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Editor’s Note: This is the first of a three-part series on U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, who is retiring after 36 years in Congress.
WASHINGTON — Let’s get this out of the way right up top: Danny Akaka is an extraordinarily nice man.
It’s hard to tell if Hawaii’s perpetually smiling octogenarian U.S. senator has ever said a cross word to anybody in the nation’s capital. His hymns at prayer breakfasts on the Hill are the stuff of legend. Republicans and Democrats alike have only good things to say about the man.
But despite Akaka’s saint-like demeanor and reputation, it’s his record that speaks to what he’s accomplished — for Hawaii and the nation — since he came to Washington nearly four decades ago.
The former schoolteacher’s self-professed goal was to bring the aloha spirit with him. But today, gridlock shrouds the halls of Congress and Akaka was still unable to get colleagues to help him pass the signature piece of legislation bearing his name. Besides championing Native Hawaiians and other indigenous peoples, he has worked hard for federal workers and veterans.
“I tried to act humble and tried to work with people and tried to press the point that working together we can get more things done in partnership,” Akaka said in a recent interview at his office. “And so that’s what I’ve been striving for here, and I would say that I have made some strides in that.”
After 14 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and 22 more in the U.S. Senate, Akaka retires at the end of the year when the 112th Congress shuts its doors. In January, Congresswoman Mazie Hirono will be sworn in to take his place alongside Sen. Daniel K. Inouye.
Comparisons with Inouye are inevitable.
The Dans both turned 88 in September, their 1924 birthdays separated by just four days. But Inouye, Hawaii’s senior senator by virtue of his longer tenure and not his 100-hour head start in life, is chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee and travels with a security detail conferred by his standing as third in line for the presidency. Akaka’s chaired only second-tier committees and subcommittees, leaving a much smaller mark, at least to casual observers.
Inouye calls Akaka an “extraordinary human being” and said the two complemented each other well as Hawaii’s senators.
“In all the years I have known him, from his time as the schools superintendent to his final days in the Senate, I have never heard him utter a harsh word or wish ill for anyone,” Inouye said in an email to Civil Beat sent by his office. “He readily forgave those who transgressed him.”
“He did utter the word ‘Aloha’ a bit more often than any other person I’ve known,” Inouye said. “But in Danny’s case, it was natural, because he epitomized the spirit of Aloha.”
Seniority is a big part of the equation for achievement and success. Inouye has been in Congress since statehood and in the Senate for half a century, making him the second-longest serving senator in U.S. history.
“Major figures like that, like the majority leader or a chairman of a major committee, you’re always a bit in their shadow,” Senate Historian Donald Ritchie pointed out in an interview. “So then the question becomes: How do you carve out a career elsewhere?”
Akaka’s been a leader on the issues nearest and dearest to him, even when they’re relatively low-profile.
As the only Native Hawaiian ever in the U.S. Senate, he’s taken on Native American issues and pushed for recognition and self-determination for his own people.
As a World War II veteran, he’s taken on veterans issues during wartime.
And as a longtime government employee, he’s taken on federal workforce issues that affect millions of those who work for the United States.
Here’s how Ritchie puts it: “He gravitated where he wanted to be.”
And even though Akaka pales next to Inouye in terms of stature and seniority, he compares favorably to the vast majority of others in the upper chamber today. Appointed by Gov. John Waihee in April 1990 to fill Spark Matsunaga‘s seat after the latter died in office, Akaka won four Senate elections since and today is the 21st most senior of 100 senators.
Historically, his 22 years in the Senate are even more rarified air. According to the U.S. Senate Historical Office, as of June only 133 senators had served at least four full six-year terms in office. With a little less than 2,000 senators in the nation’s history, Akaka ranks somewhere in or near the top 10 percent of longest serving senators of all time.
If you factor in his time in the House, Akaka’s 36 consecutive years make him one of perhaps 100 to serve that long of about 12,000 individuals who have been in either chamber of Congress since 1789, according to the Library of Congress. That’s the top 1 percent.
So if Akaka’s in the upper echelon in terms of of experience, what about accomplishment?
“Seniority doesn’t mean much if you don’t know what to do with it.”
That’s what then-U.S. Rep. Ed Case said during his 2006 primary challenge against Akaka. Effectiveness, or lack thereof, was a focal point during that race, and Case’s harsh criticism was included in a Honolulu Star-Bulletin report about Congress.org compiling qualitative metrics that ranked Akaka 71st out of 100 in terms of power and influence in Washington.
A few months earlier, Time Magazine called Akaka one of the “worst” senators and said he was “a master of the minor resolution and the bill that dies in committee.”
In all, 21 Senate bills introduced by Akaka were eventually signed into law. That includes some on substantive issues like veterans benefits, and others on less substantive issues like naming a medical center after Matsunaga, his predecessor.
But, as Akaka argued in that 2006 campaign, the number of bills passed isn’t the only way to measure effectiveness.
Ritchie, the Senate historian, said Akaka has been effective in his own way.
“Senators are divided into show horses and workhorses. Show horses have higher political ambition, they’re thinking about running for president or they want to be floor leader of they’ve got something going on,” he said. “They spend a lot of time doing television programs, they spend a lot of time doing press conferences, and they don’t spend a lot of time in committee.
“The workhorses spend most of their time in committee. They get to know the subject, and as a result they have a much greater influence on the legislation that comes out, but they’re not well-known outside of the institution.”
Ritchie quoted the late President Woodrow Wilson, who wrote that Congress in committee is Congress at work, while Congress on the floor is Congress on public display.
“I think Sen. Akaka is the classic workhorse in that sense. His whole life on Capitol Hill has been in the committee. It’s been much less on the Senate floor than in the Senate committees, but 80 percent of what the Senate does is done in committee rather than on the floor,” Ritchie said. “He doesn’t stick up, he doesn’t have a high profile, you’re not going to see him on the Sunday morning shows, but in terms of the legislative output of the Congress, he’s been effective.”
Akaka likes the workhorse versus show horse characterization.
“I’ve never gone out really to reporters to play all these things up that I do, so you don’t read about the things that I’ve done over the years because I never sought to be a show horse. I just wanted to be a person who can help people,” he said. “Even in my legacy, the way I feel is I don’t want to inflate the things that I’ve done just to be known.”
Case’s criticism, whether right or wrong, was eventually seen as disrespectful of his elder, a big no-no in Asian and Hawaii culture. Akaka held his seat, and Case has failed in multiple attempts to get back to Congress since.
After Akaka dispatched Case, Democrats swept the midterm elections and took control of the Senate. That elevated Akaka to his most high-profile role, chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee. That was a particularly important job when the U.S. was at war in Iraq and Afghanistan and injured veterans were coming home.
Under his watch, for example, the committee helped broker a compromise on the Post-9/11 GI Bill helping veterans afford an education.
In 2010, Akaka stepped down as Veterans Affairs chair and took over the Indian Affairs Committee. It was largely seen in Washington as a demotion, but Akaka never complained publicly about the new role.
The committee, which now hangs Native Hawaiian art on the wall for the first time, has allowed Akaka to focus on the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, also known as the Akaka Bill.
Coming Tuesday: Akaka’s decade-long effort to gain recognition for Native Hawaiians.