WASHINGTON — Seventeen months to go.

Then, Sen. Daniel Akaka will give up his Senate seat in 2012, and Hawaii voters will send a newly-elected senator to the U.S. Capitol for the first time in more than two decades.

The 86-year-old says he isn’t going to leave the Senate early, despite persistent questions to the contrary. One prominently placed opinion about Akaka’s future came in a July 10 column in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser by veteran political columnist Richard Borreca.

Borreca slammed Akaka, writing that there were “new concerns” from Washington about the senator’s “ability to function at the age of 86.” The headline was, “Political wisdom suggests Akaka should take early retirement.”

The article piqued our interest because it appeared days after Civil Beat sat down with Akaka in his Washington office. Still fresh off the plane from Hawaii, we paid the senator’s office an unannounced visit in the days leading up to the formal opening of Civil Beat’s Washington bureau.

To our surprise, Akaka agreed to sit down with us that afternoon. He was gracious, quick-witted and talkative. He told stories about parties at the White House — President Barack Obama’s are the best, the Democrat said — and showed us photos of his great grandchildren. It was a casual visit, and the senator’s spokesman agreed to set up a longer, formal interview our first official week on the Hill.

Akaka’s once-black hair is now a shock of white and gray, but he looks younger than 86. Leaving Akaka’s office that day, I remember thinking how much younger he seemed, too.

The column that ran in the Star-Advertiser days later described a vastly different man.

For starters, Borreca claimed that Akaka had not talked to reporters since before he announced his retirement in February. This was not true. In addition to meeting with me, Civil Beat’s Chad Blair interviewed the senator in April. A spokesman said the senator also gave several interviews to television reporters in recent months.

Borreca wrote of an Associated Press story in which Akaka was described as “so inactive at 86 that staffers joke that Hawaii is the only state with one senator, although the state’s other Democratic senator, Daniel Inouye, is also 86.”

That description didn’t seem accurate.

So we looked for the AP story in question. Turns out, the quote actually came from a July 6 column in the San Francisco Chronicle. The description of Akaka was a passing reference in a larger story about aging senators, with a focus on 78-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. The writer was Carolyn Lochhead, who works out of the Chronicle’s Washington Bureau.

She didn’t respond to an email inquiry about the characterization, but as luck would have it, we ran into her in the Senate Press Gallery last week. Asked about the staffers’ comments she reported, she said: “I can’t.”

We pressed her for more information, even if not the individuals’ names.

“That was just hallway talk,” Lochhead said. “Just look at him. It’s not confidence-building.”

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser later issued a series of corrections about Borreca’s column.

“The July 10 ‘On Politics’ column contained several errors:

A quoted news article was incorrectly attributed to the Associated Press; it was written by Carolyn Lochhead, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Washington, D.C., bureau chief.

The column incorrectly said U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka had not talked with reporters since announcing his resignation.

Akaka is chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs; the column incorrectly said it was a sub-committee.”

The original article, posted online, has not been changed to correct those errors, nor as of Aug. 8 was there any indication on the column that it contained errors.

We emailed Borreca to ask about his column. His response: “No, you do your stories and I’ll do mine.”

Akaka On The Hill

Akaka is one of 13 octogenarians currently serving in the U.S. Congress, three of whom — including Akaka and Inouye — are in the Senate. The youngest member of the Senate, Utah Republican Mike Lee, 40, is young enough to be Akaka’s grandson.

Akaka wears a hearing aid. He sits lower in his chair than most of his colleagues, and walks with a slight stoop. The slow pace of his speech seems less a product of his age than it does his hometown of Honolulu. Ask him a question, and he’ll tell you a story.

But he listens, too. In a recent Indian Affairs Committee hearing, he was attentive and engaged. Akaka began as chair of that committee in February, after leaving the helm of the Veterans Affairs Committee.

Borreca’s column described the senator as having been removed from the Veterans Affairs Committee, and reassigned to the “decidedly less strenuous” Indian Affairs. To Akaka, a Native Hawaiian and World War II veteran, the new leadership role is at least as strenuous as his previous one.

