Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
In recounting his nearly 18 months of service as President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser, conservative diplomat John Bolton in his book “The Room Where it Happened” says, “[M]emoirs are critical to parting the curtain for the uninitiated.”
That and much more can be said about former U.S. Rep. Pat Saiki’s memoir, “A Woman in the House.” The title is from her first political campaign in 1970 when there were only three women in the 51-member State of Hawai‘i House of Representatives: GOP member Dorothey Devereux and Democrats Momi Minn and Sarah Pule. Saiki’s campaign slogan running for office in that body a half century ago was We Need a Woman in the House.
The veteran GOP politician said it took her two years to write the 188-page book. She finished it before the controversy surrounding the 2020 rejection of Trump, whom she had voted for twice, and his false election and conspiracy claims.
The book traces her life from Hilo to the University of Hawai‘i which she had entered seeking a scholarship and won the Japanese American category in UH’s annual Kalapapala Beauty Queen Pageant in 1949. That led to a part-time job as a flight attendant at Rudy Tong’s Trans-Pacific Airlines, later known as Aloha Airlines.
Saiki has generally served her party faithfully. However, she acknowledged in an interview having her doubts about Trump before he first ran, because “he is too aggressive in his personality.”
According to Saiki, she continued to support Trump until the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Nation’s Capitol, especially when Trump asked Vice President Mike Pence to disregard the voting results of the constitutionally Electoral College. “I was disappointed that he [Trump] could have been more active in trying to stop the riot.”
Her early endorsement of the presidential aspirations of then-rising GOP star Rudy Giuliani was because the former New York Mayor was one of her early backers when she ran unsuccessfully in 1990 to succeed Sen. Spark Matsunaga. “I owed it to him. He raised a lot of money for me,” said Saiki, noting that she had only five months to raise funds and campaign following Matsunaga’s death.
In late April, federal investigators raided the apartment of Giuliani, who is Trump’s personal lawyer, stepping up a criminal investigation into Giuliani’s alleged dealings in the Ukraine. Giuliani has denied the allegations.
For more than half a century Saiki, a member of the more liberal wing of the GOP, has prided herself as a source of Republican leadership in a state with a political landscape dominated by Democrats since the mid-1950s. She says that her friendship with head of the father of Hawai‘i’s modern Democratic Party, John A. Burns, help create the University of Hawai‘i medical school.
The Early Years
Saiki’s political journey began in Hilo where she was born to Nisei parents, Kazuo and Shizue Fukuda, as the first of three daughters. Her grandparents immigrated from Kumamoto and Hiroshima prefectures.
After graduating from the University of Hawai‘i in 1952, Saiki taught at Punahou School and two years later married Dr. Stanley Saiki, who was instrumental in her later years in helping her draft several legislative initiatives including the creation of the Sexual Abuse Treatment Center (1976) and the establishment of statewide Emergency Medical Services (1978).
While teaching at Kaimuki Intermediate School, Saiki took her first stab at political activism spurred on by a personal crisis when the school wouldn’t let her use its office phone to check on the medical condition of her preschool child, Laura, who had been taken to the hospital.
That led to Saiki establishing the first public school teacher’s union as part of the Hawaii Government Employees Association and paved the way for teachers’ rooms in every school with free access to telephones for private calls, free periods for teachers to prepare lesson plans and team teaching.
Before then, public school teachers, who were without union representation, were at the mercy of the Department of Education and individual principals and were forced to comply, Saiki wrote.
While raising five children, Saiki worked as a teacher, union organizer and state legislator before winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, championing women’s rights causes. Because the Democrats controlled the Legislature many of her equal rights bills were copied by Democratic colleagues.
Saiki would go on to serve in the 1968 Constitutional Convention and the Democrat-dominated state House and Senate until 1982, advocating for equal rights for women. Saiki chaired the Senate Higher Education for two years in 1980 when Republicans shared power with Democrats and held committee chairmanships under an unprecedented coalition drafted by Republican D.G. Anderson where she developed plans for the Kapi‘olani Community College on the slopes of Diamond Head.
Revitalizing the Republican Party
Although courted by Democrats when she first ran, Saiki chose the Republican Party, believing in its “principles of limited government, individual freedom and fiscal responsibility.”
Saiki was also motivated by her experience in 1958, when she and her husband were denied the right to buy a house in ‘Äina Haina because they were Japanese.
For the uninitiated, Saiki explains how the state Republican Party fell into disarray and recounts her attempts to revitalize it. During her second House term in 1973 when the GOP caucus had dropped from 17 to 16 of the 51 seats, Saiki and Rep. Andrew Poepoe embarked on a “targeting effort” to identify and groom candidates.
They raised $350,000 from Amfac Inc. and Castle & Cooke to hire California political consultant George Young and his staff who engineered Gov. Ronald Reagan’s successful 1970 re-election effort. That fall the GOP ranks in the House returned to 16, but continued to fall because, according to Saiki, no attempts were made to continue, recruit and groom candidates. However, in 2014 when Saiki became interim GOP chair, she and former Gov. Linda Lingle were able to raise the number of House GOP representatives to 19.
Although Saiki writes that she never favored full-scale legalization of abortion, “I have always supported the right of a woman to choose what happens to her body.” Her position came from her experiences helping her obstetrics and gynecologist husband save the life of a woman “who was bleeding because of an illegal abortion.” She recalls holding a lamp over one woman in her husband’s Kaimukï medical office, darkened to prevent being arrested. In 1970, Hawai‘i was the first state to allow women to legally request an abortion — three years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic Roe v. Wade decision.
