March 2017 Bar Bulletin
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Profile / Cyrus Habib

Giving Voice to Those Unseen

By Rory O’Sullivan

 

“No one ever wakes up in the morning and says, ‘There’s snow on the ground and no one’s shoveling it, where’s my lieutenant governor?’” acknowledges Cyrus Habib, who was elected as Washington’s 16th lieutenant governor in November.

If you are not a political junkie, you may not know the name of Washington’s lieutenant governor or that the office even exists. For many years the office has remained relatively unseen. Lt. Gov. Habib is working to change that. In just his first few weeks on the job, he is using the office to make a difference in people’s lives.

One day after President Trump issued an executive order banning travel into the United States by citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries, Habib created an online portal to assist those affected by the ban. “Being an Iranian American gives me a responsibility to reach out and serve these vulnerable communities,” he said.

Habib’s parents left Iran before the 1979 revolution. His father, Mo Habib, came to the United States from Iran in 1970 to study engineering at the University of Washington, completing a master’s degree in 1975. Mo then worked for an engineering firm that did business in Iran. Habib’s parents, who had known each other since childhood, reconnected while his father was working on a project in Iran. Habib’s mother, King County Superior Court Judge Susan Amini, was completing a joint degree program between Tehran University and Cambridge University. She lived in a Catholic community of nuns in Paris while she waited for her visa to the United States.

As the son of immigrants from one of the seven targeted countries, Habib has spoken in personal terms about the Trump administration’s moves: “Years ago, my father was on the road to citizenship, still a green card holder. If, this past Friday, for example, he had decided to visit friends in Vancouver, B.C., he would have been barred from coming home to his family.”

Habib describes the position of lieutenant governor as a highly entrepreneurial position. He serves as president of the Senate, and described the position as a member of the Senate who is elected “at-large.” He is also a member of the executive branch heading a small agency, the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, with a staff of five.

Habib points out that he is the first lieutenant governor to hire a director of outreach. “When we are out in the community listening to the needs of others, we can react quickly,” he said. Through his outreach work, he recently learned that federal funding for low-income students planning to take advanced placement and international baccalaureate tests would be cut. “The test fees can be a real barrier for some families,” he said. “I’m working with OSPI (the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction) and raising money from the private sector to help meet this need.”

Education has been a high priority for Habib because of his own experience. His parents moved from Maryland to Bellevue when he was eight years old in part because of the kind of education he would have access to here in Washington. Habib lost his sight as a child after successive battles with cancer destroyed the retina in one eye and then the other. He attended Stevenson Elementary School and Bellevue International School because they were able to provide a world-class education to students regardless of visual impairments.

Habib went on to attend Columbia University and he earned a Master in Letters from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. “At Oxford I dedicated myself to exploring a very particular theme relating to the visual sense,” he said, “taking as my primary objects of examination two important novels of the 20th Century — Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.”

“I did not write on vision and visuality only because of my own peculiar relationship with sight, though that certainly played a part in my enthusiasm for the topic,” he added. “I focused on visuality because of its primacy amongst the senses in western intellectual and creative traditions.”


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