A Personal Interview with Mazie Hirono, Hawaii’s First Woman Senator
Mazie Hirono, the first woman senator from Hawaii and first Asian American woman in the U.S. Senate, took office this year after having served three terms in the Congressional seat once held by Patsy Mink, the first Asian American woman in Congress. Hirono, who immigrated with her mother and brother at age seven from Fukushima, Japan, could neither speak nor read English when she started elementary school. She now serves on the Committees on Armed Services, Judiciary, Veterans’ Affairs, and Environment and Public Works. A stalwart advocate for reproductive rights, she has also advocated for the Military Justice Improvement Act and for meaningful immigration reform. Following is an excerpt from Hirono’s interview on “Women’s Media Center Live With Robin Morgan,” which aired November 23 and is available by podcast at wmclive.com and iTunes. In it, the senator talks about the women who have inspired her, and her commitment to support other women in politics.
When I was running for the seat, at one of the first rallies that I had, I said that the U.S. Senate could use a lot more diversity, and that I brought quadruple diversity to the U.S. Senate because I am a woman, I would be the first Asian woman ever to be elected to the U.S. Senate, I'm a Buddhist, and I'm an immigrant—and someone in my crowd yelled out, “Yeah, but are you gay?” And I said, “Nobody's perfect.” And here we are, Hawaii having just passed marriage equality, something that I have supported for a long time.
[There are now 20 women senators, which is an historic number, but in order to increase those numbers] we need to support women and minorities to run at the local level. We need to get into the pipeline. I don't think that we just come full-blown and say, “Hey, I think I'll run for the U.S. Senate now,” from nowhere. That's pretty tough, so I've said we need to find good people to run, particularly at the local level, get us all into the pipeline, and then for women to support qualified women, [including] with money. And, of course, the grassroots support is important. Emily's List is a huge, huge part of women’s success in coming to the U.S. Senate. And in fact, I formed the Patsy T. Mink Political Action Committee to support pro-choice, progressive, Democratic women running for state seats in Hawaii.
I've gone to at least three or four dinners for women senators [a tradition initiated by Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland], and it's just a wonderful bipartisan gathering. And I've gotten close to Lisa Murkowski [moderate Republican] of Alaska. We have a lot in common, Alaska and Hawaii, and the friendship and support continue, and Lisa is a terrific person to work with.
My friend Patsy Mink continues to be an inspiration to me. We both were in elected office for many years and our paths crossed many times. The last time I ever saw Patsy was at a Fourth of July parade, in 2002, and she invited me to have lunch with her. I was running for governor at that time, and she said to me, “Mazie, you just have to win. You just have to win.” And I knew what she was talking about: this is from a woman who had run for governor, for mayor, for president, for congress—and lost, and she just kept picking herself up. She was a trailblazer in so many ways, and when I got elected to the United States House of Representatives, my very first vote that I cast as a member of the U.S. House was for the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. It was a role-call vote, and when my name was called, I said, “In memory of Patsy T. Mink, I vote for Nancy Pelosi.” I remember Nancy turned around and flashed me this huge smile, and there were a lot of people with tears in their eyes because Patsy left us so suddenly that my colleagues in the house never had a chance to say goodbye to her. Many people came up to me and told me about how much they loved and respected Patsy, so I was honored to get elected to the seat that Patsy held for so long and so well.
My mother is also a continuing inspiration. She had tremendous courage in Japan when she decided literally to escape from a terrible marriage, because my father was an alcoholic and a compulsive gambler, and never took care of his family. My mother decided that she needed to get us all away so that we could have a chance at a better life; [she showed] tremendous courage and risk taking. She showed me that one person can make a difference. So my path to the U.S. Senate was a highly unlikely one, but it also points out not only how one person can make a difference, but also what a great country the United States is.
My greatest pride is to have a mom who showed so much courage, and showed me the way, because I think that if I had grown up in a more typical household, I would not be here. I would not have recognized that there was more to what I wanted to do with my life than, as I’ve said in the past in some groups, making my little self happy. When I got elected to the U.S. Senate, she and I looked at each other, and I know both of us were thinking way back to when we first left—we disembarked from The President Cleveland where we came with one suitcase in steerage. What a long road it has been, and it's not over yet. … All the choices that I've made have led me to this path.
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