Chad Blair: The Tales Of Two Hawaii Trailblazers - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.


The release of memoirs this spring by two prominent Hawaii politicians has me thinking about, well, politics in Hawaii but also nationally.

I first met Pat Saiki and Mazie Hirono when I was researching the 1994 race for governor. I naively thought Saiki, a Republican, would win that race, but she finished third behind Democrat Ben Cayetano and independent candidate Frank Fasi.

(Full disclosure: I was a UH graduate student at the time and a volunteer on Saiki’s campaign.)

Hirono was Cayetano’s running mate but I thought — again, naively — that Jackie Young was the better lieutenant governor candidate. Hirono won the race easily.

The 1994 campaign was my crash course in Hawaii politics, and this malihini haole learned a lot — like how important the Japanese American vote is, how powerful labor unions are, how weak is the Hawaii Republican Party and how challenging it can be for female politicians to succeed.

Rep. Pat Saiki standing next to President Ronald Reagan when he signed legislation approving an official apology and reparations for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Saiki played a key role in its passage. U.S. Sen. Spark Matsunaga of Hawaii is at far left. Courtesy: Watermark

Saiki, who is now 91, seemed the far more experienced candidate and, from my impression, a natural leader. She had served with distinction in both the state House and Senate, ran as GOP gubernatorial candidate Andy Anderson’s running mate in 1982, served two terms in the U.S. House and ran the Small Business Administration.

But she had lost the U.S. Senate race to Dan Akaka in 1990 and I never had the impression that she was all that interested in being governor. Had she defeated Akaka — a lovely, decent man but far less a force in the Senate than Dan Inouye — I think Saiki would have been a leader among Republicans and able to work across the aisle.

Leighton Oshima and Mazie Hirono on their wedding day in 1989. Gov. John Waihee and his wife, Lynne, were in attendance for the ceremony held at the official governor’s residence. Courtesy: Viking

As for Hirono, while she had served in the state House, she did not have as distinguished a list of accomplishments nor as forceful a personality as Saiki.

In 2002, after two quiet terms as LG, she became the first Democratic LG to not ascend to the governorship as Cayetano, John Waihee and George Ariyoshi had done before her. That year she first toyed with running for mayor of Honolulu, then barely beat Ed Case in the gubernatorial primary and finally was crushed in the general election by Linda Lingle, the first female governor of Hawaii and one of only two Republicans to serve in that spot. It seemed like Hirono’s political career was over.

And yet it is Hirono, now 73, who has become a national figure, advocating for women and immigrants, lambasting the former president and dropping the occasional F-bomb. To get to Congress she narrowly edged Colleen Hanabusa and a field that included Brian Schatz in 2006. Six years later she handily defeated both Case and Lingle to succeed Akaka in 2012.

The Saiki family in an undated photo. The mother of five says raising her kids gave her the greatest satisfaction. Courtesy: Watermark

By contrast, Saiki never ran for office again after her 1994 race, though she briefly chaired the local GOP again and has stayed involved in party activities.

What do these remarkable politicians have to say about themselves?

Both Saiki’s memoir, “A Woman in the House” (Watermark Publishing), and Hirono’s “Heart of Fire” (Viking) are important contributions to the political history of Hawaii. Both authors demonstrate an encyclopedic recall of people and events decades old, and both share vivid details about themselves and their friends, families and adversaries.

Hirono, who can come off as reserved in public, is especially personal — for example, sharing a lot about a past boyfriend as well as her husband, Leighton Oshima (their first movie together was the Steve McQueen-Dustin Hoffman prison drama “Papillon” and he later took her to her first rock concert — the Doobie Brothers).

Mazie Hirono in 1980, when she first ran for public office. She was elected to the state House. Courtesy: Viking

But the books are as different as the two authors. Saiki takes a straight-forward, “here are the facts” approach, laying out her life in five neat, chronological sections (e.g., “Part I: The Early Years, 1930-1968”).

Hirono’s book is mostly chronological, too, but with more intriguing section titles (e.g., “Part One: Good Girl”). She is also a graceful, confessional writer who recreates extended and revealing sections of dialogue as best as she can recollect them.

Both books contain revelations, at least to this reader. Saiki, who would help craft Hawaii’s abortion law before Roe v. Wade was law nationally, helped her late husband, Dr. Stanley Saiki, with patients bleeding from backroom abortions. Hirono, who came of age and political consciousness in the late 1960s and early 1970s, “never once inhaled, injected, or swallowed an illegal substance.”

