Hawai‘i’s Senior Member of Congress Models Compassionate Governance for Up-and-Coming National Leaders

Ida Yoshinaga

Mazie Hirono laughs in surprise when I offer congratulations on her latest honor, the Bruce F. Vento Public Service Award, which the National Park Trust will on June 25 present to Hawai‘i’s senior member of Congress, the first woman of color to receive this recognition.

“Oh, thank you! I’m a big supporter of our national parks; in fact, I have a lifetime pass,” she shares. The U.S. Senator deploys wry humor to deflect the conversation away from the decades of quiet work she has performed to earn this annual award that since 2001 has acknowledged American political leaders that marshal both bureaucratic innovation and legislative skills towards protecting public lands and waters.

“You have to be a certain age to get it (the pass); it’s one of the benefits of getting more mature, I suppose,” she jokes. Hirono’s humble reticence about her commitment to preserving the environment and supporting eco-educational efforts which connect generations of children to nature, testifies to the relative rarity of today’s media reporters who inquire about her bipartisan efforts. My question raises a politically neutral subject about which Hirono is not normally asked nowadays.

The National Park Trust, after all, has granted this distinction to both Democratic Party stalwarts such as U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (NV) and notable Republicans including Sen. Richard Burr (NC), to whom the Vento Award had been last given in 2019. In selecting Hirono for its 20th award in 2020, the Trust lauded her service on the Subcommittee on National Parks and on the Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests, and Mining, within the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. The National Park Trust clearly views planetary protection as a both-Party issue.

Hirono and mother Laura shortly after arriving in Hawai‘i. According to an AP article late last November, the senator's upcoming memoir from Viking will pay tribute to Laura's spirit. 
Hirono and mother Laura shortly after arriving in Hawai‘i. According to an AP article late last November, the senator’s upcoming memoir from Viking will pay tribute to Laura’s spirit.

A Voice for Immigrants

These days, however, Mazie Hirono is better known for her high-profile Congressional work towards traditional Democratic Party causes, achievements gone viral in the politically bifurcated age of Trump. The mainstream news media on the U.S. continent first started to feature the naturalized U.S. citizen when she spoke out quite vocally — less than five years into her Senatorial work but about a decade into her longer Congressional tenure — against the Trump administration’s 2017 ending of the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program. From 2017-18, Hirono, then the only current immigrant elected to the Senate, made headlines when she fiercely defended the “DREAMers,” the 1.8 million children brought into the U.S. by parents who did not come into the country legally.

[See the “Politics” special by Richard Borreca in the March 2, 2018, issue of The Hawaiʻi Herald for how Hirono had battled anti-immigration efforts of Pres. Trump, while dealing with her 2017 kidney-cancer diagnosis. For digital subscribers, see thehawaiiherald.com/2018/03/12/politics-americas-child-goes-to-bat-for-the-dreamers/.]

Today, Mazie Keiko Hirono, first-generation immigrant from Fukushima prefecture, proud daughter of kibei single mother Laura Chie Sato — after a career characterized both by behind-the- scenes bipartisan work as well as by judicious, if heretofore below-the-radar, advancement of Democratic Party staple issues — is an unlikely, if prominent, political star of the coronavirus era. She has been hosting virtual town halls for community members most likely to be affected by the virus, such as a recent one for the AARP, which represents seniors and retirees, as well as sponsoring legislation to protect the most vulnerable as COVID-19 deaths rise globally.

A cancer survivor in her 70s facing higher-than-normal risk of COVID-19 fatality, the senator persists in representing Hawai‘i in Congress, making her voice heard about the virus’s effects on the most vulnerable. On May 6, she attended a Senate Armed Services Subcommittee meeting, mask on. (Photos courtesy of the Office of Sen. Mazie K. Hirono.)
A cancer survivor in her 70s facing higher-than-normal risk of COVID-19 fatality, the senator persists in representing Hawai‘i in Congress, making her voice heard about the virus’s effects on the most vulnerable. On May 6, she attended a Senate Armed Services Subcommittee meeting, mask on. (Photos courtesy of the Office of Sen. Mazie K. Hirono.)

