- Special Projects
WASHINGTON — Last June, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer was giving a talk inside the Hart Senate Building to a group of island business leaders and politicos at the fifth annual Hawaii On The Hill, a state chamber of commerce event that showcases local food and merchandise from the islands.
Schumer told the group that Mazie Hirono, Hawaii’s junior senator, was the “real deal.” It was obvious to him and others in the Senate she hadn’t subjected herself to a life in Washington for the fame or some other less noble cause. She truly cared for her constituency, he said.
“She’s decent and honorable,” Schumer said.
But then he issued his warning: “Don’t let that nice smile and facade ever delude you that she isn’t as strong and as tough as nails.”
“I have been called a badass,” Hirono chimed in to the delight of the home crowd.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Schumer smirked.
Hirono has a reputation for being careful and not overly outgoing in public, which has kept her out of the spotlight despite decades of political experience.
But ever since the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, Hirono has become a reliable voice of resistance within the Democratic Party. It’s only become more amplified — and in some cases profane — with Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Here’s just a sample of the recent headlines from major news publications:
Don’t Call Her A Badass. Call Her A Leader. — Roll Call
11 Times Mazie Hirono Had Zero F**ks To Give — The Daily Dot
Hirono, who on Wednesday called for President Donald Trump to withdraw the Kavanaugh nomination, is worried that if confirmed Kavanaugh will undermine everything from minority voting rights to Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortions nationwide.
Kavanaugh also faces accusations of sexual assault from at least three women. When the first, Christine Blasey Ford, stepped forward, Hirono too stood up. Since then Kavanaugh has been accused of sexual misconduct by two more women, Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick. On Wednesday, another anonymous allegation was sent in a letter to a Colorado senator.
“When I speak I speak plainly, and I think that’s what’s connecting with people.” — Mazie Hirono
Hirono said at a recent press conference she believed Ford’s allegations against Kavanaugh and said it was time for men in this country, including her male colleagues in the U.S. Senate, to “shut up,” “step up” and “do the right thing for a change.” She then delivered the same message to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s face.
Her words have since become a rallying cry for those opposed to Kavanaugh’s nomination and particularly, those aligned with the #MeToo movement.
The Hawaii senator has become so popular — or polarizing, depending on one’s political leanings — that the phones in her office won’t stop ringing.
On Wednesday, one day before Kavanaugh and Ford were scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about her accusations, Hirono’s staffers worked in shifts just to field the flood of incoming calls.
“I don’t sugar coat a lot of things,” Hirono said in an interview with Civil Beat. “My friends know this about me. They also know what a determined person I am. I’m just not very noisy about it. When I speak I speak plainly, and I think that’s what’s connecting with people.”
Hirono was born in Fukushima, Japan, in 1947 and moved to Honolulu when she was 8 years old with her mother, who at the time was escaping an abusive relationship. Hirono’s father was a drunk and a gambler. Her mother fled with her children to escape that life.
It’s a well-known story Hirono tells often. But it also highlights why she never subscribed to the idea that Japanese women should be docile or submissive.
“My mother really stood up for herself, but not in a noisy way. She was very firm,” Hirono said.
Her mother at the time was a woodworker and built her own hothouse. There were no male role models who could tell her no or pin down her dreams. Still, Hirono said it was hard to escape societal mores.
She said at the time girls were not encouraged to achieve much beyond their home lives, and many of her high school classmates did not go college. Those who did, she said, focused on nursing or teaching. She instead went to Georgetown Law School.
When Hirono was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1980 she immediately set to work on women’s issues. One of the first pieces of legislation she championed was a bill to change how police and prosecutors handled sexual assault cases.
At the time, a lot of emphasis was put on the victim, what clothes they were wearing and whether they resisted their attacker. Hirono wanted to change that, and fought to redefine rape laws.
As the chair of the House Consumer Protection and Consumer Affairs Committee she built a reputation as a leader who could put people on the spot. She would eventually be known as the “Consumer Crusader.”
