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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, September 4, 2002

Mazie Hirono: From poverty to quiet power

Today, the second of three profiles of the Democratic candidates for governor. Next week, the Republicans.

 •  Previous profile: Ed Case: Smart, blunt, impatient for change

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Capitol Bureau Chief

Mazie Hirono remembers a time as a child when her mother was ill, running a fever so high that sweat soaked her clothes and she couldn't get out of bed.

The family was poor, freshly arrived from Japan.

"If she got sick there was no pay, no food, literally," Hirono said.

Hirono stood on a stool at the sink of their Makiki rooming house and washed the sweat out of her mother's clothes.

"I had to do everything I could to help her go back to work," Hirono said. "My mother was my whole world. I was frightened."

Hirono figures she would have never entered politics if she had come from a "normal, middle-class" family. The example set by her mother shaped Hirono's personality, and those years of work and struggle helped shape her politics.

Friends say Hirono, marveling at Tina Manise's 7-month-old son Alika's eyelashes at the Labor Day picnic, needs to project her lighter side.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

"I know what it feels like to be discriminated against, to feel powerless, to have landlords who threaten to kick you out, and not having a place to go. So, equality and fairness, equal opportunities are driving principles for me," Hirono said.

She also knows the power of her childhood stories in a state where tens of thousands of voters are immigrants or descended from immigrants, and she weaves those memories into her advertising in what is evolving into a classic Hawai'i Democratic campaign.

It is the sort of campaign story that has helped keep the party in power for nearly 50 years, but it isn't clear whether it will be enough to win today in a state that has changed, and demands still more change.

Hirono, 54, chafes at any suggestion that she is an "old boy," but as the sitting lieutenant governor she represents the establishment more than any other candidate.

She also represents what may be the last hurrah for a class of Democrats who came to power in the 1970s and helped build a state government that was unapologetically interventionist and indisputably liberal.

While in eight years she has had her hand in a number of modest initiatives, her critics say Hirono did little to expand the political heft of the lieutenant governor's largely ceremonial position. Even some who like Hirono's politics complain that she acted like someone simply putting in her time, like a confident executive assuming the big promotion is just around the corner, as it was for George Ariyoshi, John Waihee and Ben Cayetano.

But it is her life story more than her chairing some obscure commission that will likely be remembered by many voters, perhaps even more so than Cayetano's tale of rising up from the tough streets of Kalihi as the poor son of a waiter.

The Hirono plan

Education: Wants a comprehensive program audit of the state Department of Education; would continue to push for more early childhood education; would encourage more character education in schools; favors improving teacher quality by expanding professional development schools and programs; opposes locally elected school boards, but favors decision making at the school and local level.

Economy: Wants to market existing state tax credits to encourage high-tech development to diversify the economy; would create a "technology advisory group" to identify high-tech trends, and a "Red Team" to identify companies that should be wooed or encouraged to expand here; use "sister state" relationships with Asia to promote Hawai'i as a place to do business.

Taxes: Supports tax credits to encourage aquarium, ocean science research center and other development at Ko Olina, and other "responsible" tax incentives directly tied to some public benefit, or aimed at strategically encouraging growth of targeted industries. Favors tax incentives for farms that offer high quality and distinctive products unique to Hawai'i; opposes any tax increases.

One big idea: "I am committed to economic growth and job creation within a framework of cultural, social and environmental values. To this end, I will create an Economic Expansion Council within the governor's office to develop a comprehensive action agenda. The council will be a public/private partnership composed of members who represent local and state government, and the private, public, academic, labor and non-profit sectors. I will direct the council to develop short-term and long-term strategies to keep the jobs we have and create new ones."

Hirono's mother, Laura Chie Hirono, married a veterinarian in Japan who was an alcoholic and a compulsive gambler.

"He never gave my mother a dime. In fact he would sell her things in order to gamble," Hirono said. Her mother lived with her in-laws, who treated her like a slave, Hirono said.

When her mother decided to flee the marriage in 1955, she planned her escape in secret, leaving on what was supposed to be a visit with her children to her own parents. In a painful parting, she left her 3-year-old son with her parents and took Mazie and an older son to Hawai'i, sending for her youngest son and her parents about two years later.

"She determined that she had to get away, and it wasn't enough to even be living in the same country — she wanted to put thousands of miles between them," Hirono said. "That took a lot of courage. I always tell my mom there is nothing I can do, hard as it is to be in politics, to be in public life, that I think is harder then what she did."

Hirono never saw her father again, and he has since died. Her mother, now 78, lives with Hirono and her husband, attorney Leighton Oshima.

Hirono said the family first lived in a room in a boarding house with just one bed, where they all squeezed in by sleeping sideways. Hirono, who was 8, learned English in Hawai'i public schools, and by the fourth grade was so fluent that people could not tell she was from Japan.

Hirono was always a reader — the half-finished books on her nightstand are still piled so high that they occasionally topple over, she said — and that helped her master English quickly. Her first friend at Ka'ahumanu Elementary School was a schoolmate who was a military dependent.

