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Iranian-Americans Test Political 'Glass Ceiling'

OLYMPIA, Wash. - In the decades since the Iranian Revolution, immigrants from there have made it to the corner offices of corporate America, academia and Hollywood. But they're largely absent from the political scene.

In the U.S., the highest ranking Iranian-American elected official is a freshman state representative from suburban Seattle. But his heritage is not the only thing worth noticing about Representative Cyrus Habib.

History was in the making last summer and fall in the suburbs east of Seattle. But voters didn’t know that when a vaguely Middle Eastern looking man came knocking. The first thing they probably noticed was that he is blind.

"I wear sunglasses as do many people who are blind and I use a cane," explains Habib.

He says he door-belled 7,000 homes in his campaign for an open seat in the Washington 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. 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 -- $338,500 -- to win election than any other Washington House candidate in state history. The first-time candidate appealed to Iranian-American donors far beyond Seattle, dozens of whom gave the maximum allowed.

"It was gratifying," Habib says. "You know, I think we are at a critical moment as a community of Iranian-Americans, or Middle Eastern-Americans."

The 31-year-old is the first Iranian-American to be elected to a state legislature in the U.S. -- that from the Iranian-American Political Action Committee. Habib was born in the USA, the only child of parents who emigrated from Iran in the 1970s.

Habib's election victory resonates widely among Iranian immigrants according to Iranian-born non-profit executive Goli Ameri. She's presently the interim president of the Center for Global Engagement in Los Angeles, but back in 2004 Ameri made a failed bid for Congress as a Republican from Oregon.

Ameri says Habib's success in politics could signal the cracking of what she calls "the last glass ceiling."

"This is the one area where the Iranian-American community has not had the same level of accomplishment for example as they have had in the business community, health care/medical, academic (world)... It's a great start."

Ameri says Iranian-Americans have traditionally avoided politics.

"You know, politics coming from Iran was not exactly something that you were encouraged to participate in," she says. "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's 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."

In his home state, Habib is much better known for overcoming blindness than for his ethnic heritage. A rare childhood cancer took his eyesight at the age of eight.

"I use what is called text-to-speech software. 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."

With a mouse click, he directs the laptop to read him a staff report. What emerges sounds kind of like a dolphin on speed -- and it's incredibly difficult to discern what it says.

But Habib catches it all.

"So it was listing Ohio, Delaware and Texas and their B&O (business & occupation) tax regimes," he explains.

Habib is a Democrat. His political agenda fits what you might expect from a suburban state legislator. There's nothing to do with foreign affairs. He's concerned with school funding, traffic congestion, and job creation.

Occasionally, his blindness and policy interests converge, as happened at a recent committee hearing about setting standards for high tech, self-driving cars. In a recent The House transportation committee hearing, Habib said, "I promise this is a question, not a comment. 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," -- that's the the John L. O’Brien Building, where most of the state representatives’ offices are located -- "and trust that it will happen?"

In the meantime, Representative Habib has a legislative aide to help him navigate the crowded halls and show him where to sign things. He says lobbyists and even members of the opposition party have been quick to offer an arm or a pointer too.

"You know, I'm a social person," Habib says. "I'm also from a kind of Mediterranean culture. So we're very warm. Taking someone's arm and walking around is perfectly within my comfort zone, which you don't always find in the Seattle area, by the way."

Does Representative Habib see himself as a pioneer or a role model?

"I think every person's story is unique," he says. "You know, 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."

Habib there didn't mention his Iranian heritage. But consider this anecdote: Back in November, the Voice of America's Persian language service posted a brief bit about Habib's election on its Facebook page. That item, in Farsi, became the site's most viewed post of 2012 -- beating out the U.S. presidential race and even the Iran nuclear standoff.

One man commenting from Tehran wrote, "now that's what I call a free country."

Editor's Note: This story was produced in collaboration with PRI’s The World.

On the Web:

State Rep. Cyrus Habib - Washington Legislature 
Cyrus Habib describes what it is like to be blind - KUOW
VOA Persian post about Habib - Facebook
Video: Habib passes first bill in Washington House - TVW 

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.