PROVIDENCE, R.I. — When the crowd started booing former Rep. Ed Case, Congresswoman Mazie Hirono paused.
“You’ve heard of him,” she said, sounding pleased.
The congresswoman was onstage in a big, darkened conference room at the Rhode Island Convention Center, delivering a keynote address to a crowd of hundreds of progressive bloggers, community organizers and activists as part of the annual Netroots Nation conference.
These were Hirono’s people.
It was the kind of crowd that sees Hirono’s Democratic U.S. Senate opponent Case as so much of a blue dog that he might as well be Republican. The mention of former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle, who will likely square off against either Case or Hirono in the general election, drew more boos. (In contrast, Massachusetts U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, who took the stage after Hirono, got a rock star’s welcome.)
The event also gave Civil Beat an opportunity to observe Hirono on the campaign trail — not in Washington, D.C., not in Hawaii, but on the road. When it comes to campaign strategy, Hirono’s people play it close to the vest, rarely offering up information they don’t have to. Two recent examples: Hirono declined to provide information about her out-of-state fundraisers, and wouldn’t share information from her recent tax returns.
At Netroots Nation, when a lei-draped Hirono took the stage, a lone “aloha!” rang out in the crowd. (She told Civil Beat her campaign had the fresh lei — which is next to impossible to find on the East Coast — shipped in for the event.) She thanked the audience with a “mahalo nui loa” for being there.
“A little bit of aloha goes a long way,” she later told Civil Beat.
Hirono stayed on message throughout her talk, hitting many of the points that she and supporters — like the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — have covered again and again over the course of her U.S. Senate campaign. She emphasized:
While Hirono took a couple of digs at Case, most remarks on opposition were focused on Lingle.
“They’re banking on Linda Lingle, their No. 1 draft pick, to take the Hawaii seat from blue to Republican,” she said of the GOP. “Her first vote will be to make [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell the leader of the Senate … It will take the country in a direction that it does not want to go: Women’s rights, reproductive rights, non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.”
Hirono didn’t rely heavily on notes, only glancing down at the lectern occasionally (she later told us that the room was so dark she couldn’t see a single face in the crowd). She didn’t seem effortless, sometimes missing opportunities to pause for effect, or applause, after a salient point.
Still, the congresswoman was mostly at ease. No question: She knew her audience. Take, for example, this one-liner that elicited an appreciative laugh from the crowd:
“I bring quadruple diversity to the Senate,” Hirono said. “I’m a woman. I’ll be the first Asian woman ever to be elected to the U.S. Senate. I am an immigrant. I am a Buddhist. When I said this at one of my gatherings, they said, ‘Yes, but are you gay?’ and I said, ‘Nobody’s perfect.’”
Netroots Nation is a high-profile event for the political left. In 2008, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton showed up. Former Vice President Al Gore, House Minority Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid1 have all made appearances in the past. In addition to giving a keynote address, Hirono was at Netroots Nation to court endorsements. She met with staffers from the progressive website Daily Kos, and a representative from MoveOn.org.
“It’s a whole different group of very engaged, generally younger people,” Hirono told Civil Beat in an interview after her speech. “They want to make a difference.”
Netroots Nation also represented an opportunity for Hirono to collaborate with Warren — which has happened repeatedly over the course of the campaign. With more women than ever running for U.S. Senate, Democrats like Hirono, Warren, Wisconsin Rep. Tammy Baldwin, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Shelley Berkley of Nevada have gravitated toward one another. Hirono calls it a “synergy.”
“You see all these women,” Hirono said. “I think it’s really historic. There are more Democratic women running for U.S. Senate than ever before in the history of our country. Especially because there is a war on women. When all of us get elected, we are going to be able to work together and make some significant changes.”
That includes changes to the way that Hirono and others in Congress have operated thus far. One example that came up in Rhode Island: The extent to which lawmakers in Washington have communicated the importance of national healthcare reform. Hirono acknowledged that Congress hasn’t done enough. (“It would help if the media also focused on it,” she said.)
“I provide accurate information (about health care),” she said. “We can only hope it’s sinking in.”
Women’s rights were a major focus of the conference, and Hirono had plenty to say about the issue. She spoke of “total, total inconsistencies if not hypocrisy” that she sees among GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill for being anti-abortion but also vehemently against overregulation in sectors like finance, business and the like.
“I do see this as a war on women,” she told the crowd. “I don’t use these kinds of words frivolously.”
Hirono also told the audience about the first letter she ever wrote to Congress, 40 years ago, to support abortion rights. The loudest applause — and biggest smile from Hirono in return — came after she said: “When you elect women, it matters.”
But even at Netroots Nation, where social justice issues like gay rights and abortion rights are front and center, Hirono says the theme of the campaign hasn’t budged. People everywhere are concerned about the economy first and foremost.
“It’s jobs,” Hirono said. “It’s getting the economy going. That’s what I continue to be focused on in the short-term … Over the long-term though, I’m really pushing for educational changes. At the same time, I’m very much pushing for sustainability, in terms of energy. That’s something that’s percolating in Hawaii more and more. But truly, we need to get things going. We need to create more jobs. That’s for Hawaii, and that’s for our whole country.”
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