COVID-19: Challenging Our Nation’s Leaders to Protect Their People

“The thing is, the virus — whether you’re a Republican or Democrat — the virus doesn’t care. And especially for seniors, it’s a huge concern for them, because they’re very vulnerable — as are immigrants, as are poor people,” she tells me. “The healthcare disparity in our country has really been shown by this virus.”

Hirono is especially critical when speaking on national leadership decisions made by Trump, Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and others, which she views as hurting American workers forced to return to the job without the proper protection against the coronavirus. Since the virus’s explosion across major U.S. cities in March, employees at Amazon factories and Whole Foods stores, as well as labor unions at pork- and poultry-processing plants, have organized to protest the lack of safeguards by their employers to shield them, as well as consumers, from COVID-19 transmission.

“You see the presence of this virus in meat-packing plants,” Hirono notes, “And for the president to use his Defense Production Act to force them to stay open — instead of making sure we have enough tests, instead of really pushing for the development of a vaccine, instead of going in those directions — he uses that Act in a very limited way.

“There should be a national testing; there should be a national coordination of supply chains. Instead, you have the states fending for themselves where they have to compete with each other for necessary equipment. This is a pandemic; there should be a national testing program, and, as I say, a national system for distributing items. But the president will not go there. Why? It’s too much (for him) to take responsibility,” she observes. Hirono bemourns the political nature of the president’s response to what could easily have been a bipartisan issue, the widespread medical challenge presented by the virus. “Facts and science departed from Trump a long time ago, sad to say,” she quips.

The blunt clarity of Hirono’s statements seems to have struck a chord with millennial journalists who, over the past two years, had already anointed the now-outspoken critic of Trump-era Republican politics as the next liberal politician to watch. The New York Times has called Hirono “unabashedly fiery” and a “leading Democratic voice,” and NPR categorized her transformation from the “ʻgood girl’ of Hawaii politics” to a “dogged, albeit polite,” fighter with “quiet rage” that poses serious challenges to Trump and his policies. Despite the problematic gender and cultural insinuations of the latter comments, the message is clear: our senator has arrived.

Hirono’s Fight for Equality

Far beyond Hawaiʻi, Hirono is now viewed as a role model to the next generation of U.S. politicians, after a hard-won career as an elected official that reaches back to 1980. Despite being personally at risk for coronavirus fatality as a survivor of stage 4 cancer, Hirono has led the way for younger Asian American members of Congress such as Rep. Grace Meng (NY), Sen. Tammy Duckworth (IL) and Rep.

Judy Chu and Sen. Kamala Harris (CA) to sponsor or sign onto joint resolutions that urge the federal government to take action against the unrecognized rise in COVID-19-related, anti-Asian hate crimes.

Recent racist activities against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have been anticipated by the FBI and reported by ethnic presses and news sites, but coronavirus-age AAPI-targeted violence was largely ignored at the Congressional and Department of Justice levels. Hirono’s name was listed first among the co-authors of a public May 1 letter alongside Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and 13 other U.S. Senators, who together demanded that the DOJ use its Civil Rights Division to plan for this increase in hate crimes and designate a DOJ official to be in charge of such crimes so as to coordinate effective handling with other government agencies. Parallel efforts by the Hawai‘i senator, to create joint Congressional resolutions decrying the rise of such crimes, have inspired Chu and her cohort of Representatives of color to educate their fellow members of Congress on the seriousness of the issue, according to Asian Journal.

“There has been an increase in crimes against Asian Americans, but it starts with an environment where the President can call this a ʻChinese virus,’” Hirono observes, “creating, I think, an environment where this kind of anti-Asian-ness can begin to pick up. And they have.”

Asian American organizations have connected comments from the Trump administration — such as one White House official labeling the virus the “Kung-Flu” — with over 1,700 incidents of anti-Asian hate speech, violence and discrimination across the U.S. from March 19 through May 13, as calculated by STOP AAPI HATE reporting center.

