Daniel Akaka was a Democratic U.S. senator, representing Hawaii for more than 20 years — from 1990 until his retirement in 2012 at age 88. He was the first member of the U.S. Senate of Native Hawaiian ancestry.
Akaka may be best known today for his unsuccessful pursuit of federal legislation, known as the Akaka Bill, to recognize a Native Hawaiian governing entity.
Akaka is married to Mary Mildred Chong and has five children.
Akaka was born in Honolulu on Sept. 11, 1924. He graduated from the Kamehameha School for Boys in 1942, almost a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Akaka served from 1943-1947 during and after World War II in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Using funding from the G.I. Bill, Akaka earned a Bachelor of Education from the University of Hawaii Manoa in 1952. He taught high school from 1953 to 1960.
During the 1960s, Akaka was promoted to principal and received a Masters of Education, also from UH Manoa. In 1969, the Department of Education hired him as a chief program planner and two years later, he was appointed to direct Hawaii’s anti-poverty programs. In 1975, Akaka was elevated to assistant to the governor.
Both Hawaii congressional seats became vacant in 1976, when both representatives retired to run for the U.S. Senate. Akaka ran in the 2nd congressional district to succeed Patsy Mink. He went on to serve on the House Appropriations Committee for 14 years.
When Democratic Sen. Spark Matsunaga died in office, Akaka was appointed to the seat by Gov. John D. Waihee III in April of 1990. In November of the same year, Akaka was elected to serve the remainder of Matsunaga’s term and then re-elected four years later.
In 1993, Akaka sponsored an “Apology Resolution”, which gained both House and Senate approval, to formally apologize to Native Hawaiians for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii. President Bill Clinton signed the bill.
In both Akaka’s 1994 and 2000 elections, he took more than 70 percent of the vote.
However, his 2006 campaign was more challenging. During the 2006 primary election, Akaka defeated Rep. Ed Case with 53 percent of the vote. Akaka would go on to win the general election against state Republican Cynthia Thielen with his lowest margin of victory, 62 percent.
In 2006, before the election, Akaka took heavy criticism from Time magazine. He was named one of “America’s Five Worst Senators,” and described as the “master of the minor resolution and the bill that dies in committee.”
In 2010, Akaka failed to pass his signature piece of legislation, the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act of 2010.
The stated purpose of the bill was “to provide a process for the reorganization of the single Native Hawaiian governing entity and the reaffirmation of the special political and legal relationship between the United States and that Native Hawaiian governing entity.”
Akaka is best known for his efforts on Hawaiian sovereignty. However, he has also cast key votes on several major issues over the past two decades.
One landmark bill Akaka helped pass was the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act. Akaka was involved in crafting and advancing the act, which remained controversial a year after it passed in 2010. Republicans argued that the reform created regulatory red tape that would hamper an already struggling national economy.
Akaka’s voting record shows that he was a loyal Democrat.
A 2011 Civil Beat analysis found that — out of all 123 Senate roll call votes from January through August of that year — Akaka and Hawaii’s other U.S. senator, Dan Inouye took opposite positions just three times. One of the key differences was Akaka’s opposition to extending aspects of the Patriot Act.
He opposed the Iraq War, a bill to create the Homeland Security Department and the Patriot Act.
Akaka voted strongly in favor of abortion rights legislation as well as same-sex domestic partnership benefits. He opposed the death penalty and an absolute right to gun ownership.
Akaka was a strong proponent of a more progressive tax system and helped to form a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
On March 2, 2011, Akaka announced he would not run for re-election in 2012. His decision came less than a week after Inouye said he could not give his colleague the kind of financial support he did in 2006, when Akaka faced and defeated then Congressman Ed Case in the Democratic primary.
Akaka told Civil Beat that he believes he “could have won” the 2012 election, and regrets “leaving this wonderful responsibility.” Akaka said he wanted to spend time in Hawaii before his age catches up with him.
Akaka served almost 22 years in the U.S. Senate and, prior to that, more than 13 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. His departure from the Senate left a a gap in Native Hawaiian leadership that remains today.