In 1994, when she decided to run for lieutenant governor, Ben Cayetano invited her to breakfast to convince her to drop out of the race. Cayetano was running for governor at the same time and he felt that she wouldn’t help the ticket.
That’s when she turned to one of her favorite phrases. She told Cayetano, “That’s bullshit.”
In 1998, she broke with Cayetano during their bid for re-election by saying she would vote “no” on a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
At the time, she was the most prominent politician in the state to voice her opposition. Three years later, in 2001, she and Cayetano would be on opposite sides of the picket line in a battle over higher pay wages for teachers. Hirono sided with the workers.
Her 2002 gubernatorial bid failed, in part due to Cayetano’s poor relationship with the unions and a number of corruption scandals within Democratic circles.
A Republican, Linda Lingle, defeated Hirono in the governor’s race.
Much of Hirono’s time in Washington was unremarkable, at least when compared to the waves she’s making today.
She was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2006 after her predecessor in the 2nd Congressional District, Ed Case, mounted a primary challenge against then-U.S. Sen. Dan Akaka.
At the time, U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye was the Aloha State’s kingmaker.
“When Dan Inouye was senator of course the other members of the congressional delegation were probably very cautious about what they said because they didn’t want to upset him,” said Jonathan Okamura, an ethnic studies professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Okamura said the senator’s shadow loomed large over politicians, even Hirono, who has long demonstrated her political independence.
“With Inouye’s passing Hirono and the other members of the congressional delegation as well as local Democratic Party leaders have found themselves less constrained to speak out about issues without wondering how Inouye might react,” Okamura said.
But there’s another aspect of Inouye’s legacy — he too was accused of sexual assault.
In 1992, Inouye’s hairdresser Lenore Kwock said he forced her to have sex with him and subjected her to continual groping. When the information about Kwock came to light, most local politicians opted to remain silent, at least publicly. Hirono, who was in the Legislature at the time, was among those kept quiet.
Today, Hirono said she makes no excuses for Inouye’s alleged behavior or her own silence.
“We can sit here and talk about what I should have done, you should have done, what the community should have done, what anybody should have done,” Hirono said.
“But I think what’s fruitful is that we need to create an environment where people who have these kinds of traumatic experiences can come forward. That’s what I’m focused on, and notice that’s not what’s happening even now.”
Only two Hawaii lawmakers spoke out publicly in support of Kwock. One was Annelle Amaral, a former police officer and member of the Democratic Party. The other was Cynthia Thielen, a Republican.
“If people want to come forward and make certain claims against Sen. Inouye at this point then they can do that, but the man is dead.” — Mazie Hirono
Hirono declined to answer a question about whether she regrets not speaking out in defense of Kwock at the time.
She said her support of Ford in the Kavanaugh nomination fight and her public pronouncements saying that she believed her accusations to be true come from studying her “indicators of credibility.”
Hirono said Ford had a lot to lose by stepping forward. She also took a lie detector test and requested that the FBI do a background investigation.
Hirono did not remember looking for those same indicators when evaluating Kwock’s claims against Inouye. Like Ford, Kwock took and passed a lie-detector test.
Another factor she weighed before speaking out against Kavanaugh, Hirono said, was the nominee’s own credibility.
During his confirmation hearings, she worried he was dodging questions and not being fully honest, including about his relationship with federal appeals court judge Alex Kozinski, who retired after he was accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with his law clerks.
When Ford’s allegations were made public, Hirono said it was apparent she would not get a fair hearing before the Republican-controlled Judiciary Committee, which is made up of 17 men and only four women, all of whom are Democrats.
“She came forward, she upended her life. She didn’t have to do that,” Hirono said. “I decided it was really important in this time to come forward and let her know that not only did I hear her, but I believed in her.”