Hawai‘i’s one-time lieutenant governor to Gov. Benjamin Cayetano during the turn of the millennium, who had earlier cut her legislative teeth on 14 years in the State House of Representatives, Sen. Hirono is now coming into national recognition relatively late in life, as media commentators on the mainland have begun to associate the 72-year-old public servant’s name with nation-wide efforts to lessen inequality and prejudice for not only immigrants, but for women, working-class people and other marginalized populations.

Standing Up for Small Businesses and Higher Education

Two examples demonstrate that, after the COVID-19 outbreak, Hirono has acted to bolster the interests of small business people and newcomers to American higher education — rather than of large corporations and Ivy-League universities, which the Trump administration and Republicans have been widely criticized for supporting through their lopsided version of coronavirus relief.

“This is why when Mitch McConnell came up with, ‘Let’s just put another $250 billion into (the) PPP’ [Paycheck Protection Program], without any parameters, we (Democrats) fought against that,” Hirono explains about the early coronavirus relief measures funded by Congress. “Because the first $350 billion in PPP went out to, not to the small businesses — the average loan for that first round was $200,000!” she exclaimed, criticizing the ways that taxpayer funds had initially gone to big business.

“We said, ‘We’re not going to just do that; you know, we have to set aside money for small businesses,’ so $60 billion of the additional $310 billion in COVID 3.5, we set aside for community banks,” she confided. “So nationally, the average loan amount from this second tranche of money for PPP has been $70,000, and in Hawai‘i, it has been closer to $50,000 ($46,000); clearly more of this money was going to the smaller businesses which is what should have been happening.”

The second example: the senator seemed to know that rural and minority-serving universities might not provide first-generation college attendees, or students surviving off financial aid, adequate Internet connectivity while studying at home during states’ shelter-in-place orders. Hirono’s mid-May co-sponsorship of a Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act proposed putting $1 billion towards internet access, Wi-Fi hotspots, routers, modems, laptops, tablets and other devices to assist non-traditional students in graduating despite the chaos of the world around them.

In addition to these actions, Hirono also suggests creating what she calls a “COVID 4” bill a newest rendition of the three earlier federal stimulus bills to aid states, communities and individuals against the virus’ economic ravages which she feels Congress should next pass. Such a bill would aim to (1) support small businesses even further; (2) aid state and local governments in their looming budget shortfalls; (3) create a national testing program for the coronavirus; and (4) keep the U.S. Post Office open and running so that those who rely on it for medication, social security payments, voting and census-taking, can continue to use mail services at affordable prices.

To me, Hirono’s casually detailed proposal seems somewhat different from, perhaps even less bipartisan in nature than, the actual House of Representatives Democrats’ $3 trillion Heroes Act (which, at the time of the writing of this article, is not expected to make it through the Senate), criticized not only by Republicans but also by centrist, as well as radical progressive, Democrats for not being achievable due to its allegedly partisan nature, for not going far enough to offer real help to the American people — or both. As ever, the seasoned politician comes off as liberal, but also pragmatic — perhaps lessons learned long ago, at home in Hawai‘i nei.

Hirono with two supporters of the DACA program, during one of many Nov. 12, 2019, nationwide rallies urging the U.S. Supreme Court to save this program for immigrant families from the Trump administration’s 2017 repeal.
Hirono with two supporters of the DACA program, during one of many Nov. 12, 2019, nationwide rallies urging the U.S. Supreme Court to save this program for immigrant families from the Trump administration’s 2017 repeal.

A Legacy of Fearless Women

Known till recently as a tenacious but low-key fighter, Mazie Hirono was raised in a single-parent family by a mother who had famously fled an abusive spouse, to immigrate to the islands with her children, a single suitcase shared among them, in the steerage section of a Honolulu-bound ship from Yokohama harbor. [Full disclosure: To support her children, Hirono’s breadwinner mother began her career working at the print shop of the Herald’s parent company, the Hawai‘i Hochi — “for minimum wages with no benefits” (see hirono.senate.gov/about).]

