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The advent of Donald Trump on the national stage has had a galvanizing effect on many Democrats in the country, and none more so than U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, who is running for re-election in 2018.
Hirono, 69, has emerged as a partisan firebrand outspoken in her contempt for Trump and quick to oppose almost everything he does.
Once cautious, tentative and uninspiring in her public appearances and comments, she is now rallying support and attention from Democrats all around the country. That’s a notable change of affairs for a politician who generally moved in the background during her decades of political life in Hawaii.
A nationwide survey in July found Hirono was the third-most-popular senator in the country, trailing only former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and Hirono’s colleague from Hawaii, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz.
Hirono’s combative stance is coming to the fore as she simultaneously fights for her health. In May, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 kidney cancer, and she has undergone two recent surgeries to halt the growth of the disease.
Her speech on the Senate floor in July in defense of Obamacare, poignantly referring to her own health problems, and what she views as the universal right to health care, has attracted millions of viewers.
In an interview with the Civil Beat Editorial Board Wednesday, Hirono explained that she believes it is imperative for her to take public stands, in every way possible, in opposition to Trump and his policies. She believes those are a threat to the nation’s security, stability and ideals.
Asked whether she believes she has anything in common with Trump, Hirono said she could not think of anything at all.
“I would have to wrack my brain,” she said. “I don’t see a moral center to this man, and this is very dangerous to our country…He blames everybody else for everything that happens … There is something important lacking in this person — a moral core. I can’t think of anything I agree with him on, frankly.”
In fact, she said, she disagrees with almost everything Trump does.
“The Trump administration basically assaults the body politic every day,” she said.
She cited Trump’s views on immigration, construction of a wall along the southern border of the United States and imposing visa restrictions on Muslim visitors as examples of what she opposes.
She has voted to oppose the confirmation of many Trump appointees, including Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
She also voted against the confirmation of the ambassador to Japan, William Hagerty, because of his previous role lining up appointees for the Trump administration, and his refusal to answer questions about it.
The event that most dramatically illustrated Hirono’s change in public persona came on the night of July 27, when the Senate voted on a Republican replacement plan for Obamacare that would have likely caused millions of people to lose their health coverage.
On the spur of the moment, without advance planning, Hirono decided to make a public statement about the Republican bill.
In televised remarks on the Senate floor at around 11 p.m., Hirono reflected on the death of her 2-year-old sister from pneumonia because she lacked access to hospital care, and to her own treatment for kidney cancer.
She asserted that many of her Republican colleagues who had offered good wishes for Hirono’s recovery were unable to recognize that by voting for the bill they would be stripping other people in the country from access to health care when they were ill.
“Where is your compassion? Where is it tonight?” she asked.
The GOP bill went down that night to a narrow defeat, with three Republicans opposing the bill.
Hirono said it was “not an easy speech for me to give,” adding that the reference to her sister was particularly painful to talk about.
But she was amazed and heartened by the response from the public, many of whom had dealt with life-threatening illnesses themselves. “That speech has been viewed more than 3 million times,” she said.
The speech turned Hirono into a media star of sorts.
It’s a surprising change for a party stalwart who seldom drew the limelight in the past.
Hirono had a long career in the Legislature, serving in the Hawaii House of Representatives from 1980 until 1994. Her focus in those years included standard Democratic Party platform issues such as protections for workers and consumers.
In 1994, she was elected lieutenant governor, serving two four-year terms under Gov. Ben Cayetano. But, like many Hawaii lieutenant governors, Hirono was overshadowed by Cayetano, a combative chief executive who challenged the state’s labor unions as Hawaii struggled through an economic downturn.
Hawaii lieutenant governors have succeeded governors in office, but that did not happen with Hirono.
In 2002, Hirono narrowly survived the Democratic gubernatorial primary against Ed Case, a state legislator. But she ended up losing the general election to Republican Linda Lingle, a former Maui mayor. It was the first time Hawaii had elected a Republican governor in 40 years.
Hirono didn’t run a strong race, performing poorly in debates and appearing at times listless on the campaign trail. And over the years, some of her critics have referred to her as “Lazy Mazie.”
Her political redemption came in 2006, when Hirono edged out Colleen Hanabusa and a large field of other candidates that included Brian Schatz, to win a congressional seat. She took office near the end of the administration of President George W. Bush.
In 2008, Hawaii native Barack Obama was elected president and Hirono became another voice in the crowd with Democrats controlling the House and Senate.
In 2012, when U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka retired, Hirono crushed Case in the Democratic primary and Lingle in the general election for the seat. But she took office as the political climate soured for Democrats, with the Republicans in ascendancy for the remainder of Obama’s term.
She now serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, holding a post as ranking member on the seapower subcommittee.
In that position, she will play a key role in investigating the problems emerging in the 7th Fleet, which has seen its reputation marred by several maritime collisions and a far-reaching scandal over bribes paid to a Malaysian defense contractor Leonard “Fat Leonard” Francis.
In the interview with Civil Beat, Hirono emphasized that she would not allow her health condition, which has stabilized, to stand in the way of standing up for her political beliefs and energetically campaigning for re-election.
“I’m still as feisty as ever,” she said. “This administration presents so many opportunities to voice our concerns.”