, as do many people who are blind, and I use a cane,” said Habib, who door-belled 7,000 homes in his campaign for an open seat in the Washington state legislature.

“It happened not infrequently that people seeing me walk up the front steps would assume that I was with community services for the blind,” he said. “They’d be surprised when they answered the door and I’d say, ‘No, I’m running for office.’ Then they became much more guarded.”

Undaunted, Habib raised more money to win election than any other Washington House candidate in state history. He also appealed to Iranian-Americans beyond Seattle. Dozens of campaign donors from that community contributed the maximum amount allowed.

“It was gratifying,” Habib said. “You know, I think we’re at a critical moment as a community of Iranian-Americans, or Middle-Eastern Americans.”

For sure, Habib represents a growing group of Middle Eastern Americans jumping into U.S. politics — refusing to let extremist groups be the face of their communities. Habib also represents a particular breakthrough. At age 31, he’s the first Iranian-American to be elected to a state legislature.

He was born in Maryland, to parents who’d emigrated from Iran in the 1970′s. His father came first, to study engineering in Washington state, and then had to stay when the Iranian revolution broke out. That’s when Habib’s mother came over.

Non-profit executive Goli Ameri also belongs to that first generation of émigrés. She’s presently the interim president of the Center for Global Engagement in Los Angeles, but back in 2004, Ameri ran for Congress as a Republican challenger in Oregon. She eventually lost to the incumbent.

Ameri says Habib’s victory resonates strongly among Iranian immigrants because it signals the cracking of what she calls “the last glass ceiling” for the community.

“This is the one area where the Iranian-American community has not had the same level of accomplishment for example as in the business community, health care, medical, academic,” Ameri said. “It’s a great start.”

Ameri says Iranian-Americans have traditionally shied away from politics.

“Politics, coming from Iran, was not exactly something that you were encouraged to participate in,” she zaid. “In fact, if anything people shied away from it and fled from it. So it wasn’t something that was natural or instinctive.”

As for Habib, he is a lawyer by trade, but caught the political bug early on.

“I first volunteered on political campaigns when I was in high school on the campaign of Gary Locke who ran for governor, our first ever Chinese-American governor in the United States and of course now ambassador to China,” he said.

When Habib ran for office himself last year, Ameri says she advised the young hopeful to steer clear of U.S.-Iran relations. Habib says he finds foreign policy needlessly divisive.

“For me, foreign policy has never been what I’m interested in,” Habib said. “It’s never been my focus. I’m interested in how can we create a 21st-century economy rooted in our passion in this region for technology.”

In Washington, Habib is best known for overcoming blindness. A rare childhood cancer took his eyesight at age eight.

“I use what’s called text-to-speech software,” Habib says. “So it reads what is on the screen. I am able to type normally just like anyone else and it reads back what is on the screen.” The computer reads-back sounds with a chirping-like tone but Habib catches the high-speed clip and understands every word.

Occasionally, his blindness and other interests converge. It happened at a recent committee hearing about setting standards for high-tech, self-driving cars.

“How close are we to the day when you can also put your blind legislative colleague in a car and say, get him to JLOB,” he asked, referring to a government building.

But Habib if hesitant to refer to himself as a pioneer or a role model.

“I think every person’s story is unique,” he said. “I think ‘role model’ is probably not the right term because people will chart their own path. But blind children need to know that with hard work and opportunity they can achieve their dreams. What’s more, others in society need to know that.”

Back in November, the Voice of America’s Persian service posted a brief bit about Habib’s election victory on its Facebook page.

That item, in Farsi, became the website’s most popular of 2012, beating out the U.S. presidential race and even the Iran nuclear standoff. One man posting from Tehran commented, now that’s “what I call a free country.”

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