"All of my friends were outsiders like me," Hirono said.

The family moved every two years or so as her mother searched for more comfortable homes or places closer to work at her job as a typesetter for Hawaii Hochi, but they often lived in Kaimuki.

Hirono graduated from Kaimuki High School, where she co-edited the school newspaper with Al Lynde. Lynde, who later dated Hirono in college, recalled it was the conscientious Hirono who always made sure the paper made its deadlines, reaching Lynde at home on a Saturday to demand that he come in and help.

"If I needed a kick in the butt, she would do it," he said.

She majored in psychology at the the University of Hawai'i-Manoa, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1970. During those years she met a leader in the anti-war protest movement named David Hagino who was to play a key role in pulling Hirono into politics.

In 1970, Hagino decided to run for the state House, and asked Hirono to head up his campaign. She brought her organizational skills and drive to the campaign, trooping up and down three-story Waikiki walk-ups to plug Hagino, Lynde said.

Hagino lost that race, but was later elected to the House in another attempt. Hirono, meanwhile, became increasingly active in the Young Democrats and helped lead the House campaigns of Anson Chong and Carl Takamura in 1972 and 1974. Both won, and Hirono worked in Chong's office at the Legislature.

Hirono then took a break from politics, attending Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C., and graduating with her law degree in 1978. She returned to Hawai'i to take a job as a deputy attorney general specializing in anti-trust law, and after two years ran for a seat in the House. She won, and remained in the House for the next 14 years.

The political path Hirono chose was left-of-center and close to organized labor. Labor leaders still speak highly of Hirono, and Hirono, with her childhood memories, prides herself on being "a champion for the working people."

All business after a gubernatorial candidate forum, Hirono talks to audience member Linda Conboy.

Associated Press

In her years in the House, Hirono demonstrated great confidence in the ability of government to intervene to protect consumers, control prices and take care of workers. Although her campaign pitch today is that she has cut government bureaucracy and is an advocate for business, her record in the Legislature suggests she had little faith that businesspeople, left on their own, would do the "right" thing.

She was an early and outspoken advocate of requiring landowners to sell the fee interest in the land under leasehold condominiums to the tenants, and campaigned on a proposal to impose "strict" requirements on developers that would require them to build more affordable housing.

Hirono wanted the state to consider controls on foreign ownership of residential property, and in 1992 proposed an anti-speculation tax of 80 percent on the profits of people who bought residential property and resold it within two years.

She led the 1992 effort to reform the state's no-fault car insurance law, making changes that were supposed to cut costs for insurers in exchange for a 15 percent rate that was imposed on the companies. When few insurers actually cut their rates by 15 percent, Hirono launched a campaign to try to pressure Gov. John Waihee's administration to enforce the new law.

Today, she favors price caps for gasoline and a new law to require drug companies to sell prescription drugs to lower-income people at discounted prices.

"I think both of us come from that era when people really felt that government wasn't a bad thing, government was a place where there were solutions, not necessarily the problem," said Takamura, the former House member who is now executive director of the Hawai'i Business Roundtable.

Mazie Hirono

• Background: Age 54. Born in Fukushima, Japan and emigrated to Hawai'i in 1955. Graduated from Kaimuki High School in 1966; received a psychology degree from the University of Hawai'i-Manoa in 1970; law degree from Georgetown University Law Center in 1978.

• Career: Assistant to Rep. Anson Chong, 1973-74; Assistant researcher for House Speaker James Wakatsuki, 1975; Deputy attorney general in the anti-trust division, 1978-80; lawyer with Shim Tam Kirimitsu, Kitamura & Chang, 1984-88; state House member representing Honolulu neighborhoods including McCully, Lower Makiki, Ala Moana and Kaka'ako, 1980-94; lieutenant governor, 1994-2002.

• Family: Married to attorney Leighton Oshima, 1989; one step-daughter.

• Hobbies: Reading, jogging, collecting.

"To some extent, I guess where I would take exceptions is sometimes we have to have kind of a balance in taking some of these proposals, we have to look at also how it impacts on business," Takamura said. "We need to work at policies that are fair to everyone."

Hirono was also an unabashed feminist, helping to form the first bipartisan women's caucus in the House to advance an agenda that included unpaid family leave, larger childcare tax credits and tax credits for employers that offered childcare for workers.

Hirono prides herself on being an independent sort of Democrat, which may sound odd to voters who watched her play the dutiful role of lieutenant governor to Cayetano for eight years. But she has some scars from old political scrapes to back up her claim.

In her 14 years in the state House, she was twice ousted from committee chairmanships, which are the key to power in the Legislature, because she challenged more powerful Democratic leaders.

In 1985, Hirono opposed then-Speaker Henry Peters, protesting that he had become too powerful as both speaker and a newly appointed Bishop Estate trustee. At campaign gatherings this year, Hirono has recounted how her confrontation with Peters cost her the chairmanship of a House committee, citing it as proof of her tough character.