Hirono wouldn’t say the same for Kwock, even after all these years and the surfacing of other allegations of Inouye’s sexual misconduct, including toward Megan Bailiff, who says she was continually harassed by the senator while working in his office in 1988 as a young woman.
Hirono believes that the bigger issue is creating a safe environment so victims can tell their stories.
She said there’s still a lot of work to do, especially as Kavanaugh’s confirmation hangs in the balance now that a third woman has revealed new accusations of assault.
“If people want to come forward and make certain claims against Sen. Inouye at this point then they can do that, but the man is dead,” Hirono said. “I’m confronted with the reality of Judge Kavanaugh being on the court with this cloud over him.”
In addition to Amaral and Thielen, one of the few people to speak publicly about Inouye’s alleged misconduct in 1992 was Meda Chesney Lind, who’s now the head of the women’s studies program at the University of Hawaii Manoa.
Without tenure, she said, it would have been hard for her to go up against such a political heavyweight. But because she was protected she was free to seek out more victims who might be willing to come forward.
Anyone else, including Hirono, she said, would have put their political futures at risk.
“It was a death sentence to speak up,” Chesney Lind said. “Inouye was the king.”
It’s hard to ignore the comparisons between Hirono and former U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink, another political force in Hawaii politics.
Mink was the author of Title IX legislation that ended gender discrimination in schools. She was also one of several women in Congress who demanded the Senate Judiciary Committee hold a hearing to address sexual misconduct allegations Anita Hill made in 1991 against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
Mink’s daughter, Wendy Mink, is an independent scholar whose work focuses on gender issues and equality. She said Hirono’s efforts are reminiscent of her mother’s.
Hirono’s mere presence on the Judiciary Committee, Mink said, gives her a voice.
“What’s important right now is not that she’s being noticed for speaking up, but that she’s doing a fantastic job of expressing the concerns of not only herself, but of the millions of women who want to see some kind of justice accomplished in this very painful process,” Mink said.
“This is a tremendously important moment in the history of women’s concerns being taken seriously, of women exerting a powerful voice in politics, and Senator Hirono is certainly at the forefront of that. I’m so proud that I’m from Hawaii and she’s from Hawaii and she’s doing what she’s doing.”
On May 16, 2017, Hirono announced she was diagnosed with stage 4 kidney cancer. Her treatment included removing 5 inches of from one of her ribs and immunotherapy.
Despite the gravity of the situation, she said, it hasn’t played much of a role in her criticisms of Trump and the decisions he and his administration are making to reshape America.
“I’d like to think I was speaking out about Trump before my diagnosis,” Hirono said. “But he’s just gotten worse. He hasn’t gotten better in terms of how he views things.”
In some respects she used the diagnosis to her advantage, such as when she took to the Senate floor in July of last year to urge her colleagues not to repeal Obamacare. She gave an emotional speech that included details about the death of her 2-year-old sister.
She then talked about her own illness and the compassionate messages she received from her colleagues, Republican and Democrat.
“Where is that tonight?” she demanded while pounding on her desk, her voice quivering.
“We all have to do the best we can in the time that we have,” Hirono told Civil Beat. “But it’s not like I’m dying. Don’t worry about that.”
She ran unopposed in the August primary and is heavily favored against a Republican challenger in the November election. She’s expected to win handily.
When asked if she would take a more measured approach if she faced a legitimate challenger in a tight race, Hirono merely chuckled at the question.
“I might be even more vocal,” she said.
Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to firstname.lastname@example.org and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes.
You can also comment directly on this story by scrolling down a little further. Comments are subject to approval and we may not publish every one.
While asking for your support is something we don’t like to do, the simple fact is that our reporters, our journalism, and our impact rely on it. Since lifting our paywall and becoming a nonprofit in mid-2016, our local newsroom has benefitted from a stream of charitable support from people who want our type of journalism to survive. People like you who understand that our work is essential to a better-informed community. If you value the work of our journalists, show us with your tax-deductible support.