Interview with Senator Cyrus Habib

On March 27th, DPR’s Tanner Lockhead and Matthew Rock sat down with Washington State Senator Cyrus Habib. A Rhodes and Truman Scholar, Habib is the only Iranian American elected to state office. Blind since age eight, he went on to receive a BA from Columbia University and studied law at Yale. Habib joined the State Senate in 2014 and was immediately elected as Democratic Whip.

DPR: As the highest-ranking Iranian official in United States government, how has your ethnicity impacted your view of your role and responsibility as an elected official? 

Habib: As an Iranian American, the responsibility that I take very seriously is to encourage other people to run. It’s nice to hear that I’m the highest ranked, but I’d rather that not be true. I’d much rather not be the highest ranked, nor be the only one. It would be great to have Iranian Americans represented in Congress, and it’s good to have that perspective heard, given what an important role Iranian Americans play in all segments of our society. So I try to talk to other Iranian Americans across the country about why public office can be a rewarding thing.

But I think people also have the mistaken belief that to be Iranian American in public office means you have to focus on foreign policy. That’s just not true. There are Asian Americans who are running and not talking about US-China relations. I understand why there’s that expectation, but Iranian Americans could be just as concerned with higher education or the environment or infrastructure. So I don’t let that geopolitical dynamic define me.

DPR: In Congress, and at all levels of government, we see far less representation of minority groups – be they women, LGBT, or racial minorities. What steps exist so we might see a greater minority presence, and a better representation of the American public in office? 

Habib: Well, first you have to register to vote—there are those mechanics. We have to create a culture of voting in communities of color—making sure they register, making sure families vote together, making sure parents vote with their kids. Or watching the debates together, or going to political events, or attending a political fundraiser—even if you only spend 5 dollars. By becoming active ourselves, we can teach young people to catch the bug. That’s one.

Two is that we need to make voting easier. I’m the prime sponsor of the Washington State Voting Rights Act that we’re hoping will pass this year. The bill lets communities of color—or communities of interest—challenge local jurisdictions on how they draw their voting maps and district lines, and creates a situation where you can come up with alternate voter schemes. Also, we need to increase access to the ballot and move toward same-day registration. And in time, we this will let us have a system that is safe from abuse and fraud, but that allows people to vote in ways that are easier.

And the third thing I’d say is that people in communities of color and other diverse groups (LGBT groups, disability groups) have a great opportunity to leverage existing communities to build political power. But they don’t often know it. There’s this sense that you get to be politically powerful because of organizations like the Rotary, or the Chamber of Commerce, or even the PTA. While that’s true historically, you can also have a very powerful nonprofit in a community that works with young Vietnamese youth, or that works with the transgender community in that city, and that can become the source of your political network. People don’t realize how much organizing power and fundraising potential that they have because we try to get people to do things the old way. And so for example, a black Baptist church, or a synagogue, or a Hindu temple can just as easily become a political launching pad to become a leader. And that can mean more diverse representation.

DPR: You’re a relatively young politician. It’s been shown that ideals sometimes change according to real-world political realities and obstacles that one faces. Do you think your goals or ideas have changed since you’ve entered office?

Habib: I think they changed more when I became the minority [side] than when I began, because at first I was in the majority in the Washington State House. Then, I moved to the minority in the State Senate. And being the minority, you’re in this spot where if you’re like me, you want to get something done… rather than get nothing done, and then point the finger and say “the Republicans are in charge and they are why we’re dysfunctional.” Because that’s tempting, but I don’t want to be that way. I’d rather we get something done even if Republicans insist on getting a good amount of the credit, and I’ve learned how difficult that is to do because not everyone is interested in incremental progress.

It’s been a learning experience figuring out how to be productive and collaborative, while at the same time, expressing to the voters where we do disagree, and then being able to work with them again. 

Since coming to office, I’ve been very positively affected and inspired by what’s been going on in Seattle. To see paid sick leave and the minimum wage happen, and see the kind of energy that that taps into, has really shown me that people are saying that they are the working poor, and there’s a real strong desire to be able to work without being on food stamps or welfare. That was not a strong sensitivity of mine when I first started. But as these issues have come up, I’ve been in contact with them. And as a result, I’ve gotten to know the state better, and I’ve gotten to know its issues better.

But yes, the political dynamic affects you.

