As it prepared for the incoming lieutenant governor, the Washington Senate installed a Braille system to help Cyrus Habib navigate the chamber. But with a tumultuous legislative session ahead, Habib will likely face bigger challenges.

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OLYMPIA — On Friday, Washington Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib stood at the rostrum in the state Senate chambers, banging a gavel while keeping his other hand near a device that looks like a keyboard.

Beneath him on the Senate floor were state lawmakers — his peers as of a few months ago.

GOP Sen. Joe Fain of Auburn and Democratic Sen. Marko Liias of Lynn­wood — their parties’ respective floor leaders — engaged in an battle of obscure procedure. With the chamber temporarily tied after the resignation of a GOP senator, Democrats sensed an opening to try to push through an education-funding bill.

In a speech at a rally in downtown Seattle Sunday evening, Lt. Governor Cyrus Habib, whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Iran, said Trump’s temporary ban on immigrants and refugees directly affects his family. (Courtesy of King5)

The skirmish underscored the challenge of a closely divided Senate trying to overhaul school funding this year — and Habib’s challenge in managing the debate.

As the drama on the Senate floor unfolded, the 35-year-old lieutenant governor, president of the Senate, had to call on Fain and Liias before they could speak.

But Habib cannot see them. He lost his eyesight to a cancer called retinoblastoma, first in his left eye, then his right. By age 8 he was blind.

While presiding over the Senate, Habib sometimes sets the gavel down and brings both hands to the keyboard device. From the gallery above, it looks like he’s tapping out an email.

It’s a Braille keyboard, used to alert Habib to whoever is looking to speak. It’s the latest innovation in the Senate chambers, installed to help the newly elected lieutenant governor navigate his role.

With the chamber’s desks wired up to the system, a senator presses a button that displays refreshable Braille on the keyboard, real-time information delivered to Habib’s fingertips.

The technology is part of a suite of digital tools — including his iPhone’s Voice­Over system, which allows Habib to navigate the phone by ear — that he uses to keep pace in the busy life of politics.

“I always believed that there would be a way to do it,” Habib said in an interview, referring to the new job he won in November’s election.

One option could have included having someone on the rostrum spotting senators for him. But with new technology, he said, the Senate is showing “it’s not some stodgy, behind-the-times” institution.

 

Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib’s Braille keypad alerts him to senators who want to speak.  (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)
Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib’s Braille keypad alerts him to senators who want to speak. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)

 

The challenges ahead

From the challenges of parliamentary rulings to serving as a symbol for immigrant communities, Habib finds himself navigating different roles.

On Sunday, he attracted widespread attention with an emotional speech at a downtown Seattle demonstration against President Trump’s executive order temporarily banning all refugees and immigrants from seven majority Muslim countries.

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Habib, the highest-ranking Iranian-American elected official,told protesters that Trump’s executive order would have stopped his parents from entering America.

“Nobody loves this country like the people who leave everything behind to earn their place in this country,” he told the crowd.

During the grind of the legislative session, political life may be more mundane — but the challenges are real.

On the Senate floor, Habib must preside while a power struggle unfolds in the closely divided chamber, with some Republicans concerned that the former state senator from Bellevue is too partisan for the job.

In Washington, the Senate — by a one-vote margin — is the GOP’s strongest lever of power. The chamber even experienced a recent temporary tie before a replacement could be announced for Sen. Brian Dansel, R-Republic, who resigned to join the Trump administration.

As president of the Senate, Habib can cast a tiebreaking vote, and must make rulings on procedural questions, which can be obscure but important.

Republicans worry, because on the campaign trail last year, Habib was an outspoken advocate for funding K-12 education to satisfy the McCleary order, a state Supreme Court ruling that said the state was underfunding schools.

Even outgoing Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, also a Democrat, expressed concern about Habib’s statements that he wouldn’t sign a bill he viewed as unconstitutional — which could include a budget bill that he might believe doesn’t comply with the McCleary decision.

In his defense, Habib has said that withholding his signature on a passed bill wouldn’t actually veto the measure.

Last month, before Habib had even been sworn in, a handful of GOP senators supported changing the Senate’s rules to block him from chairing the Senate Rules Committee, a traditional role for the lieutenant governor.

The Rules Committee is a powerful body — it approves which bills go to the Senate floor for a vote.

The proposal failed. But Fain, who did not support the rules change, and other Republicans remain wary.

“Those fears are still there,” Fain said. But he added later, “I’ll give him every opportunity to succeed.”

Habib downplayed that vote, and said he’s committed to being fair. When Dansel resigned, Habib urged the Republican Party to move quickly to fill the seat. And he said he was “committed to doing my part to help ensure a productive and collaborative legislative session.”

But Habib recognizes the role reversal of going from a lawmaker who once tried to force GOP senators into voting to recognize climate change to now managing the Senate.

For Republicans, “They’re getting to know me in this mode,” he said. “It’ll take a little time” to earn their trust.

Friday’s Senate dust-up may have helped. The lieutenant governor made his first on-the-job ruling, stopping a Democratic procedural move intended to help advance their education-related bill.

 

Habib has a “Cyrus” monogram on the left cuff of his shirt. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)
Habib has a “Cyrus” monogram on the left cuff of his shirt. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)

 

New technology

Habib’s entire visual memory comes from the 1980s. It includes the Baltimore cityscape where he grew up, and MTV videos he watched.

To him, “everyone still looks like Cyndi Lauper and Boy George,” he joked.

On the whole, technology has been a boon for Habib — but it can be fickle. As a kid, he learned how to use a computer with a keyboard, only to be upended by the introduction of the mouse.

Later, on the East Coast as a college student, he recalled the conundrum when taxicabs moved to credit-card payment machines. The cabdriver would have to climb into the back of the cab to work the system.

“Which is just awkward,” Habib said.

With the Senate chambers empty one recent day, Habib showed off the Braille technology.

Behind the rostrum is a slender white keyboard where the refreshable Braille pops up. It alerts Habib when a senator, seeking to speak, has pressed a button at his or her desk. The system and its installation cost about $70,000.

“So far his ability to recognize senators when they wish to speak has been great,” Fain said.

There was a glitch, the day senators were making speeches to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., according to Habib.

The system’s software was updating, making it briefly unavailable, he said. Senate staff quickly came up and helped by spotting the members looking to speak.

“A situation like that,” Habib said, showed “we can be resilient until we get the situation figured out.”

As Habib talked, Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, skipped onto the empty Senate floor, leading a tour of Seattle elementary-school students.

“I was just telling the kids,” Ranker said, “how amazing is it that someone could read with their hands.”

 

Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib’s communications director, Keeley Smith, walks with him to his office in the Capitol.  (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)
Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib’s communications director, Keeley Smith, walks with him to his office in the Capitol. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)