Hirono has often publicly acknowledged her mother’s strength, which many perceive as mirrored within the first Buddhist U.S. senator’s own persistence and patience amidst the sexist, racist realm of U.S. electoral politics. Her earlier attacks on the president (“a misogynist, compulsive liar, and admitted sexual predator,” she summed up in a much-quoted Dec. 12, 2017, tweet) were launched before the new wave of Congressional Democrats from historically diverse origins, such as the socially conscious, all women-of-color “Squad” (U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib), got elected in Nov. 2018 during a country-wide political backlash against Trump’s ascent. Hirono had stood up to the president on the DACA/DREAMers issue back when Washington, D.C., was still dominated by Republicans a risky thing to do for a relatively new senator.

Before she even entered the Congressional stage, however, Mazie Hirono also survived rising through the ranks of the late-twentieth-century Hawai‘i Democratic Party. I and other sansei feminists raised in the islands who came of age as young women in the 1980s, just as the fruits of 1960s feminism had started to kick in at mainstream social institutions like government and business have long noticed that the Hawai‘i Democratic Party of the era had resembled a pro-development, tourism-industry-driven macho “machine.”

The rare female politician at that time, like Democratic male candidates of ethnic-minority backgrounds who did not fit the Caucasian or Japanese American norm, had to play the game in order to be backed by mainstream Party power brokers, more often than not Japanese American men. I think that to survive those internal political and cultural restrictions, Hirono had to grow very skilled in building her constituency on common-sense issues such as consumer rights and education, chairing the state House Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee, no doubt honing her keen bipartisan abilities to appeal to broad voter populations that continue to serve the senator well to this day.

Enduring a 2002 failed attempt at the gubernatorial seat, Hirono then went on to three successful terms as the state’s U.S. Representative to the 2nd Congressional District from 2007-2013, leading to her current seven-year-stint as Senator. During this time, she consistently supported bills and introduced legislation that protected women’s reproductive rights as well as those to secure the health and safety of girls and women.

These issues extend into the COVID-19 era. Hirono reflects upon recent efforts by Republican governors and state legislators across the U.S. to roll back such rights by defining the medical ending of pregnancies as a non-essential healthcare practice.

“Abortion is a medical necessity,” the senator states, “so what’s happened is that when the governors shut everything down and forced women in their states to go to another state to get this medically necessary service, they are endangering the lives of those women.

These dangerous trends that limit female choice run parallel with other gender inequality problems exacerbated by COVID-19, such as higher incidences of household intimate partner violence and the legal threat of visas and work permits ending for immigrant women including sex workers, she says.

Though American journalists generally took notice of the vocal proponent for immigrant families beginning in 2017, it was Hirono’s fiery, take-no-prisoners interrogation of Trump’s controversial Supreme Ct. Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh in Sept. 2018, as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, that cemented her status as media luminary.

When the nation’s first Asian American female Senator — and career-long advocate of women’s rights for control over their bodies and against their domestic abuse — publicly said of Kavanaugh sex-assault accuser Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, “I believe her,” Hirono’s star started to shine, setting her in the national firmament of frontline Congressional progressives.

A New Vision for the Future

For the COVID-19 age, the senator argues for governance policies backed by scientific research and data, accomplished over carefully administered phases, rather than rushing into reopening states and industries without first observing the virus’ medical impacts upon the public and workers. Perhaps because she now enjoys the reputation of a national Democratic Party leader in the millennium, she also seems to depart from old-school, twentieth-century views of mainstream Hawai‘i Democrats that dictate blind dependence on the visitor industry as the sole economic engine for the islands.

“Tourism can be a very precarious thing to rely upon, as we saw after 9/11,” the Senator recalls, suggesting that the long-term economic fallout for Hawaiʻi due to the coronavirus will be greater than what had happened after those attacks. Post-COVID tourism, Hirono predicts, will require a national, state-by-state effort to revive that industry, rather than solely local approaches, as she notes in a hopeful tone the rise in regional cooperation between states in the coronavirus era.