Saiki also believes that the 1981 legislative reapportionment, which established single-member districts, had the greatest impact on the future of Hawaiian politics. (Redistricting occurs every 10 years following the required federal census.)
Until then, Hawai‘i had multi-member districts. “Being able to vote for more than one representative or senator meant voters could choose both a Republican and a Democrat; allowing for more nuanced voting decisions based on individual candidates rather than strict party allegiance,” she explained. Single-member districts, Saiki believes, have led to a steady decline from eight Republicans out of 25 Senate seats and 12 of 51 seats in the House in 1982, to currently only one Republican in the Senate and five in the House.
After an unsuccessful attempt to take the governor’s seat in 1982 as the running mate for Republican state Sen. D.G. Andy Anderson, Saiki served two terms as party chair before being elected to Congress in 1986 serving for four years.
In a 2018 oral history interview, Saiki listed the reparations and apology legislation for Japanese internment, ending the bombing of Kaho‘olawe and saving the Islands’ tuna industry as her major congressional achievements.
She facilitated the passage in 1988 of the federal apology and the law approving reparations of $20,000 to surviving members of 120,000 Japanese Americans who were sent to internment camps at the start of World War II. In this non-partisan effort, she had followed in the steps of President Gerald Ford who rescinded in 1976 Executive Order 9066 that lead to the incarceration of Japanese Americans in 1942, and, three years later, the groundwork of Democrats such as Hawai‘i Sen. Daniel Inouye and California Reps. Norman Mineta and Robert Matsui who authored legislation leading to the formation of the redress commission and the reparations law.
Saiki also successfully lobbied President George H.W. Bush to revoke the 1941 executive order signed by President Franklin Roosevelt that had allowed the military to use Kaho‘olawe as a target range; the shells and bombs were halted from falling on 45-square-mile island just southwest of Maui.
But Brooks Takenaka, assistant manager of the United Fishing Agency, recently believes one of Saiki’s major accomplishments was protecting the island’s tuna industry by including it on a federally managed fishing list. The Senate measure to regulate and protect Hawai‘i’s tuna industry had been held up for 10 years by the Republicans when they controlled the U.S. House.
Saiki remembers Sen. Daniel Inouye telling her that it was her task to break the hold of the fishing lobby representing the Gulf of Mexico and secure House support to protect tuna from rampant harvesting.
Saiki topped off her career in 1991 when Bush appointed her to head the Small Business Administration with its 4,000 employees and a loan portfolio of $6 billion, which was considered greater than most major banks. She appointed as SBA’s New England regional director, Susan Collins of Maine, now the state’s senior senator.
A Few Losses
She also discuss her defeats: losing a U.S. Senate race to Daniel Akaka by nine points in 1990 and three-way race for governor in 1994 with third-party candidate Frank Fasi siphoning off her GOP conservative votes. Bucking the Island’s Democratic “machine” of labor unions and government workers, Saiki concedes: ”Maybe I was naïve, but I remained confident that individual voters would make individual decisions and vote their consciences.” (Democrat Ben Cayetano won the three-way governor’s race with 36 percent of the vote.)
Voices From the Community About Saiki’s Book
During the April book launch, journalist Denby Fawcett recalled her initial meeting with Saiki. Fawcett said Saiki was her 5th grade PE teacher and was known for being the first local person to be hired as a teacher at Punahou and for wearing “white shorts.”
In her review of Saiki’s book, Civil Beat columnist Fawcett wrote: “The book is worth reading to remember how unfair life was for many in Territorial Hawai‘i; how the so-called racial melting pot was a myth and what politicians like Saiki did to right the wrongs.”
Former Star-Advertiser political reporter Richard Borreca wrote that Saiki “offers a lot of guidance, and encouragement for a hard-fought political life.”
When asked why Saiki’s memoir is relevant to contemporary times, Floyd Takeuchi, former Honolulu journalist and Saiki’s congressional aide, said that issues change, “but what hasn’t changed is the need for courage, creativity and integrity to bring about real change through the political process. And what hasn’t also changed is the importance of focusing on results, not scoring political points in a tit-for-tat with partisan opponents.”
Takeuchi calls Saiki’s memoir as “a manual for contemporary leaders, and would-be leaders on how to marshal truth and candor to effect change.”
This from a Sansei immigrant woman, who worked her way through college, to become a leader in island politics while raising five children, three of them who have made a career in medicine. Saiki was the first Republican to be elected to the U.S. House from Hawai‘i; the first Asian American Republican woman in Congress; and the first woman to sit on the board of a Big Five company, Amfac, Inc.
Saiki notes that she continues “To be an optimist today; to be positive and to look for positive things that will help improve this state because it needs a loyal opposition. The state needs competition in decision-making at the state level, no question about it. It’s up to us as Republicans to provide leadership and if we don’t, it’s our fault.”
In her 2018 congressional oral history, Saiki said, “My legacy would be never give up. If you’re right, you fight for what you think is right. And never get pushed around by any organization or any person, but do make your own decisions after much research and thinking.”
Saiki celebrated her 91st birthday on May 28. Her memoir, published by Watermark Publishing ($18.95), went on sale at Hawai‘i bookstores and online in May.
Gregg K. Kakesako worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, for the Gannett News Service as congressional reporter and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for more than four decades as a government, political and military affairs reporter and assistant city editor.