“I feel a huge responsibility for the indigenous people of our country,” Akaka said. “To try to do as much as we can, to provide for them, because of the history of what has happened to indigenous peoples.”

On Capitol Hill, the seriousness with which he approaches his Indian Affairs chairmanship is clear. In a recent hearing, Akaka took testimony from Walter Dasheno, governor of Santa Clara Pueblo. Dasheno described how a massive fire, the most devastating in New Mexico history, scorched thousands of acres of Pueblo land this summer.

“Sen. Akaka is very dedicated to working with tribal governments,” Dasheno told Civil Beat after the hearing. “He is a native. In that respect, he understands what it truly means to be part of a homeland, ancestrally. He understands tribal governments because of the issue of sovereignty.”

At the start of that hearing, Dasheno asked to say some words in a Pueblo language. The senator nodded. As other committee members looked around the room during the non-English remarks, Akaka stayed riveted, never breaking his gaze from Dasheno. When the governor was finished, Akaka smiled and spoke: “Mahalo.”

Akaka, calm but probing, had many questions for Dasheno and others who testified that day. The senator asked about how tribes’ inability to directly request federal aid undermines their self determination — the impact is “major,” Dasheno said. He asked federal officials what steps they were taking to understand tribal policies, and work with tribal governments within the United States.

Asked how Akaka’s recent change in leadership came about — was he removed or did Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who now chairs the Veterans Affairs committee, ask for the chairmanship? — Akaka said he was not forced out. But he gives the impression that it wasn’t his idea to leave, either. In other words, he could have fought to keep the chairmanship, but didn’t.

“The (Senate Majority) leader talked to me about this and I’ve always, as part of my relationship, worked as closely as I could with leaders,” Akaka said. “I show respect for leaders. So whenever they discuss things with me, I take it as being serious and important. And so we did chat about that. I served the Veterans Affairs for a few years, and accomplished some of the things that I wanted.”

Murray declined multiple requests for comment about the leadership change. Akaka still serves on the Veterans Affairs Committee, as well as the Armed Services Committee, the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Development, a government management subcommittee and more than two dozen caucuses. In addition to taking the helm of Indian Affairs, he added vice-chairmanship of the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee, helping lead a group of senators tasked with promoting Democratic policy.

Asked about Akaka’s influence, Inouye pointed first to Indian Affairs.

“Some people may pooh-pooh it and say the committee is not important,” Inouye told Civil Beat. “I personally think it’s important. We’ve got a great wrong to redress. He’s working on legislation that Hawaii and Native Hawaiians can be proud of.”

The controversial Akaka Bill, which would secure federal recognition for Native Hawaiians, is still at the top of Akaka’s to-do list. It has been for a decade. Akaka’s critics point to his inability to pass this legislation as a failure, and proof that he is ineffective.

“I didn’t think it would take this long but, you know, the House passed it twice,” Akaka said “And the Senate never ever got it to the floor. That’s our problem. The reason is, we have policies here where one senator can hold up a bill. I really believe that if we ever took it to the floor, we could pass it. We have the votes to pass it.”

In the meantime, he has focused on other priorities. He is proud of his role in implementing a next generation G.I. Bill, much like the education program that sent him to college after his service in World War II. He helped draft banking provisions that he says will better protect consumers as part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act that passed last year. He signs his name to many causes: Keeping women’s health-care costs low, preserving federal workers’ compensation, improving support systems for military families.

Inouye’s Long Shadow

Judging legislative effectiveness is an unscientific undertaking. It isn’t necessarily the number of bills passed that matters. And the potential reach of a piece of legislation can be difficult to quantify, especially early on.

But Akaka has long been dogged by a do-little reputation. A 2006 Time Magazine article named him one of the nation’s “worst senators,” criticizing Akaka for passing few pieces of substantive legislation and describing him as stuck in Inouye’s “very long shadow.”

Such rankings are subjective and often questionable, though. In the same article, Time named former Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter as one of the best. The one-time Republican switched parties to run as a Democrat in the 2010 Senate primary election that he ultimately lost. Before that, Specter was ridiculed for trying to bring a cheating scandal between the New England Patriots and New Jersey Jets under congressional scrutiny.

