Sunday, March 4, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, March 4, 2001

Hirono faces uphill battle in upcoming governor's race

By Bob Dye
Kailua-based historian and writer

She is responding by phone to an unguarded remark I made to a mutual friend: I said, "Mazie is one of the least passionate politicians I’ve ever talked to."

"I am the most passionate politician in this state," she corrects me in a resolute voice.

Mazie and our mutual friend agree to meet me for lunch at Sunrise Restaurant in Kapahulu. The entrance is on Herbert Street, next door to the corner sundries store. Though the restaurant is on the far side of fancy, the Okinawan food prepared there is superbly delicious.

Big, black and shiny "State 2" stops in front of the hole-in-the-wall restaurant. On the narrow street, the limousine looks as big as Air Force Two. Neighbors are curious to learn why it’s there. The petite lieutenant governor steps out.

"Mazie come get take-out? All right!"

Wrong. She is there for a sit-down lunch, and very good it is.

Dressed conservatively in a tan (maybe beige?) suit, she is immediately the center of attention. She speaks Japanese to the other patrons, all of whom are male. They are obviously pleased to see her, but act politely uncomfortable. The few tables are very close together. More respectful than shy, the men put psychological distance between their tables and ours.

"The report that I was offered a prestigious post in return for dropping out of the governor’s race is absolutely false," she says without blinking. "If I had wanted to be a judge, I could have been one a long time ago." Without a trace of doubt in her voice, she says, looking me straight in the eye, "I am running for governor."

A Jeremy Harris political operative later tells me sotto voce, "Perhaps the offer she can’t refuse hasn’t gotten to her yet. But she’ll get one."

It’s no secret that Harris, the reputed Democratic front-runner for that nomination, would like her out of the way. A heated primary battle will be costly for him.

Republican Linda Lingle probably won’t be seriously challenged in her primary, allowing her to save up for the general election.

So, with Mazie facing him in the primary, Jeremy will have to raise twice as much money. Maybe more.

Nothing in Mazie Keiko Hirono’s history suggests that she will step aside for Harris, or any other man. Although she is a respectful and patient lieutenant governor, she doesn’t willingly walk two steps behind Governor Ben.

Recently, she has stepped forward and outspokenly expressed a bias toward working-class people. Because of that she enjoys support from public-worker unions. (The private unions supported Harris in his last election.)

After a public school education, she attended UH-Manoa and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. Her law degree is from prestigious and competitive Georgetown University Law Center. She won seven terms to the state house, beating out men in every race. She was a founder of the House Women’s Caucus. In 1994, she became the first immigrant woman of Asian ancestry elected to a statewide office in America, that of our lieutenant governor.

Her hero is her mom, who left a husband in Japan to bring her two children to Hawaii. "If she hadn’t," says Mazie, "I’d now be the dutiful wife of a rice farmer, doing the washing in a pond."

She is, instead, an unabashed and undetered candidate for the Democratic nomination for the highest office of this state.

But she’s no shoo-in.

What makes Mazie run, and where she stands on issues, are not well-known outside of the Capitol district and the Democratic Party.

Playing second fiddle for six long years has kept her out of the political limelight. And it didn’t help her public exposure when Ben got married. First lady Vicky eclipsed No. 2 Mazie. It was Vicky’s flirtation with elective politics that consumed KHON TV newscasts. And it’s Vicky who is more often on the front cover of the weekly tabloids.

There’s an apocryphal story of two local girls: One gets married on the Mainland and the other gets elected lieutenant governor. Neither is heard of again.

At work, Mazie does "housekeeping" for the Elections Office, Campaign Spending Commission, Commission on the Status of Women and the Office of Information Practices.

The chauffeur-driven limo, handsome office and generous salary of $90,041 are deceiving. They’re public perks without statutory power. The lieutenant governor has the power to change your name, but not much else.

According to a publicity sheet from her office, Mazie has taken on the extra responsibility of reducing the burden of state rules on businesses, and chairs a policy group on teacher quality, among others.

These dispassionate chores may get voters’ heads working, but they don’t get their juices flowing. Being lieutenant governor is not a sexy job. She was more powerful and far better known when she served in the House, where 120 of her bills became law.

Today, both Harris and Lingle are better known statewide. Being a mayor, holder of your county’s highest office, No. 1, gets your name in the headlines. As does leadership in their own political party: Lingle by election and Harris by usurpation, as Hawaii’s chief of solicitations for the Democratic National Committee.

"Why isn't Ben helping you in your quest for the governorship?"

"He does little things."

"Damn little," I say.

"No, he’s been helpful," she insists.

It’s not in the nature of a politician to be helpful to someone who is a heartbeat away.

Should Mazie care about support from Ben? Cayetano’s approval rating quivers in the low 30s. That’s close to freezing. Harris thinks he could have beaten Cayetano in the last governor’s race.

And Lingle might have won it, if she hadn’t "Gone Maui" for the last couple of weeks. The race was hers to lose, and she did.

Mazie faces what perplexed Al Gore, deciding whether or not she needs the boss’s full-on, out-front support. Others have looked at Ben’s approval numbers, and politely passed. She may, too.

Mazie Hirono is known and liked in Washington, D.C. She works hard for her political party by serving as a deputy chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. Because of her efforts, the DNC now has an Asian Caucus. So Mazie didn’t have to join a tour group to get into the Clinton White House. She was invited in to discuss issues facing Asian Americans.

But remember, it was Jeremy Harris whom the DNC invited to Al Gore’s election night bash in Nashville, Tenn. The Harris campaign group raised more than $100,000 in Hawaii for the Gore-Lieberman campaign.

In the upcoming Democratic primary, forget the passion. Follow the money.

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