U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono seems to bristle every time a reporter raises the 2002 race for Hawaii governor — the race where she barely edged Ed Case in the Democratic primary and lost to Republican Linda Lingle in the general by 4.5 percentage points.

“That was nine years ago,” Hirono said during a Civil Beat interview Wednesday. “A lot has happened since then.”

Among the many things that have happened, she says, is that she has two terms under her belt in Congress that she believes have been distinguished by her commitment to issues like education, energy, health care, transportation and job creation.

What has also happened is Lingle’s eight years as governor, a record Hirono said includes major rough spots like Furlough Fridays and the Hawaii Superferry fiasco.

If Hirono gets past the 2012 Senate primary against Case and other Democrats, she will be prepared to compare her record against that of Lingle, the presumptive GOP candidate.

Education a Top Priority

Hirono has focused in particular on early childhood education, and the congresswoman pointed to fresh accomplishments in that regard.

On Wednesday, the federal Race to the Top grant competition was expanded to encourage pre-kindergarten initiatives, thanks in part to Hirono’s leadership on the issue. President Obama’s administration said it would invest $500 million in early childhood education programs nationwide.

Of the 18 bills Hirono has sponsored, four address education, as do dozens of the 123 bills she has co-sponsored.

Other legislation involves transportation, health care, renewable energy and small businesses — all issues of great concern to Hawaii. She has also sponsored the Akaka bill on federal recognition for Native Hawaiians.

In the mix are a few bills one might not expect.

For example, in March Hirono introduced the K-9 Companion Corps Act, legislation that would establish a federal grant program to encourage the use of assistance dogs by members and veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Maybe that’s not such a surprise, however, given the sizable military and retired military population in the islands.

The challenge for Hirono is that not everyone knows about her issues or her record, although recent polls have indicated voters have a positive view of her.

Under the Radar

Unlike Daniel K. Inouye, whose every utterance seems to make news, Hirono is rarely in the headlines.

The “Mazie in the News” on her website, for example, lists only three articles since Jan. 1. One of them was a MauiNow.com item on how her D.C. office would be serving saimin to celebrate the swearing in of the 112th Congress.

By contrast, the man she hopes to succeed in the Senate — Daniel Akaka — lists 14 articles, including stories by the Associated Press and The Washington Post. (None of the stories is about Akaka’s announcement that he is retiring next year.) This from a man not renowned for making news.

Asked about perceptions of a low profile, Hirono told Civil Beat, “I’m a workhorse, not a show horse.” She said she is in Congress not to reap all the headlines but to do work for her district.

That work includes things like $2.8 million for improvements to Hilo International Airport, $1.1 million for a Small Business Shipyard at Barbers Point, $6 million in federal recovery monies to develop green jobs and $331,137 in grant money to Maui Economic Opportunity assist low-income farm workers by paying for their job training.

Bringing home federal money is a major priority for Hirono because it leads to job creation. She says jobs is one of the issues she hears most about from her constituents, which includes the Neighbor Islands where unemployment numbers are higher than Oahu’s.

Medicare a Wedge Issue

Hirono is also aware of national political trends, and she mentioned Medicare as an issue that would distinguish her from a Republican opponent like Lingle.

She does not believe Republicans hear “the voices” that she says she has heard that demand protection of the financially troubled entitlement program.

(Hirono’s House colleague, Paul Ryan, has been getting an earful since proposing to privatize Medicare to help reduce budget deficits.)

When Medicare administrators began mailing out $250 “donut hole” checks last summer to more than 15,000 seniors in Hawaii as part of the federal health-care reform act, Hirono released a statement:

“I met with Medicare beneficiaries in Kaneohe and in Lihue just a few days ago and reminded them to watch for their rebate checks in their mail. With all the various types of marketing mailers, I emphasized to them to be sure to look for their checks and to not throw them away. This is just the first example of how the health care reform bill will strengthen Medicare and help Hawaii’s seniors.”

Regarding what is formally called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010: Hirono helped ensure the bill includes an amendment that provides an exemption for Hawaii’s landmark Prepaid Health Care Act.

Mum on Fundraising

Hirono declined to say how much money she would need to run for the Senate, and what efforts she had made so far.

“Whatever it takes,” she said.

When asked how much money she has raised so far, she said Civil Beat could check that out ourselves.

“Maybe $300,000?” she ventured.

Just over $290,000 in cash on hand, actually, with $128,000 in debt, as of March 31.

Hirono was similarly vague when asked how she would respond to advertising from mainland groups, as was seen in the congressional and gubernatorial races in 2010.

One advantage to declaring early for a Senate race is to get a head start on rivals for fundraising. She jumped in right after Case. Hirono’s greatest concern has to be that U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa will enter the race and the two will have to fight over many of the same donors such as groups representing labor and women.

Hirono’s campaign website is thus far light on details. It features only an email sign-up section, a link for contributions and the video she posted of her announcement.

A Stronger Mazie?

Back to that 2002 loss for governor: Many forget that Hirono, lieutenant governor at the time, at first decided not to run for the top job to succeed her boss, Ben Cayetano, because then-Honolulu Major Jeremy Harris was widely expected to be the Democratic candidate.

Hirono actually briefly ran for mayor that year, though she had not previously shown much interest in municipal affairs. When Harris suddenly dropped out of the governor’s race — for reasons never satisfactorily explained, by the way — Hirono jumped back in.

But Hirono’s right: That was nine years ago. As she told Civil Beat, when she ran for Case’s 2nd Congressional seat in 2006, she bested nine other candidates in the primary including Hanabusa, Matt Matsunaga, Clayton Hee, Gary Hooser, Brian Schatz and Nestor Garcia.

Only Hanabusa came close, losing to Hirono by less than 1 percentage point.

In the general, Hirono crushed Republican Bob Hogue. Her re-elections in 2008 and 2010 were landslides. (Civil Beat ran a story six months before the last election titled, “News Flash: Hirono Elected to Third Term.”)

Hirono believes she’s a much stronger politician today, telling Civil Beat, “I will run a modern campaign.” (Again, no details provided.)

But, in an indication that she is being taken seriously by her opponents, no less than Lingle’s former chief of staff, Barry Fukunaga, penned an essay on Hawaii Reporter just days after Hirono’s announcement.

In particular, Fukunaga singled out Hirono for “mischaracterizing” Lingle’s record on education and energy.

If it happens, Hirono v. Lingle: The Rematch could be one for the — well, record books.

About the Author