Unpacking Akaka’s influence in the Senate is challenging in part because he is so closely linked to Inouye, who began his U.S. Senate career three decades before Akaka did. Inouye has maintained a high approval rating even as scorn for Congress has grown, and his support has undoubtedly helped Akaka. Both are September babies; the two were born just four days apart nearly 87 years ago in 1924.

“He’s a younger person, I’m older,” Inouye said with a chuckle. “I haven’t looked at his physical statistics, but looking at him and talking to him, I’m certain he’ll be around for another 10 years. In terms of what he produces as a senator, I think he’s doing as much if not more than most senators. If you’re going to say he’s too old, then you’re going to say I’m too old.”

It’s no surprise that Akaka’s Democratic colleagues stand behind him. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa described him as “everything good about Hawaii.” Rep. Mazie Hirono called him a “bedrock,” and praised him for his stance against the Iraq War.

“Clearly, he is 100 percent committed to Hawaii,” said Hirono, who is running to succeed Akaka in the Senate. “I would like to see the senator serve out his term because that is what he has said he wants to do, and intends to do.”

On the flip side, if Akaka were to retire early, Hawaii’s Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie could hand-pick Akaka’s interim replacement. That person could then have the edge as an incumbent in 2012. Hanabusa, who is considering a run for Akaka’s seat, said that such an approach would be “wrong.”

Akaka agrees.

“When I decided to retire, I wanted to leave enough time for possible candidates to do it in such a way where Hawaii would be free to select its own senator through a fair and free election,” he said.

Until then, there is much to be done. The Akaka Bill may be his holy grail, but Akaka sees an opportunity for indigenous people that’s even bigger in scope.

“If we can develop a model for indigenous peoples that maybe we can pass on to other nations with indigenous peoples as well,” Akaka said. “They have the same problems around the world. The United States should be one that should produce a model.”

A Day In The Life

Like any member of Congress, Akaka has a schedule that appears busy.

Akaka’s spokesman, Jesse Broder Van Dyke, said the senator’s typical work day is at least nine or 10 hours long. He arrives at the office before 9 a.m., sometimes hours earlier so he can attend a senators-only prayer breakfast. A former choir director, Akaka has long been responsible for picking out the hymns and leading his colleagues in song.

When Congress is in session, Broder Van Dyke says it’s not unusual for Akaka to be at work late at night, past midnight even. During the congressional recess this month, he will host a first-ever Indian Affairs field hearing on Maui.

Akaka says he feels busier than ever, mostly because he’s come to terms with the fact that his time in the Senate is ticking down. Asked about his energy level, his physical well-being, Akaka is nonchalant.

“I gotta say that I’ve been feeling pretty good,” Akaka said.

He’s not retiring because he’s not up to the job, Akaka says. He explains that he is retiring because he wants to have the time to do other things before he begins to feel his age. He wants to be in Hawaii, the place he loves, and see the family who has remained there for his decades away from home.

“I get tugged by my family, you know, we now have 15 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren,” Akaka said. “Most of them live in Hawaii. In 36 years, I really haven’t spent time with them. I felt, well, maybe it’s about time.”

But it’s clear that the prospect of retirement pains him, too.

“I could have won the election,” Akaka said of 2012. “Of course I regret that I’ll be leaving this wonderful responsibility. It has really been an honor to be here.”

Akaka has been in Washington since he began his first term in the House in 1977. He says the idea of vacating his Senate seat never crossed his mind in past elections.

“This is the first time I ever thought about that,” Akaka said. “When I came here to the Senate, I thought I would stay here as long as I could. I had a difficult time because I love the job, I love the people up here, and I’m in a position where we can do some things with the seniority we have. Hawaii, at this point in time, is the number one state for seniority. Look at Inouye. We’ve really been able to do some things for Hawaii.”

Hanabusa says Akaka is “everything good about Hawaii,” that he “epitomizes aloha.” In the senator’s eyes, this may be the highest praise.

“From the first day that I set foot here, what I intended to do was bring Hawaii here,” Akaka said. “I’ve tried to do that all these years. I feel strongly that Hawaii has so much to offer this country.”

About the Author