Congress has become increasingly polarized in recent years with Republicans and Democrats seemingly unable to set aside ideological loyalties and compromise.
But the last politician to blame would be Sen. Daniel Akaka, whose abiding legacy will surely be his patient efforts to bridge that widening political gulf.
Sen. Jim Inhofe is an Oklahoma Republican and the political opposite of Akaka, but still considers him a close friend.
“He’s always ranked among the most liberal and I’m always ranked among the most conservative, and yet we’re truly brothers,” Inhofe told Civil Beat. “In terms of what we stand for and our philosophy, we couldn’t be further apart. But in terms of our relationship, nobody could be closer than Danny Akaka and I.”
Inhofe chalks up the relationship to their shared faith, and said Akaka would routinely take requests for psalms and hymns at the weekly prayer breakfast senators share. One memorable example was “Just As I Am“, which Inhofe said was a tribute to how each senator is different and has something unique to offer the country.
Majority Whip Dick Durbin, who worked with Akaka in both the House and Senate and is now the second-ranking Democrat in the chamber, said Akaka is one of the most beloved members of the Senate, and a relic of a time when cross-aisle collaboration was more common.
“It is a bygone era, but Danny Akaka makes it work,” Durbin said. “People respect him for it.”
Akaka has built those relationships one at a time.
A recent example is Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican who was swept into office in the Tea Party wave of 2010. Akaka said he took the now-unusual step of calling him in advance of a committee meeting to give him a heads up on what would be taking place.
“I go beyond the ordinary by being certain that I communicate with them. So even with Johnson, I would call him up and tell him I’m going to do this, this and this, rather than him coming and finding out, oh, we’re going to do these things,” Akaka said. “But just to inform him so he knows what’s going to happen, and I think that impacts your relationship with a person.
“That kind of relationship is different. Individually, our relationships are good. That’s what I mean. Trying to bring this kind of collegiality back. I really believe that we’re all different and we’re serving different people so we can’t think the same. We shouldn’t be thinking the same. But that doesn’t mean we cannot get along.”
Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a colleague of Akaka’s for 10 years, has known him since her father, Frank Murkowski, served in the Senate. She says the tenor of Congress has changed over the years, making it harder for a senator like Akaka, who works to build relationships, to operate in the more politically polarized environment.
“When Sen. Akaka first came to the Senate, when he and my dad were working together, I think that kind of a style, ‘Hey this is an issue that is important to the people of Hawaii, you understand it because Alaska Natives have many of the same concerns,’ and you didn’t need to do more of a sell than that,” she said when Civil Beat asked her about why the Akaka Bill has not passed.
“I think the environment has probably changed. You have lawmakers who are coming over from the House and it’s just kind of, (snapping fingers) ‘We’re just counting votes here.’ And the relationship perhaps was not as significant, and so it really is a, you’d better walk them down through the point and the counterpoint of every aspect of the bill. So maybe that would have made a difference, but I think part of our reality is that things have changed around here.”
Akaka also has fond memories of the way things used to work.
“From the very beginning here, I tried to be an example of aloha to try to bring about better relationships as friends as well as working colleagues, and I’ve done that all the years I’ve been here,” he said. “When I first came here, I would say that feeling of aloha went pretty well. At that time, let me put it this way, we can move things by a handshake. And they would follow up with it. When you shook hands on things, it’s done.”
Over the years, Akaka said, the Senate changed as “old-timers” who stabilized the body were replaced by new members who came in with fixed minds and intended to change the system.
“And the sad thing about that is they’re trying to change it without respect, which was high in priority in my earlier days. Respect was important,” he said. “But I would say that Congress today has less feeling of respect than it had in my earlier days, and it affects everything else.”
So if there’s less aloha in Congress than ever, has the aloha senator failed in his primary mission?
“As I’m leaving,” Akaka said, smiling as always, “I think I have made some inroads.”
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