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, from left, mother-in-law Rosemary Oshima, mother Laura and husband Leighton Oshima
Mazie with, from left, mother-in-law Rosemary Oshima,
mother Laura and husband Leighton Oshima

Things grew so bad at home, Laura Hirono sent her 3-year-old daughter to live with her grandparents on their rice farm.

In 1955 Hirono’s mother packed up her two oldest children and fled to Hawaii. Her youngest son, not yet in school, remained in Japan with Hirono’s grandparents. He too would come to Hawaii, with his grandparents, two years later.

Hirono’s mother found work as a typesetter for the Hawaii Hochi, a Japanese-language newspaper. “She was making minimum wage; she had no health care coverage,” says Hirono. “Our lives were precarious.”

The Hirono family, swollen to six with the arrival of grandparents and younger brother, moved “every two years. We rented,” says Hirono. “I attended Kaahumanu Elementary School, Koko Head Elementary, Niu Valley Intermediate, Jarrett Intermediate and Kaimuki High School.”

Things got better for the Hirono family. “The Honolulu Advertiser needed a proofreader, so my mother answered the ad,” says Hirono. “Now remember, she’d never graduated from high school; she had no experience as a proofreader, but she applied anyway. The man who interviewed her must have empathized with her burdens at home. He gave her the job, and she became a very good proofreader.”

When she arrived in Hawaii at the age of 8, Hirono spoke only Japanese. She learned English in the public schools - where she stood apart. Hirono keeps a picture of herself from small kid time with a haole girl in her class. “She was my first and best friend,” says Hirono. “We stuck together because we were both outsiders.”

Hirono admits to having been “pretty straight-laced” in school. “I had responsibilities at home that other kids didn’t have; I had to help take care of the family, so I didn’t do a lot of things with the other kids. I was a serious kid.”

Hirono was an honors student at Kaimuki High School where she co-edited the Kaimuki Bulldog, the school newspaper. She entered the University of Hawaii to major in psychology; her ambition was to become either a therapist or a counselor. But the Vietnam War was on, and her mind began to wander.

The turning point for Hirono came in the summer of 1968. She was one of 10 University students chosen by the YWCA to live and work in Waimanalo with at-risk kids.

“They were all activists and war protesters,” says Hirono. “Nine of them had been arrested during the famous Bachman Hall sitin.”

Former state legislator and DOE staffer Kate Stanley was a Volunteer in Service to America in Waimanalo that summer.

“That YWCA group and the VISTA volunteers were working with all these kids who had nothing,” says Stanley. “They were drug abusers, paint sniffers. They were kids who didn’t believe they had a future.

“That summer Mazie saw a whole bunch of people she had never seen before. Remember, she had gone to Koko Head Elementary, which was a good, upper-middle class school, but right around the curve in Waimanalo was a different world.

“And Mazie stood out in that group of university students. You could tell she wasn’t there just to have fun.”

Hirono emerged from that summer an activist, protesting the war in Vietnam and turning her attention increasingly toward politics. She took her bachelor’s degree from the university in 1970 and spent the next five years working at the Legislature and participating in other people’s campaigns for elective office.

Among those she campaigned for in the early ‘70s were David Hagino, Anson Chong, and Carl Takemura (today her congressional chief of staff). Hirono worked a session or two in Chong’s legislative office. “I remember her in those days,” says Gene Awakuni, currently the chancellor of the University of Hawaii-West Oahu. “Mazie was smart and well-organized.”

“Gene was president of ASUH, and we worked together on getting the university to turn the empty Honolulu Stadium site into a park rather than sell it to a developer.”

In 1975 Hirono departed Hawaii for the prestigious Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C. Hirono wanted to practice public interest law. She paid her way with savings and loans - and had neither the time nor the money for a social life. “I went to museums a lot,” she remembers.

She graduated from Georgetown in 1978 and returned to Hawaii to a job as deputy attorney-general with the state of Hawaii. “I was in the office’s new anti-trust division,” she says. “I had a terrific anti-trust professor at Georgetown, and I enjoyed my time in the AG’s office.”

