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No politics, please, we’re immigrants

Rep. Cyrus Habib Credit: John Stang

Immigration has transformed the Eastside’s demographics, culture and economy. But what about its politics? Why are its immigrants and other minorities largely absent from elected office?

Not entirely absent, of course. The Eastside’s political leadership includes two notable trailblazers: Hong Kong-born Conrad Lee, a member of Bellevue’s city council since 1994 and its mayor since early last year, and Representative Cyrus Habib, who last November became the first Iranian American elected to a state legislature, and the highest-ranking in public office nationwide. He is also blind.

But all these milestones come with caveats. Bellevue’s civic administration is headed by a manager, not a mayor, so being mayor there is like being president of the Seattle City Council. And Habib’s story isn’t one of hardscrabble struggle or deep ethnic-community roots. He was born in Maryland and grew up in a cosmopolitan milieu. He was a Rhodes Scholar and editor of Yale University’s law review.

There have been a few other office holders. Tiny Medina (population 2,969) has two Asian-American city council members and Issaquah formerly had one. But immigrants and other minorities are otherwise conspicuously absent from Eastside office, considering their share of the population — and considering how prominent they’ve been in Seattle since 1962. That’s when Wing Luke was elected to the Seattle City Council, the first Chinese-American to hold a major office in the Pacific Northwest. Since then Seattle has elected Filipino-, Korean-, Chinese- and African-American council members. King County has had Chinese- and African-American council members and executives, all of them from Seattle. Norm Rice was one of the first black mayors elected in an overwhelmingly white city nationwide, and Gary Locke the first Asian-American governor of a mainland state.

Why have their Eastside counterparts been so slow to appear? Lee believes mainstream success leaves them unconcerned about politics. “They may be assimilated and knowledgeable, but they don’t need government that much, so politics doesn’t make a big difference. Second, they’re concentrating on their families, educating their kids. That’s why I got into politics in my 40s. The first thing is survival.”

Furthermore, Lee suggests, despite their large share of the population, Eastside ethnic communities lack critical mass: “In a bigger community like Seattle, you have that kind of institutional network, encouraging more activism. There’s only so much resources to go around here.”

Habib notes that, even in Seattle, minority representation is much less than it used to be: just two Asian-American legislators and one African-American, plus one city council member of Japanese and African American ancestry. “It’s a wider issue,” Habib says. “The thing we’ve got to work on is recruiting candidates.”

If so, a natural recruiter would be Debadutta Dash, co-chair of a group called the Washington State and India Trade Relations Action Committee, former president of the India Association of Western Washington, group sales manager at the Bellevue Westin and an ebullient master networker.

Debadutta Dash is co-chair of the Washington State and India Trade Relations Action Committee. Photo: Tom James

With their high educational attainment, incomes and English skills, many Eastside Indians would seem poised to plunge into politics. But, as Dash notes, most have arrived only in the last 15 years, since President Bill Clinton forged warmer ties with India and Bill Gates went there to recruit software talent, and haven’t yet engaged fully in local civic life. Also, they are themselves divided into a dozen-plus major Indian languages, each with its own association here. Dash has been trying to bring them together in the common cause of building business links with the homeland.

Both Dash and Bangladesh-born community volunteer Khawja Shamsuddin note one other big obstacle: 9/11 and the ensuing anti-Muslim backlash. Even before then, Dash recalls, “when I came to the United States, in 1996 to Huntsville, Alabama, people would ask me whether I was Muslim or believed in Jesus.” After 9/11 Sikhs, whose beards and turbans make them especially visible, were harassed, even murdered, though they have no tie to Islam. “That set everything back,” says Dash. Even many in the Indian community’s Hindu majority kept their heads down.

But that backlash is fading. Habib says despite international tensions, his Iranian background was no drag on his candidacy. “It became a source of positive energy in the campaign. People identified with that experience,” he says. “There’s a big Russian community here — you might not think there would be a natural connection between the Russian and Iranian experiences, but they also came to this country seeking economic and political freedom.”

And now political representation? Entering politics is the necessary next step for the Eastside’s large Russian-speaking community, says Baku-born Natasha Savage, founder of the Seattle-based Eastern European-American Chamber of Commerce. “They think voting doesn’t matter. After 20 years they’re still living in their old country. We need to sit at the table, have a say about where tax money goes.”

Natasha Savage, an Azerbaijan-born Armenian Jew, applied for appointment to Seattle's Port Commission. Photo: Tom James. 

And so she sought a seat on Seattle’s Port Commission. “I picked the port commission because this is international gateway, door to this country,” she explains. Savage says 80 percent of port workers are immigrants or refugees.

She may be the forerunner for many more candidates for other offices from many national communities. “The immigrants’ kids get educated here,” notes Dash. “They understand citizenship and public life. You will see it. Things will be completely different."

Look for more stories presented by Crosscut and Seattle magazine on how Puget Sound social, civic, business and political issues are shaping our community, culture and future.

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