Perhaps due to her service on the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Hirono is quick to mention the energy industry as one possible economic sector to create Hawai‘i jobs as part of the “new normal,” based on Hawai‘i’s national leadership role in the field. “We are at the forefront in energy self-sufficiency. And this from a state that was importing more than 90% of the fossil fuels that we used for electricity and our cars and transportation,” she boasts.

Secondly, she also hopes that island leadership can build upon STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields as part of Hawai‘i’s post-COVID-19 job force, especially recruiting from female and minority populations.

Third, the senator also regards healthcare a key segment of Hawai‘i’s future labor market, as she views medical, nursing, elderly and home health care services as part of a growing and much-needed sector of the local economy. “We should be providing financial support for people to go to medical school, to go to nursing school, and all of the other healthcare workers that we will need in our community,” she says. Noting that the islands already experience a shortage of primary-care doctors, Hirono takes the long view: “What the medical community and scientific community are saying is that there will be another pandemic, and we need to be better prepared to deal with it.”

Fourth and finally, Hirono feels that the current COVID-19 situation has revealed Hawaiʻi’s over-dependence on outside food. She thus hopes that local government officials can support farmers and other producers in the Hawaiʻi agriculture industry towards greater food self-sufficiency, even as a possible major employment sector. This would involve taking actions such as making land more affordable and providing water, she suggests.

Some neighbor island mayors like Maui’s Michael Victorino, as well as community-based coalitions such as the Kanaka Maoli members of the ‘Āina Aloha Economic Futures Declaration, have echoed similar sentiments about adopting an environmentally sustainable industrial policy for the islands post-coronavirus. However, I have noticed that many prominent Honolulu political and economic leaders, by contrast, prioritize reviving high-volume, commercial visitor travel, with the Hawai‘i Lodging and Tourism Association president/CEO Mufi Hannemann and other industry advocates pushing plans to market the islands as “the safest place in the world,” once the industry re-opens. They cannot imagine a future that does not revolve around the corporate mass-tourism industry; but perhaps due to her lifetime of experience, or her farther perspective from Washington D.C., Hirono manages to peek, to plan, beyond.

At the national level, Hirono expresses dismay at gun-toting protesters in mainland cities who have threatened elected officials with violence to demand re-opening local economies, as well as her alarm over conservative activists who insist on not wearing masks in public as their basic “rights.” Though she graciously approximates that such people constitute only a minority of all Americans across the nation (as well as a minority of Republicans), she admits, “When I see these people protesting — that they want their freedoms — don’t you think, ‘How selfish can you be, that you’re going to create an environment that endangers others?’

“And of course, to have a president saying, ‘We all have to make sacrifices for our way of life,’ going on (about) going back to World Wars I and II! And I’m thinking, ʻmy gosh’ — I was so appalled. I didn’t know our way of life included sacrifices of the seniors in our community and the most vulnerable people, so that the rest of us can continue to consume and go shopping.”

Sen. Mazie Hirono standing and speaking in front of young students

Still Practicing Aloha With Eternal Vigilance

In such times, the senator admits to feeling honored to represent Hawai‘i where the virus has sparked feelings of mutual caring rather than partisan division. “The spirit of aloha lives on; I think it’s really important that there’s a sense of support for the least among us,” she says, speculating that Hawai‘i Food Bank donations and other collective-giving activities seem to have risen in past months. “Clearly, (for) all people who are out of jobs — there’s a kind of support that we need to provide that seems to be so much stronger in Hawai‘i. I’m proud and grateful.”

Forty years into her political career, the shinissei woman that NPR once ethnocentrically labeled as “dogged, but polite” pauses before answering my final question, about whether the “Squad” of social-justice-oriented Congressional members of color is a trend. “I hope so. Because all the battles — because I’ve been doing this for decades — for abortion rights, civil rights, we thought that those battles were won. But those battles never stay won. And so, eternal vigilance.

“We have to work across generations, so I’m glad to see AOC [Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, NY], Cory Booker [Sen., NJ], Kamala [Harris, Sen., CA], and all these younger people, because who knew that I would be one of the senior people? But the battle continues, and I’m glad that I’m still in the fight raising my voice.”


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