It wasn’t a long time. Takemura intended to give up his House seat in 1980, so a year earlier he approached Hirono about moving into his district and making a bid for the seat. She made the move and she won.

During her tenure in the State House, Hirono received high marks from many: for doing her homework, her advocacy and her intelligence. From 1987 to 1992, Hirono chaired the House Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee. “I’ve always been pro-consumer,” she says, “pro the working people.”

In 1994 Hirono moved up, winning a contested primary for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor. In the general election, paired with gubernatorial candidate Ben Cayetano, Hirono won the first of her two terms in the state’s second spot.

Cayetano-Hirono wasn’t always an ideal pairing. “Ben likes things done his way,” she says. “It was a challenge to work with him. Ben takes up all the oxygen in a room, so mine was the plight of most vice presidents and lieutenant governors. I had my disagreements with him, but I didn’t take potshots at Ben. It was not my role to do that.”

Hirono focused her efforts instead on working with the Legislature on workers’ compensation reform, aviation issues, and getting the state elections office out from under the elected lieutenant governor’s office.

“I think I was successful in going down and working with legislators,” she says. “I was very focused on getting things done.”

Long before gubernatorial election year 2002, the relationship between Cayetano and Hirono had frayed. As lieutenant governor, Hirono - like Lt. Govs. George Ariyoshi, John Waihee and Cayetano before her - appeared to be the Democrats’ heir to the governorship.

But Cayetano didn’t feel Hirono was doing enough to succeed him. Also standing in her way was Mayor Jeremy Harris, who gave every indication that he intended to seek the Democratic nomination as well. Hirono abruptly pulled out and announced her candidacy for the Honolulu mayoralty that Harris would leave vacant.

Enter Bob Watada, chair of the State Campaign Spending Commission. Watada’s investigations turned up a long list of illegal contributions to Harris’s campaigns - and some to Cayetano’s and Hirono’s as well. Shaken by the investigations and a poll that showed him losing to the certain Republican nominee, Linda Lingle, Harris dropped out of the gubernatorial race.

Hirono immediately jumped back in - and looked both cowardly and opportunistic in doing so.

Then she watched nervously as Case, a long-shot state representative who had never run statewide before, crept up on her in the polls. Hirono prevailed over Case, but six weeks later she lost to a better-funded and flawless Lingle campaign.

“It was a tough time to carry the water for the Democrats,” says Hirono. “The unions didn’t get involved. Some were running around trying to get a man to run. Harris messed things up. I’m surprised I came as close as I did. But I’m still here.”

That she is, although many Democrats blamed her for running a lackluster gubernatorial campaign and losing the governorship. Some wrote her off as “a loser.”

But Hirono didn’t give up on herself. She kept active in the Democratic Party, founding the Patsy Mink Political Action Committee.

“After Patsy’s death, I went to John Mink to get his permission to use her name,” says Hirono. “We raise money to help Democratic, pro-choice women running for state office in Hawaii.”

Hirono cites freshman state Sen. Jill Tokuda as one of the successful candidates the committee supported last year.

When Congressman Ed Case announced he would relinquish the 2nd District seat in order to run for the Senate, Hirono set about raising money for her campaign - ultimately $1.4 million of it, enough to best nine other Democrats in last year’s primary (runner-up Colleen Hanabusa spent $400,000) and Republican Hogue in the General (Hogue doled out $290,000).

Hirono doesn’t apologize for outbidding her rivals: “Money plays an important role in politics. I had to call those contributors one-by-one. I had to reach out to new voters and overcome the baggage of the Cayetano years.”

She did, and longtime friends feel Congress, perhaps more than the executive chambers, is where she belongs.

“Mazie is a really decent, committed person,” says longtime friend and supporter Kate Stanley. “She doesn’t like to see anybody written off because they’re poor or of the wrong ethnic group - or for any other reason.

“I think Mazie’s going to be great in Congress. It’s a good fit.”

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