At a crowded town hall in Honolulu on Saturday, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono faced a barrage of questions from her Democratic constituents in Hawaii who are fearful about their future in a world of Republican political ascendancy on the mainland.
With news from Washington continuing to be a topic of rapt attention in Hawaii, about 150 people crowded into the cafeteria at Kaimuki High School on a sunny Saturday to hear directly from the senator about what she is seeing and hearing in the nation’s capital.
In question after question at the unscripted event, Democrats lined up at the microphones to share their worries about the Trump administration and Congressional Republicans. They expressed concern about the potential dismantlement of the nation’s social safety net, and what it could mean for themselves and their families.
One retired woman said she receives $1,500 a month in Social Security but one of her medications costs $6,000 a month. That’s now covered by federal health insurance, she said, but might not be in the future if substantial changes were made to the nation’s health care coverage.
“If these programs go away, it’s a literal death sentence for me,” the woman said.
Another participant asked what she could do to help protect health care for her sister, who lives in Texas and has breast cancer.
Hirono didn’t have many specific answers but promised to maintain the fight for core Democratic party beliefs. She repeatedly promised to oppose President Donald Trump and the Republican majority on virtually every front.
“We really need to watch Donald Trump very carefully,” she said.
Hirono expressed contempt for many of the cabinet officials appointed by President Trump.
“I’ve been fighting all of Trump’s nominations,” Hirono said, to wide applause from the audience.
She singled out General James Mattis, the new secretary of defense, as one of the few people she considers an acceptable candidate for his post.
“He’s one of the adults in the Trump administration,’’ she said. “I’m putting a lot of faith in him.”
Several participants pressed for answers about how they could be most effective in opposing Republican party hegemony on the mainland.
Is it effective for us to call from Hawaii to other states’ legislators, one woman asked. Hirono didn’t really have an answer.
“I’ve never seen a more opportune time to fight for universal health care,” another participant said, pressing for information about what the Democratic party is doing to advance the issue.
Hirono said the Democratic party in Washington has its hands full trying to resist Republican initiatives that would reduce the number of people who currently have health insurance.
Several questioners asked Hirono pointed questions about leadership in the national Democratic party and what is it doing to respond to the growing might of the Republican party in the United States. One noted that of 33 senators up for re-election next year, 25 are Democrats or legislators who caucus with Democrats, which means the party is at significant risk of further shrinking in power.
Hirono said she believed that all politics is local, and that she considers it her job to fight for her own constituents, not to look to the fate of the broader Democratic party.
“It’s important for us of each to truly represent our own district,” she said.
She said she plans to make her voice heard in opposition to Republican initiatives.
It was a whirlwind trip back home for the senator, who juggles service on five senate committees–armed services, veterans affairs, small business, energy and natural resources and the judiciary–and is still recovering from a recent eye surgery.
In more than one way, the setting was a return home for the senator. She noted she had attended Kaimuki High School as a teenager, still newly arrived from Japan.
“I’m a proud product of the public schools,” she said to enthusiastic applause.
Hirono began her talk, as she frequently does, by recounting her mother’s immigration to Hawaii to escape an abusive husband, and the family’s struggle to make ends meet during her childhood.
She promised to defend immigrants from discrimination in immigration proceedings, and stressed her concern about the plight of those immigrants who are in the country unlawfully.
“We have ICE agents knocking on doors tearing families apart,” Hirono said. “I will raise my voice about targeting minorities for discrimination … I hate that term ‘rounded up,’ like they are not human beings.”
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A Kailua girl, Kirstin Downey is a special correspondent for Civil Beat. A longtime reporter for The Washington Post, she is the author of "The Woman Behind the New Deal," "Isabella the Warrior Queen" and an upcoming biography of King Kaumualii of Kauai. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.