By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
“In terms of having had cancer, that really — it gives you a sense of, ‘Look, I fought cancer before I was even a 1-year-old, as a newborn, and [I fought it] again later as a kid.’ That gives you a sense of — you never know what life is going to bring. You never know what is going to happen tomorrow.”
Cyrus Habib, 35, a member of the Washington state Senate and the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor of Washington, is a three-time cancer survivor. First diagnosed with retinoblastoma when he was 4 months old, Habib spent the bulk of his childhood in and out of treatment for cancer, ultimately beating it — and losing his eyesight — at age 8.
Habib earned degrees from Columbia, Oxford, and Yale, taught classes at Seattle University School of Law, worked at Perkins Coie, and ran his mother’s political campaign for Superior Court judge. He is a Rhodes Scholar, a Truman Scholar, and a Soros Fellow. In 2012, he won a seat in the Washington state’s House of Representatives, representing the 48th legislative district. He was elected to the state Senate two years later.
“Part of why I tend to pack in opportunities as they come, rather than going, ‘No I’ll wait,’ is that I don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” said Habib. “If I can do something I love today, why put it off?”
In 1979, Iran’s Pahlavi dynasty under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was overthrown. The nation flipped from a largely pro-Western monarchy to an anti-Western Islamic republic under the revolution leader Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The Iranian Revolution resulted in the mass exodus of Iran’s people.
It was this political climate that brought Habib’s parents — Susan Amini and Mo Habib, both originally from Tehran — to the United States. Mo Habib attended college at the University of Washington and earned an engineering degree before embarking on a career at Boeing. Amini studied law in Maryland and is a King County Superior Court judge.
Cyrus Habib describes the Iran that his parents grew up in as a very open and international country. He said that people can come and go, that his parents vacationed in Europe often as children. His mom attended Catholic school and learned English and French. It is perhaps this sensibility that led Amini and Mo Habib not to approach their son’s disability with extreme pessimism.
In a 2008 interview with Northwest Asian Weekly, when Amini first ran for superior Court judge (she ultimately lost the race, but was appointed judge by Gov. Jay Inslee in 2013), she was visibly emotional as she recounted a story about her son not being allowed to play during recess like other children because his teachers understandably feared he’d be hurt. She said that she and her son counted steps together, making sure he knew exactly where each piece of playground equipment was.
“In a few weeks,” Amini said in 2008, “I went to pick him up, and he would be standing on this jungle gym at the top step, and the other students with 20/20 vision were two steps down. I told him, if nobody is supposed to go that high, then you can’t go. But if others can, then let him do it, too. I don’t want anything special for him, only that he would be able to do the same thing.”
“My parents — because of me becoming blind at a young age and having fought cancer and everything — they were in an interesting position,” said Habib. “The decision they made, and they told me this much later, was, ‘We’re not going to let our fear become your fear.’
Habib went on to earn a black belt in kenpo karate. He navigated the New York City subway system by himself as an 18-year-old undergrad at Columbia, and worked for then-Sen. Hillary Clinton in her New York office.
“They never pushed me,” Habib said, referring to his parents. “But they gave me the belief that whatever other kids could do, I could do. So if someone says, ‘No, you can’t do that,’ I say, ‘No I wanna prove I can do that.’”
According to a 2002 study from the Center for Immigration studies, the immigration of Middle Easterners to the United States experienced its biggest boom in the last 50 years. In 1970, fewer than 200,000 non-Jewish Middle Easterners lived in the United States. Today, according to U.S. Census data, the Middle Eastern population (non-Jewish, but comprising Arabs and non-Arabs) is estimated to be at nearly 3.7 million people.
As a point of comparison, there are nearly 20 million Asian Americans living in the United States today, according to U.S. Census data.
“When I went to college, I got really into [cultural identity],” said Habib. “I got a bachelor’s and double majored. One of my majors is in Middle Eastern studies. It’s a part of me and being Iranian American is interesting because we’re not Arab Americans, yet there are many cultural similarities, largely related to religion, which is a connection. But [with my family] being Catholic, there’s also a difference there.”
Habib said that because the Middle Eastern community in the Greater Seattle area is significantly smaller and less established than the Asian community, there is not yet the same level of organization. He cites his mom’s 2008 campaign for Superior Court judge for providing him his first deep experience with the local Asian community.
“The API community kind of adopted us during that campaign,” said Habib. “Being the first Iranian American to run for office in Washington, probably the first Middle Easterner to run in Washington — we’re so small as a community — we don’t have the strength in numbers. So it meant a lot to us to be considered West Asians, as part of the API community. We have so many shared experiences, with emphases on education, small business, and family.”
Vying for a new seat
In March of this year, Lt. Gov. Brad Owen stated that he would not seek another term, after having served nearly 20 years. Habib was first to declare his candidacy when Owen announced he was stepping down.
“Really what it’s about is this is an office that has a number of different aspects and facets. One is you preside over the state Senate in all debates and sections of the Senate,” said Habib. “That really requires a deep knowledge of parliamentary procedures, as well as statutes.” Habib pointed out that for the past three years, he has taught legislative procedure at Seattle University Law School.
The lieutenant governor also plays a role in economic development, chairing the Legislative Committee on Economic Development and International Relations.
“I’ve been endorsed by Bill Finkbeiner,” said Habib. Finkbeiner was a Republican candidate for the 2012 lieutenant governor race. “I think that really speaks to the fact that people who follow this race really care about the Senate running well, the executive branch running well, having a strong team player — even if they’re Republican, they’re supporting me for this race.”
“I really identify with people who are told they can’t do something, people who have been marginalized,” said Habib. “If I do nothing else, what I want to do in this job is that I want it to be an office where people feel they are welcomed, they are heard, and they are listened to … particularly people who haven’t been heard [historically] — people of color, those with disabilities, vets, LGBTQ, etcetera. If you don’t have connections and money, it is difficult to be heard in Olympia and Washington, D.C.”
“I think a lot of immigrant communities — and I think this is true of Middle Easterners and Asians — the focus is on economic stability, being able to provide for your kids’ education,” said Habib. “That’s the number one priority.”
“There’s not a huge emphasis on being politically engaged. In many cases, like with Iranians, politics wasn’t that pleasant back where these people came from. … People around the world say, ‘I want to go to the U.S. to make money,’ or they say, ‘I want to go to the U.S. so I can be free politically and religiously.’
“No one says, ‘I want to go to America so my kid can run for public office one day.’
“But for those of us who are engaged and who love politics, who come from a community where there’s a cynicism about it, we play an important role. I want to make people feel like they are welcomed.”
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.