Here’s another thing that I learned: we often think the most moderate people are the ones you’re going to work best with. But that’s not always true. There’s a big difference between being moderate and being bipartisan. Ted Kennedy was not moderate – he was the Liberal Lion – but he was able to work with people who were incredibly conservative. So I find that some of the Republicans I work best with are pretty conservative Republicans, but we find areas [where] we can work together. And because of our personal relationship, we can get that done. Just because someone’s moderate doesn’t mean you can get something done.

DPR: What are you most proud of in your time in government?

Habib: I introduced a pilot program to give prisoners a standard issue ID card to help them with reentry into society. Otherwise they’d only have a correctional ID. For most anything you need to do, you need an ID card. Well, that also costs fifty four dollars, and you need a passport and a fixed address. Rarely do prisoners have access to those things as they’re attempting to reintegrate.

So, I introduced program that really has been wildly successful and now I’m doing a bill to make it statewide. First, I’m proud of that because I’ve gotten overwhelming bipartisan support, but it’s not always easy to push for because many find it hard to care about these people. But at the same time, it’s so important that once people have served their sentence, they have a road back into lawful society so that they don’t re-offend and end up in the same cycle. Also, it’s good from a fiscal perspective to avoid that. So the fact that we can do something really tangible—even if it’s definitely not going to overhaul our criminal justice system—will make a big difference for hundreds and even thousands of people across the state.

DPR: Along with eight other elected officials, you participated in a trip to China to speak with Chinese officials about trade. Explain why this work is so important, and how it fits into your goals and your vision for Washington.

Habib: Washington is the most trade-dependent state in the country – in large part because of our location, but also because some of our employers like Boeing and Microsoft are big exporters by dollar amount. China is one of our key trading partners, and its not a coincidence that Gary Lock, the last ambassador to China, was our former governor. So when I got the opportunity to go on this trip, I knew it would be a great way to understand a really key economic partner for Washington state. We went to Beijing and Shanghai, and it was phenomenal. It was amazing to learn about China’s rapid growth and what that means.

This was also shortly after Obama had come to the agreement to work on climate change over the next couple decades. That was a topic that was very current to Chinese leaders, and we talked a lot about it. I was very impressed at the degree to which the Chinese leadership both regionally and nationally is aware of and concerned about carbon pollution in a way that you don’t find in the US. And I don’t think it’s controversial there. China is polluting a lot, and their speed of growth is leading to a really rapid increase in emissions. But all that being said, they are aware of it, and are not denying their contribution to the problem. They are investing in technologies to get out of that cycle.

And that inspired me because if a developing country like China that is so concerned with economic growth can put some of that growth into investments in the future, why can’t we do that too? Why are we still stuck defining the problem?

DPR: As a graduate of Columbia, Oxford, and Yale, a Truman and a Rhodes Scholar, an accomplished lawyer and a rising star in the Democratic party, you have achieved quite a lot. However, as a disabled individual, do you still find yourself excluded in everyday situations? And if you do, how do you respond to that?

Habib: Every person with a disability, just like every other person, finds his or her own way of navigating relationships. I happen to be blind. But we all manage things differently. People who are blind are introverts and extroverts, many face economic challenges, and some are very fortunate. Strategies for dealing with disabilities are as diverse as the disabilities themselves. I tend to be someone who is very social. Of course, some people never want to ask for help; and maybe you’ve been in a position where you offer help and someone gets angry at you. But as long as it isn’t hugely patronizing, I really tend to enjoy using that opportunity to get to know someone. So if I get to the airport, for example, and I’m travelling alone, I’ll ask for help getting to my gate, and use that [help as an] opportunity to talk to that person and hear about her job. So I tend to not shy away from that. But again, I think people are different in how they deal with their situation. For me, as a result [of my disability], I’ve built some really good relationships.

In the legislature, I’ve asked Republicans, “Hey, are you walking to his place? Can I walk with you?” Those types of interactions have broken down some of the partisan animosity. Because some of the people in the legislature that are the most sensitive in the right way to a disability are conservative Republicans, and in a way, it has brought us closer together.

Just a couple weeks ago we had our traditional legislative shootout at a gun range. It’s part of the culture. They go to do target practice, and they invited me to come. And not in a “let’s laugh at Cyrus and how blind he is” way. But the person who arranged it had someone at the range teach me how to use a gun and help me aim. Don’t be scared! They helped keep my hand steady and operate the gun. Especially because I haven’t seen pictures before, it was a fun challenge. And it was my colleagues in the legislature who suggested that. As people with disabilities, the more we interact, the more comfortable we become.

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