The Immigrant Congresswoman

She didn’t come to the U.S. until she was 5 and was raised by a single mother, and now Mazie Hirono is in Congress. Here’s her all-American success story

Dan Boylan
Wednesday - March 21, 2007
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Mazie, with her current colleague Neil Abercrombie and Patsy Mink, whose former House seat Mazie now holds
Mazie, with her current colleague Neil Abercrombie and
Patsy Mink, whose former House seat Mazie now holds

Freshman Congresswoman Mazie Hirono walks the two blocks from her Capitol Hill apartment to her office in Room 830 of the Longworth House Office Building.

“I get to the office sometime between 8 and 8:30 in the morning, and I’m lucky if I’m home by 8:30 at night,” she says. “I walk in the dark, and it’s cold.”

Between caucuses, hearings, sessions of the House, and the weekly new members’breakfasts with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Hirono’s days are crowded. Her husband, Honolulu attorney Leighton Kim Oshima, remains in Hawaii, but he visits her every two months, and they talk on the phone each night.

“I’m fortunate,” she says. “He’s so supportive. And I’m grateful and honored to be here.”

As well she might be. Hirono is part of the Democratic majority that took control of both houses of Congress last November - after 12 long, excruciatingly painful years under Republican control.

“It must have been very bad for the Democrats,” says Hirono. “You can’t believe how happy they all are, and they’ve all been very helpful to the new Democratic members. They seem to realize they’d still be in the desert without us.

The Congresswoman in small-kid time with best friend Pam Collins
The Congresswoman in small-
kid time with best friend Pam

“It’s a whole new day,” says Hirono with undisguised glee. “Far too much has been done in the wrong direction by the Republicans - especially on the Iraq War. It’s a pleasure to go on the record against the Administration’s policy in Iraq.”

Hirono obviously takes pleasure in dealing with the issue of global warming as well: “Can you believe that President Bush has never - in a single speech - acknowledged global warming?” And deficits: “We’ve been running these huge annual deficits. Under Bush we haven’t had a balanced budget for the past six years, and because of him we probably won’t have one for at least 10. We need some pay-as-you-go rules.”

Four years ago it wasn’t clear whether Hirono would get another opportunity to go on record for or against anything, in either legislative chamber or executive office. In 2002 she became the first Democrat to run unsuccessfully for the governorship in 40 years, losing to Republican Linda Lingle by 5 percentage points.

Ed Case contributed to her loss that year, opposing her in the Democratic Primary and beating on her badly until finally succumbing by 2,600 votes out of 175,000 cast.

Case never endorsed Hirono’s candidacy in 2002 - “at least not so far as anyone can remember,” says Hirono, but, ironically, he gave Hirono her opportunity in 2006. Case’s challenge of incumbent United States Sen. Dan Akaka left the 2nd District congressional seat vacant. Ten Democrats jumped into the race, and in the September primary Hirono emerged the winner with just over one-fifth of the votes cast. In the general election she clobbered the under-funded-and-Iraq-War-ridden Republican, Bob Hogue.

Her move to Washington this year was not Hirono’s first residence in Washington.

“When I was in law school at Georgetown University, I walked by the Capitol twice a day,” she remembers. “In the evening it was all lit up. It was beautiful and impressive, and I’ve always thought it the greatest legislative body in the world.”

Hirono is impressed with her leader, Speaker Pelosi. “She’s really tough and very focused. It takes focus to gain the support of the men and rise to the speakership. Remember, this is a mother of five and a grandma.”

Pelosi is emblematic of the unprecedented number of women in the House, and Hirono feels that bodes well: “When there’s a critical mass of women, they can have an impact. That was certainly the case with the bipartisan women’s caucus here in Hawaii. We pushed issues like child care and family leave for new mothers.”

Hirono acknowledges that she “stands on the shoulders” of another 2nd District Democratic woman, the late Patsy Mink. “I don’t feel I have to live up to Patsy. I think I’m very good in the legislative arena, talking with people and building alliances; but Patsy showed us what it took to succeed - a willingness to take risks, to break out of one’s comfort zone and leap into the unknown.”

Mazie Hirono
Mazie Hirono

When it came to House committee assignments, Hirono opted not for comfort, but for subject areas that spoke to Hawaii’s needs. She sits on the 75-member Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and on the Education and Labor Committee. The first deals with legislation relating to harbors, aviation, highways and mass transit - all critical to Hawaii’s economy; the second to issues impacting Hawaii’s taxed educational system.

“I’ve met with the mayors of all the counties regarding their transportation and construction needs,” says Hirono. “And when it comes to education, as an immigrant to the United States, I consider educational improvement foundational.” Hirono wants the No Child Left Behind reauthorization bill to put less emphasis on testing and failing schools. She sees early childhood education and universal preschools as “the way to make a difference” in student success.

Hirono has no intention of waiting quietly for her chance in the legislative arena. “I want to make a difference,” she says. “I not here to take up space. I’m too old for that.” (Hirono will be 60 this year.)

So what makes Mazie run? In all probability, her mother, Laura Chie Hirono. Hirono’s grandfather came to Hawaii when he was 16 to work in Hawaii’s sugar plantations; Hirono’s grandmother was a picture bride. They found plantation life difficult, so they opened a bath house on River Street, saved their money, and returned to Japan before World War II to take up rice farming. Accompanying them was their Hawaii-born, teenaged daughter, Laura.

Laura married a veterinarian and gave birth to three children. The middle child, daughter Mazie, was born in Fukushima, Japan, in 1947.

Her parents “had a bad marriage,” according to Hirono. Hirono’s father was an alcoholic and a gambler. He stole clothing from his wife, hocked it, and used the money to gamble. His parents treated Laura “like a slave.”

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