Mr. Habib Goes to Washington

The Republican electoral victories last November have led to a lot of hand-wringing about the next generation of Democratic Party stars. One potential contender is 3,000 miles away from Washington, D.C.

Cyrus Habib ’03 is an avowed liberal and the new lieutenant governor of Washington State. He’s the child of immigrants and the highest-ranking Iranian-American in public office. Also, he’s blind.

“Donald Trump has put forward a white nationalist vision of what America’s greatness is and I am someone who stands in opposition to that,” says Habib, who took office in January.

Habib believes Trump’s rhetoric makes it especially vital for the Democratic Party to showcase its own diversity, even when it falls under attack. During Habib’s campaign last year, he faced “birtherism” charges similar to the ones Trump levied at Barack Obama ’83 when Habib’s opponent, Marty McClendon (R), cast doubt as to whether Habib was a U.S. citizen.

Washington State Lt. Governor Cyrus Habib

Courtesy Washington State Legislative Photography

“Is he legal?” a woman shouted at a McClendon rally in Olympia, Wash., in September. Another man, whose voice was also captured on video, yelled “What about his birth certificate?”

McClendon responded, “Right. I don’t know,” refusing to set the record straight about Habib, who was born in Maryland and moved to Washington State as a child.

Habib was “shocked” by the ugly moment but believes his election points to a brighter future. “If a man with the last name ‘Habib’ can win a primary and win a general election and become one of the youngest statewide office-holders in the nation, that shows growth as a nation,” he says.

Habib’s journey to a career in politics began across the country from the statehouse in Olympia. Growing up outside Baltimore, he recalls being drawn to books and movies about New York City and found the academic energy of Columbia’s campus in Morningside Heights irresistible.

Habib lost his eyesight at 8 due to a rare form of cancer. He says he has refused to let it limit his opportunities; he jokes that Columbia’s “compact campus was well suited” for his condition. He learned how to ride the subway.

Habib fell in love with Literature Humanities, became an English major and, with excellent grades and a growing interest in politics, landed a summer job on Capitol Hill in 2001. That experience led to a fall internship in the Manhattan office of then-New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.

His first day working there was September 14, 2001.

“It was an intense time to be working in that office. Normally, an intern would be answering run-of-the-mill Social Security and immigration queries. But paperwork at that time meant helping displaced individuals and businesses from Lower Manhattan,” he recalls. “It really showed me the value in public service, whether that is helping an individual, a family, a city or a country in crisis.

“My experience at Columbia was really bisected by 9-11,” he says. “I started to think about being Iranian-American for the first time.”

Habib dove into the Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies department, taking classes in Islamic civilization, and found that he was able to connect the theoretical work of his classes to his real-world experiences in a powerful new way.

A Truman Scholarship and a Rhodes Scholarship followed, then a degree from Yale Law in 2009 and a prime law firm job back in Washington State. But it was the experiences — both inside and outside of the classroom — in the aftermath of the terrorist attack that drove Habib to a career in public service.

“I wanted to help people,” he says simply.

Habib ran for a seat in the Washington State House of Representatives in 2012 and won, then won again two years later when he ran for the State Senate. He represented the Seattle suburbs, which are home a thriving tech sector, including giants like Microsoft and Amazon.

“I counted Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos among my constituents,” says Habib. “It would have been easy to stay, as things in the district are going well. But those economic benefits were not being experienced statewide.”

“My experience at Columbia was really bisected by 9-11,” he says. “I started to think about being Iranian-American for the first time.”

Though he had served in government for only four years, Habib announced in 2016 that he would run for lieutenant governor, taking on 20-year incumbent Brad Owen (D). In Washington, the lieutenant governor runs independently from the governor, runs the state when the governor is out of town and can request a portfolio of state issues to supervise.

Owen abandoned his reelection bid. Habib ran against a crowded, 10-person primary field and won. He was endorsed by Obama, who recorded a robocall on behalf of his campaign, and his general election victory was supported by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D).

“Gov. Inslee looks forward to a productive working relationship with the new lieutenant governor,” says Tara Lee, deputy director of communications for the governor. “He enjoyed working with him when Mr. Habib was in the Senate.”

Against McClendon, Habib ran a solitary campaign ad: “When I lost my eyesight as a child, I learned to listen,” Habib intones in the powerful ad that stresses his constituent outreach efforts and ends with the tagline, “Because anything is possible, when you really listen.”

As he presides over the state senate in his new post, Habib relies on a newly installed braille terminal that allows him to instantly recognize and call upon senators looking to be recognized on the floor.

Habib believes that much of the next year will be spent reacting to changes coming from Washington, D.C. He hopes to find areas of agreement — such as joint state-federal response to summer wildfires — but also vows to stand up to President Trump when needed.

“His America is not the America I believe in,” Habib says.