After a surprising split vote among Hawaii’s two Democratic senators, Republican Party stalwart William Francis Hagerty IV is heading to Japan next week to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Japan, where he will seek to help defuse tensions with North Korea.
Sen. Mazie Hirono was one of only 12 Democrats in the Senate to vote against the nomination of Hagerty, whose business ties in Asia and ability to speak Japanese caused him to be viewed by many as a strong candidate.
But to Hirono, who has emerged as one of the most staunch opponents of President Donald Trump, Hagerty’s prior role as the director of presidential appointments for the president’s transition team made him unacceptable.
It may have also been an issue of particular emotional significance to her: Hirono and her family immigrated to Hawaii from Japan when she was a child, something she has noted often in her political campaigns.
Her “no” vote was a significant decision. Of all diplomatic posts, the ambassadorship to Japan is one of the most important for Hawaii because of the deep cultural, family and economic ties between the Aloha State and the Land of the Rising Sun.
More visitors to Hawaii come from Japan than any other foreign nation. In just the first six months of this year, about 738,000 Japanese tourists have come to the islands, up 6.9 percent from the same period last year. That’s partly due to the launch of direct flights from Japan to Kona in December and increased flights to and from Honolulu.
According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, spending by Japanese tourists rose 13.6 percent during that period to $1.1 billion.
Many Americans head west to Japan as well, particularly as a result of the defense alliance that binds the two countries. There are more American troops stationed in Japan than any other foreign country. The Hawaii-based Pacific Command oversees some 54,000 U.S. military personnel in Japan, 8,000 civilian Department of Defense employees and 25,000 Japanese nationals working on U.S. bases there.
Hagerty, a staunch supporter of the Republican Party, is co-founder of Hagerty Peterson and Co., a private equity firm in Chicago. He was employed as an executive with Boston Consulting Group early in his career, managing the firm’s business with western and Japanese firms.
While he was there he learned to speak Japanese with considerable fluency. Later, as Tennessee’s director of economic development, he convinced Japanese firms to invest in the state, he said in his testimony, eventually bringing some 40,000 jobs to Tennessee.
In peacetime, ambassadorships are usually largely ceremonial, perks given to political supporters while career officers at the State Department handle the more sensitive tasks. But this particular posting is significant at a time of rising tensions with North Korea, a push by Okinawans to reduce the American presence on their island and economic pressure applied by Trump on Japan to hire more Americans and lower trade barriers for imports of U.S. goods and services.
Hagerty breezed through his Senate confirmation hearing May 18, but unlike the nominations of Kay Bailey Hutchison as ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and Robert Wood Johnson IV as envoy to Great Britain, who were waved through to approval by the full Senate without objection Aug. 3, Hagerty encountered some light resistance.
He was approved by a roll call vote of 86-12. Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz voted for him, but not Hirono. They usually vote in tandem, with each having voted against 13 Trump appointees.
“This was fairly noncontroversial from our perspective,” said Schatz’s chief of staff, Andy Winer, who said he did not know why Hirono voted against Hagerty.
She joined 11 other Democrats, including Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, in voting “no.”
Hirono’s spokesman, Will Dempster, said the senator decided to vote against Hagerty because of the role he had played as “head of personnel during the Trump transition.” In an email, Dempster said that Hirono objected to the “many underqualified nominees selected to work in the president’s administration.”
For Hirono, it was another gesture underscoring her continuing opposition to the Trump administration. Some of the other Trump appointees that Hirono opposed were Betsy DeVos for secretary of education, Rick Perry as secretary of energy and Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
Hagerty played a role in selecting those nominees as director of presidential appointments in the early months after Trump’s election.
There initially appeared to be little opposition to his nomination as ambassador. At his confirmation hearing in May, there was no hostile questioning.
Economic issues were at the forefront of those deliberations. Republican and Democratic senators pushed trade agendas that would most benefit their own constituents. Several senators asked pointedly about America’s $69 billion trade deficit with Japan, and urged Hagerty to find ways to reduce it by making it easier to sell American-made goods in Japan.
“I want to focus on closing that trade deficit,” Hagerty told them.
Others asked about the threat from North Korea. Hagerty pledged to “coordinate closely” with Japan to defuse what he called “the region’s most acute threat.”
Hagerty was sworn into office by Vice President Mike Pence on July 27 and is expected to arrive in Japan within the next week.
He will replace Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of President John F. Kennedy, who was appointed ambassador to Japan by President Barack Obama in 2013. Kennedy was given the post because of her early public endorsement of Obama. She did not speak Japanese and her tenure received mixed reviews.
She was greeted as “American royalty,” with thousands of spectators lining the streets to view her official arrival in Tokyo. But her criticism of Japan’s custom of hunting dolphins and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to a shrine linked to World War II stirred resentment, and she was not viewed as having played a helpful role in soothing tensions with residents of Okinawa, according to the Japan Times.
Kennedy stepped down from the job in January.
Other former ambassadors to Japan include former Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker, Jr., former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, former Sen. Michael Mansfield and former five-star Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
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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 email@example.com.