In 1992, Hirono sided with a liberal faction in the House that attempted to elevate Peter Apo to the speaker's job, but failed. When Joe Souki gathered enough Neighbor Island and other votes to win election as speaker, he stripped his opponents of their leadership positions.

Hirono lost her job as chairman of the Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee, which is one of the most sought-after jobs in the Legislature.

Over the years, she also sided many times with her old mentor Hagino, an idiosyncratic, left-leaning labor lawyer who routinely defied both House leaders and the Waihee administration. Hagino is now supporting Hirono's Democratic rival, D.G. "Andy" Anderson for governor, and declined to be interviewed for this story.

Perhaps the most familiar example of Hirono's "independence" was her well-publicized walk on the picket lines with the striking public school teachers last year. Hirono stopped short of directly criticizing Cayetano's handling of the contract dispute, but said she would have used a different approach to the negotiations.

Hirono has stressed her independent streak in campaigns for years, and it played well with the public, especially as the state economy slumped in the 1990s and the voters expressed increasing unhappiness with insiders at the State Capitol and "old guard" politicking. But Hirono has also worked closely with the small cadre of people who wield most of the political power at the State Capitol and received plenty of help in her career from prominent Democrats.

Hirono's self-described "independence" was also called into question last year when she bowed out of the race for governor and announced she would run for Honolulu mayor. Many political watchers believe Hirono yielded to top Democrats who wanted her out of the race to avoid an expensive and damaging primary contest against Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris.

At Kaimuki High, Hirono was co-editor of the school newspaper.

Kaimuki High School • 1966

Hirono, who re-entered the race for governor when Harris dropped out, said rumors that she stepped out of the governor's race at the request of top Democrats are untrue. She contends she left the governor's race because she believed running for mayor was the best way she could serve the public, and re-entered the governor's race in May when Harris stayed on as mayor.

While the flip-flop hasn't emerged so far as much of an issue, it did nothing to dispel an unflattering image of Hirono as a calculating, ambitious politician who was simply shopping for a race that have her the best shot at victory. Indeed, for well over a year there has been a buzz in political circles that "Mazie can't win," a chatter that is apparently as much genuine grassroots gossip as it is a deliberate campaign to undercut Hirono politically.

Former state Sen. Russell Blair, who for years bargained opposite Hirono in conference committees to try to work out the details of bills, said he thinks some of the doubts about her chances of winning can be traced to old-fashioned sexism, the belief that voters will not trust Hirono with the responsibilities of the state's top political job.

Blair, who said he likes and respects Hirono, said another part of the problem is Hirono doesn't have the gift of connecting personally and comfortably with the people she meets. Hirono can come off as cold and aloof, even to people she knows.

"Mazie doesn't project her personality at all, leading some unkind individuals to suggest she doesn't have one, but I think it's more that she's a private individual," Blair said.

Mazie Hirono's Web site:
"That's kind of an odd thing and that generally limits a person in a political career, or is perceived as doing so. A lot of times people don't know how Mazie feels about them as a person — does she like me, does she not like me? — whereas everybody felt after they spent five minutes with John Waihee that they were buddies for life because he was just so outgoing and so friendly.

"Mazie is a much more private individual than that. She's more comfortable dealing with issues, the more detailed the better."

People who knew her in the old days said they were surprised when Hirono first stepped forward to become a candidate because she seemed too private to be selling herself on the campaign trail.

Although Hirono enjoys an occasional glass of wine, she said she has never been drunk. Her friends said she has a lighter side, but doesn't often show it off in public.

Wayne Metcalf, a supporter of Hirono's who worked closely with her in the state House, recalls attending a House staff party in the mid-1980s at the Richards Street YMCA and watching performers he didn't recognize do a dance and lip-sync Tina Turner routine.

"Tina" then walked by and greeted Metcalf, who was startled to see it was Hirono decked out in a purple wig, make-up and short skirt.

"She has this really dazzling smile, and most of the time when you see her on television she's talking about very serious issues, and so she's necessarily being serious. But she has this kind of dazzling smile that I think really says a lot about the kind of person she is," Metcalf said. "I only wish she would use it to more frequent effect on the campaign trail."

Hirono tells a story about her 1994 campaign for lieutenant governor that may hold a lesson for those who doubt her chances or her resolve. That year Hirono said she was indeed asked to bow out of the race by a leading Democrat, Ben Cayetano.

Cayetano was worried Hirono was not well-known enough, that they both appealed to the same groups, and that Hirono was not the running mate that would bring in the votes he needed to win.

"I just looked at him and said, 'All these arguments you're making are all bullshit. I'm in the race, and by the time people go into the polls on election day, they will know who I am,' " Hirono said. "And I got 10,000 more votes than he did in the primary. It's the only time I ever heard Ben say, 'I was wrong.' "

Tomorrow: Andy Anderson

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8070.