Memoirs are often the place for flagrant self-trumpeting and vindictive score settling. Not so with Dan Akaka’s 2017 memoir, “One Voice: My Life, Times and Hopes for Hawaii.”

Consider one of the late senator’s greatest political challenges: his re-election battle against fellow Democrat and congressional delegation member, Ed Case.

“I thanked him for letting me know,” Akaka wrote of the day in January 2006 when he got the call from Case, then representing Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District. “I told him I was certain we could keep the contest civil and that I looked forward to a spirited discussion of the issues.”

When’s the last time you heard a politician respond so magnanimously to a challenge?

Left, Sen Akaka daughter Millannie Akaka Mattson, wife Millie Akaka, Sen Daniel Akaka and right, Chad Blair.

From left, Sen. Daniel Akaka’s daughter Millannie Akaka Mattson, his wife Millie, the senator and  Chad Blair in the Civil Beat offices, Oct. 18, 2017.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

With a man like Akaka, who died Friday at the age of 93, you would never have heard him publicly call his opponent, say, “Little Ed” or “Crooked Ed.”

And yet, so graceful was Akaka that he mentions Case dozens of times in his memoir with nary a negative thing to say. Instead, he acknowledges that he thought he was in trouble for the first time since a Senate match in 1990 against the Republican who was then serving Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District.

“For the first time in 16 years, since Pat Saiki, I had a tough race ahead of me,” he wrote, and then added with characteristic understatement: “It wasn’t a sunny day.”

An Inner Strength

About the closest the senator came to directly dinging the upstart congressman was when he remarked on the April 14, 2006, issue of Time magazine, which had reported that Akaka was one of the five “least-effective” senators — a huge embarrassment.

Akaka wrote in his memoir that Time had “misread my style, which was not to go out and yell and argue with people but rather to talk to them personally, the Hawaiian way of working with people even when we disagree.”

But during the campaign Case capitalized on the Time magazine piece to bolster his main point that Hawaii needed a generational change in representation in Washington (read: Case was young, Akaka was old).

In his memoir, the senator remarked that Time Warner merged with AOL six years earlier, becoming AOL-Time Warner.

“The executive chairman of the new company was the founder of America online, Steve Case, Ed’s cousin. Probably just a coincidence.”

President Barack Obama signs the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012 into law. Akaka, who sponsored the bill, is to the president’s right.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Now, I did not know Dan Akaka well. But that line made me laugh out loud. The senator seems to be winking at the reader, who likely knows that the AOL-Time Warner merger would turn out to be a big bust, and that Ed Case has not served in political office since.

(Note to readers: I wouldn’t rule Case out just yet. There is still chatter that he may seek office this year.)

Akaka may have been a gentle guy with a ready smile on the outside, but he possessed what I thought was an inner strength. He was also surrounded by top flight staff, both in his office and campaign. Come the Democratic primary, he defeated Case in a landslide, 54 percent to 45 percent.

Man Of Accomplishments

Akaka is best remembered for the failure of a proposal for federal recognition for Native Hawaiians known as the Akaka Bill.

Even in death he remains overshadowed by his friend and longtime Senate colleague Dan Inouye, who was born exactly four days before Akaka and who died in 2012, Akaka’s last full year in office.

But Akaka is now being remembered for the things he did for Hawaii.

“From securing federal money to improve social programs for Native Hawaiians to being a leading voice in persuading the United States to formally apologize for its overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, Sen. Akaka always put his constituents first,” wrote Tom Perez, Grace Meng and Bel Leong-Hong, leaders of the Democratic National Committee.

Katherine Scott, an associate historian for the U.S. Senate Historical Office, shared a compilation of Akaka’s accomplishments with my colleague Nick Grube, including these:

  • As chairman of the Federal Workforce Subcommittee of the Committee on Homeland security and Governmental Affairs, Akaka sponsored the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012.
  • He effectively lobbied for Hawaiian interests, leading the effort to defeat Sen. Bill Bradley’s proposal to lower sugar price supports in 1990.
  • He worked with Sen. Jim Webb to rework the GI Bill for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee.
  • Akaka sponsored a provision that later became a part of the Violence Against Women Act of 2013. It extended those protections to Native American and Native Hawaiian women.

On Friday, Office of Hawaiian Affairs Chairwoman Colette Machado remembered the senator and his contributions this way:

During his lifetime of service to Hawaii, Senator Daniel Kahikina Akaka reminded us that the best way to lead in these islands, whether in the 21st century or in the time of our kupuna, is through the Hawaiian values of haahaa (humility), pono and aloha. As the first and only Native Hawaiian to serve in the U.S. Senate, he was a tireless champion of Native Hawaiians and our rights as an indigenous people.

A Final Aloha

I first met the senator in 1998 and had the pleasure to speak with and interview him a number of times over the years. I don’t honestly know if he knew who I was, just another reporter in the pack looking for a quote.

The last time I saw him was Oct. 18, 2017. I know this because he autographed a copy of his book for me. It read, simply: “Chad, Aloha! Danny Akaka.”

Services are pending for the senator, and there is talk of a memorial service at the Hawaii Capitol Rotunda, as was the case for Inouye and U.S. Rep. Mark Takai.

Wherever it is that Hawaii bids a final aloha to Danny Akaka, I’ll be there. Along with many others.

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