I did not know that Saiki was a competitive tennis player and a onetime beauty queen — winner of the 1949 Kapalapala Beauty Pageant and wearing a gown designed and sewed by her mother, Shizue Fukuda. Nor did I know that she served as a flight attendant for Aloha Airlines before becoming a school teacher.

I did not know that Hirono lost a younger sister, Yuriko, when Mazie was just 3 years old, or that their mother, Chieko, anglicized her own name to Laura and may have been inspired to change Keiko’s name to Mazie because she was born on the same day as the Japanese emperor Meiji. And, while Hirono is the only immigrant serving in the U.S. Senate, her mom was born in Waipahu.

Both authors show some humor, too. With little guidance from the Department of Education, Saiki, a longtime school teacher, explained procreation to her students. She writes:

“I guess I made an impression on those ninth graders; decades later, I bumped into a former student who remembered me because of my lesson explaining the purpose of semen. He said he was grateful for my careful explanation. I didn’t ask why!”

Hirono’s maternal grandparents ran a bathhouse on Beretania Street. She writes:

“Plum Bathhouse catered to an almost exclusively Asian clientele, as Europeans, or haoles as they were called in Hawaii, were unfamiliar with the concept of communal bathhouses or had disreputable notions of what transpired there. On one occasion, a group of haole men came to the premises looking for prostitutes. Baachan (her grandmother) explained that nothing of the sort took place there and politely showed them the door.”

Unless I missed it, Saiki never mentions Hirono in her book. Nor does Hirono mention Saiki — even in her chapter on the 1994 election. It’s a curious omission, as the two women along with the late Patsy Mink (she is mentioned in both books, as is Hanabusa) are trailblazing Japanese Americans who struggled with sexism and racism throughout their lives.

Saiki and Hirono also share a tremendous indebtedness to their parents — in Hirono’s case, her mother who fled an abusive husband in Japan. “Heart of Fire” is subtitled “An Immigrant Daughter’s Story.”

In Saiki’s case it is her father, Kazuo Fukuda, who valued education and treated his three daughters as if they could be as successful as any boy. “I like to call him ‘the original feminist,’” Saiki writes.

But there are other major differences.

Hirono, a one-time social worker and lawyer who never had children, did not consider marriage until age 40 and has no children. Saiki, who held a leadership role in the teachers’ chapter of the Hawaii Government Employees Association and was the first woman to sit on the board of one of the Big Five companies (American Factors), was a young mother who raised five children, which brought her “the most satisfaction.”

The biggest difference between the two, however, is political.

Saiki explains why she joined the GOP in a state dominated by Democrats: “My decision came down to basics. I believed in the Republican principles of limited government, individual freedom and fiscal responsibility. The platform of a more conservative approach to spending taxpayer funds also intrigued me.”

She also was disturbed at what she saw as an “entitlement tendency” in Hawaii that led to over-dependence on the government. Most importantly, she says, she believes in a two-party system.

Hirono was part of “a cadre of rising stars” that included Waihee, attorney David Hagino and Carol Fukunaga, the latter who was elected to the state House in 1978 and currently servers on the Honolulu City Council.

“It became an article of faith within our circle of activists that we would be the generation to reimagine the political priorities of the state,” she writes. “Though the Democratic old guard had done important work and earned popular support by championing workers, we had the fervor and drive to create a government that would be more responsive to our state’s evolving needs.”

Those needs included protecting the environment and advocating for clean energy.

Also formative for Hirono was “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan. After reading the book, she realized that, in addition to forgoing marriage and children, “I was far more interested in forging a path to my own freedom and personal agency, and in exploring how I might help to transform a nation in which women, and indeed everyone who hadn’t been born straight, white, and male, were routinely judged as less deserving of the rights and privileges of full citizenship.”

Saiki, a generation older that Hirono, entered politics when a woman could not have a credit card in her own name nor own mortgages. Pregnant women were forced to take maternity without pay, she writes, and with no guarantee of re-employment.

One of Saiki’s many lasting legislative legacies was the addition of the Equal Rights Amendment to the state constitution — something that still cannot be found in the U.S. Constitution.


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About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.


Latest Comments (0)

Unfortunately, it appears that Republicans like Pat Saiki are an endangered species.

judgefoley · 1 month ago

I have great respect for both women. I do feel that Hirono is often unfairly judged and denigrated, mainly by by men, who are threatened by women who are smarter then them and not afraid to " tell it like it is. "Bam!

cavan8 · 1 month ago

Appreciate the synopsis of the books and the historical background of these two women.

Scotty_Poppins · 1 month ago

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