The Senator Talks with The Hawai‘i Herald About the Transition of Leadership and its Impact on Hawai’i
Jodie Chiemi Ching
Editor’s note: Is this really happening in our country? On Jan. 6, many of us watched the news reports in disbelief; the images of a mob of Trump-flag-carrying supporters violently storming the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. On the same day, The New York Times published an article stating that “For weeks, President Trump and supporters had been proclaiming Jan. 6, 2021, as a day of reckoning, a day to gather in Washington to ‘save America’ and ‘stop the steal’ of the election he had decisively lost, but which he still maintained — often through a toxic brew of conspiracy theories — that he had won by a landslide.”
Then on Jan. 20, 2021, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. and Kamala Devi Harris took oath as the 46th president of the United States and as the first female, first Black and first South Asian American vice-president. Biden’s address focused on unity and healing, and with a collective sigh of relief, I could feel that this is really happening in our country. In my conversation with Sen. Mazie Hirono, she reminds that the values of ‘ohana and aloha are still very much alive and we need them now, more than ever.
HH: We just saw two contrasting scenes at the Capitol: First the violent insurgency, then an inauguration that focused on healing and unity. Can you describe what the atmosphere has been like over the past week for you and your staff?
MH: January 6 was a horrific day for all of us and especially after about an hour when the senators, well most of us, were in our secure place and we saw what the world was seeing, what the rest of the country was seeing, which was the riots and the breaking of windows and the havoc of the insurrection. It was just horrific … and the ramifications of that will be felt. People are still being arrested, investigations are continuing and people need to be held accountable, including, in my view, President [Trump].
January 20th, on the other hand, was a beautiful day! The sun was shining, the sky was blue and the birds were singing! So it was a wonderful inaugural day with a little bit of snowfall. But to hear Joe Biden talk about unity and all of us working together to reach out to our neighbors and not see them as our enemies, those were healing words for all of us. And I couldn’t help but recall President Trump’s inaugural address where he talked about “carnage in the streets of America.” I thought that was a horrible imagery, and little did we know what was in store for our country, that it was going to be as bad as it was.
So January 20th was a welcome relief. We all breathed a sigh of relief to have a president who has integrity and empathy, principle of leadership, along with my friend Kamala Harris. I was so proud to see her — the first woman, the first Black, the first [South] Asian American to be the vice president. [It] was very historic and gave us all hope. It won’t be easy, we know that. We know we have a divided country. But there was a huge collective sigh of relief for all of us that day.
HH: What are the priorities you are focusing on in the coming days/weeks?
MH: My priorities are very much in line with Joe Biden’s priority and his administration’s. First and foremost, we have to face this pandemic and have a national program for a vaccination, a national program for production of PPEs (personal protective equipment), all those necessary things that needed to have happened over the year. And we have all been suffering under this pandemic. So first and foremost, just to get this pandemic under control, and then to provide economic relief for all the people who are without jobs, who are facing evictions, small businesses and others. Those are the two things we have to do. And of course [President Biden] has already introduced legislation to address those areas. And for myself, and for Joe Biden, immigration reform is on the top of his list of priorities, and that has been a long priority of mine.
HH: In Hawai‘i, we are so physically far away, in the case of the insurgency: how does something like that affect us?
MH: Well as you say, when you saw the pictures, Jodie, didn’t it strike you as horrific that this is happening in our country? And so everyone watching, regardless of how far away they were from Washington, D.C., to see a group of people who wanted to violently overturn the results of a fair and free election was astounding, was horrific, and [I] hope that it made all of us realize that our democracy can’t be taken for granted. That you could have a group of insurrectionists, spurred on no less by the president and his enablers, including so many in the U.S. House and especially two people (Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley) in the U.S. Senate, who were spreading the president’s big lie about the election results. So I think it was a scene that astounded all of us and made us realize that we cannot take our elections or our democracy for granted.
HH: With that being said what is your advice? What can we do as citizens?
MH: Pay attention to the truth, for one thing. And that’s another thing Pres. Biden emphasized, unity and reliance on truth. And that, again, was such a relief because we’ve had four years of lies from our president (Trump) every single day and non-reliance on the truth, and facts. And so I think it’s really important for us as citizens to pay attention, to not get caught up in conspiracy theories that have no basis in fact, and also know the kind of lies that the [former] president just put out every single day using social media as a platform that we as citizens should be well aware of, to know when someone is basically lying to us.
But at the same time, I think we should have a renewed commitment to vote, that is an important thing that we all have a responsibility to do and to know that our elections are free and fair, unlike what goes on in so many other countries such as Russia, China, North Korea, [former] Yugoslavia. The freedoms that we fought for …
HH: As an immigrant and as someone who knows how much the Issei and Nisei veterans sacrificed to protect our democracy, what are your thoughts of those who participated in the insurrection and threatened our democracy?
MH: The Nisei and the [Sansei] … the Japanese Americans fought for our democracy. And what the insurrectionists’ actions did was to totally dishonor the sacrifices of all of the people who fought for many years and many wars for freedom and democracy. And [we should] never forget, that our Nisei in particular signed up to go to war for our country even as their families were rounded up and imprisoned. And that kind of love for our country needs to be acknowledged, it needs to be celebrated by the rest of us, and never forgotten that loyalty to our country, not blind loyalty, but the principles we hold dear: freedom, democracy … that our veterans believed that those were values worth fighting for, and we should never forget that.
And to me, that insurrection really showed me what happens when people don’t value those principles that we stand for. That we have riot, we have what you saw – it was very frightening to watch, that this could happen in our country. And now that it did, we have to face up to the fact that we have a divided country. We need to have leaders who tell us the truth and who call for unity, as opposed to continually dividing one group against another, who continued, even [in] his last moments called the virus “the China Virus” not even recognizing the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans [in] our country.
The lies that our leaders tell has impact. It can motivate people to do terrible things. And so to go through four years of a president who lied to us every single day, and the continual daily assaults … it takes time to recover from that.
Joe Biden has a huge mess to clean up as well as taking responsibility for dealing with the pandemic, dealing with the economic crisis and not just turning his back and leaving it to other people to deal with. So we have a lot of work ahead of us. And as I said, we have a divided country and I’m hopeful that as Joe Biden and working with a Congress that can enact legislation that can actually help people through this pandemic and through the economic crisis that our country will begin to believe that government is a force to do good, and not just a force to help those who are rich and powerful.
HH: What would you like the people of Hawai‘i to know at this time?
MH: That we literally are in this together and we have a road to go to get this pandemic under control. And while Hawai‘i has not been as hard hit from a health standpoint, but clearly we have been very hard hit economically from this pandemic. We are in this together, we still need to wear our mask and do social-distancing, take the vaccine when it is our turn. That’s how we are going to help each other get through from the health crisis standpoint, and then, we need to look to the government to do more for the economy to come back to a place where we can open up our economy safely. And that takes national responsibility, taking leadership and working with the states and the local governments.
I am glad to represent Hawai‘i where I think people do cooperate, people do wear masks, people do care about others, not just ourselves… I am really grateful that I represent a state like Hawai‘i where ‘ohana and aloha are not just words to us. We really try to live up to what those words mean. And yes, there are so many places where that concept seems to be foreign among a group of people who are very loudly proclaiming their individual rights. That’s part of the divisiveness in our country, people not able to separate their individual rights from a community health crisis. And when you have a president who politicizes the wearing of masks, how ridiculous is that? But it had its effect.
I think we should hang on to living aloha and caring about our ‘ohana. That makes Hawai‘i really really special.