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Hirono’s heart: Hawaiian senator’s rise to success started with mom’s risky move

Hirono’s heart: Hawaiian senator’s rise to success started with mom’s risky move

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"Heart of Fire," by Mazie K. Hirono.

"Heart of Fire," by Mazie K. Hirono. (Penguin Random House/TNS)

"Heart of Fire: An Immigrant Daughter’s Story" by Mazie K. Hirono; Viking (416 pages, $28)


If you want to know what Mazie K. Hirono thinks about someone, just ask her.

Her right-wing colleagues in the Senate? “Republican zombies.” Attorney Alan Dershowitz? “Cynical and idiotic.” President Donald Trump? “A petty, vindictive, spoiled brat.”

Hirono is tough. And as her autobiography, “Heart of Fire: An Immigrant Daughter’s Story,” proves, she had to be.

Born in Japan, Hirono came to the United States when she was 8. Her family was poor, but she had dreams and worked hard to achieved them: member of the Hawaii House of Representatives., lieutenant governor of Hawaii, member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and United States senator.

Her story starts with her grandmother, Tari, who arrived in Honolulu in the ’20s as a “picture wife” – a mail-order bride from Japan, promised to a countryman she had never met. Tari was, she discovered, expected to share his job, cutting sugarcane.

This wasn’t quite the American dream. But the couple stayed together and started a family. They returned to Japan just before World War II. After the war, Tari’s daughter, Chieko, married a young man from the country, against her family’s wishes.

She should have listened.

“Her new husband was doubly addicted to liquor and mah-jongg,” Hirono writes about her father. “He stayed away on ‘business trips’ from the farm for weeks at a time, coming home only to recover and to refill his pockets.”

He sold his wife’s antique kimonos to buy booze. He stole the money for their son’s school uniform. He refused to pay for doctors; they lost one daughter to pneumonia.

Chieko still had one valuable possession: her American citizenship.

Carefully, she plotted her escape. She would return to Hawaii and find a job. Since she had no money for a babysitter, only her two school-age children, including the woman who would grow up to be senator, accompanied her. Her youngest, only 4, would stay behind with his grandparents for now.

Once the plan was in place, they ran.

On March 11, 1955, the mother and her two older children arrived in Honolulu with little but their new American names. Chieko was now Laura. Keiko was Mazie, and her older brother, Yoshikazu, was Roy.

Initially, the Hironos shared a single room in a boardinghouse. Laura worked two jobs. When her elderly parents arrived with their grandson in tow, they went to work, too, as farm laborers. They counted every penny. Once, to buy food, Laura had to raid her daughter’s piggy bank.

Then Laura landed a job as a proofreader at The Honolulu Advertiser. And Mazie Hirono fell in love with books. In 1966, she graduated from high school with honors, then enrolled at the University of Hawaii. Her brother Roy was already working, having graduated from a technical institute.

“My mother, in executing a clandestine plan to flee my father and bring her children to America,” Hirono writes, “had changed our futures.”

But there was additional, personal change ahead. Hirono loved journalism in high school and was drawn to social work in college. She continued to evolve, and during her senior year, politics became a passion.

She ran a friend’s campaign for the statehouse. Two years later, before entering Georgetown Law School, she ran another.

After Hirono returned to Hawaii with her law degree, she decided to run herself.

Her campaign quickly became a family affair. Her mother made her floral headdresses to wear at campaign events. Her mother and grandmother silkscreened hundreds of T-shirts for supporters. And Hirono overcame her own reserve to tirelessly knock on doors, ask for money and votes.

Hirono won.

And she kept on winning, serving in the statehouse for 14 years. “I was able to get more than one hundred and twenty of my bills enacted into law,” she notes.

Plenty of them were like so much legislation – matters that affect our daily lives, such as no-fault auto insurance and condo regulations. True, they were not the sort of sexy laws that provided opportunities for desk-pounding oratory or even many headlines. But, Hirono writes, “if a bill would help make life better or easier for working people and consumers, it had my full attention.”

Hirono began considering statewide office and re-establishing old connections. She resumed seeing a former boyfriend, attorney Leighton Oshima. They married in 1987 at the governor’s mansion. In 1994, Hirono entered her first statewide race for lieutenant governor and won, serving two terms. The future held only possibilities. In 2002, she ran for governor.

And lost.

“It was the worst possible year to be a Hawaii Democrat,” she writes. The local party was in disarray, and the state’s economy was faltering. Her campaign foundered. President Bill Clinton turned up to campaign for her but may have only cost her votes. Many Hawaiians, Hirono explains, remained disgusted by the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Frankly, Hirono wasn’t a big fan of his either, although she admired Hillary. The tipping point finally came during the 2008 primaries, when she heard that Clinton told Ted Kennedy that Barack Obama was someone who just a few years ago “would have been carrying our bags.”

“It was one more remark in a pattern of race-tinged comments that the former president had made,” she says. “I decided to throw my support to the candidate from my home state.”

By then, Hirono was fully back in politics. After losing the governor’s race, she returned to her roots, helping other progressive politicians. Then, in 2006, Hirono ran for national office. After she won the election to the U.S. House of Representatives, she explained that, as a Buddhist, she would not follow tradition and take her oath on the Bible.

“It’s about time that we have people of other backgrounds and faiths in Congress,” she told reporters. “What happened to the separation of church and state?”

In 2012, she ran for the Senate, announcing at a rally that she would bring “a quadruple dose of change. I will add to the number of women in the Senate. I will be the first Asian American woman ever to serve. I will also be the only immigrant and the only Buddhist.”

“Yeah, yeah,” someone called out. “But are you gay?”

“Nobody’s perfect,’ I shot back, and everyone erupted into laughter.”

Hirono won that election, and her next, but her years in the Senate have been hard and are getting harder. As a legislator, she prided herself on finding compromises. That changed in 2016 with Trump’s win.

People like Lindsay Graham, once a “pragmatic consensus builder,” had turned into “an uncritical groupie, underwriting the policies and cruelties of the most fraudulent president in modern history.” Rather than debate legislation, Mitch McConnell now tabled bills indefinitely, dooming them to “languish in the black hole of (his) inhumanity.”

Little was getting done. While Hirono labored to hold powerful people to account – calling early for Trump’s resignation and eviscerating Supreme Court candidate Brett Kavanaugh – they felt like lost causes.

Still, she feels there are causes worth fighting for and fighting hard. And she insists that, even with a new administration and a slim majority, the worst thing any Democrat can do is relax.

“We are in a knife fight,” Hirono warns. “Don’t bring a teaspoon.”

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