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The Honolulu Advertiser
Updated at 7:08 p.m., Saturday, September 28, 2002

U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink dies today at Straub clinic

 •  Special vote possibly needed

By Dan Nakaso
Adertiser Staff Writer

Patsy Takemoto Mink, who personified liberal Democratic politics in Hawai'i and Washington for more than 40 years, died today after battling viral pneumonia for more than a month. She was 74.

Congresswoman Patsy Mink died today at Straub Clinic & Hospital.

Advertiser library photo

Mink was the first minority woman to serve in Congress. Over the course of 24 years at the Capitol, she never waivered from her role as a proud, partisan, liberal, feminist Democrat who always chose her own path, even when it was a solitary one.

Mink was a primary force behind the landmark Title IX legislation that opened up school athletics and academics to women in 1972. She was involved in writing scores of other significant laws affecting families and women, from early childhood education initiatives to family medical leave.

She had been running for reelection to the 2nd District representing rural O'ahu and the Neighbor Islands. Mink's name will remain on the Nov. 5 ballot. If she wins, the seat will be declared vacant and a special election will be held 60 to 120 days later.

Mink's office announced her death in a statement released about 1 p.m. today. The statement said her husband, John, and daughter, Gwendolyn, had been at her side since she was hospitalized Aug. 30 at Straub Clinic & Hospital. The viral pneumonia was brought on by a case of chickenpox and Mink was placed in the intensive care unit Sept. 1.

Mink's death drew condolences from across the state and nation today.

"It's a great loss for Hawai'i and our nation but in a way it's a personal loss for me because her political career almost parallels mine," U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye said. "But her career was a brilliant one. She was the great voice and advocate of women's rights, not just freedom of choice but college sports. She was a great voice for peace and education and she will be sorely missed in the Congress."

In 1964, Patsy Mink, left, draped in lei, departed Hawai'i to serve her first term in Congress. She was accompanied by her daughter, Gwendolyn, and husband, John.

Advertiser library photo • Dec. 21, 1964

U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta called Mink "an American hero," and described her as "an inspiring voice for the people of her state, and for the forgotten, the disenfranchised, the poor."

"Patsy was a petite woman with a powerful voice and a peerless reputation as a champion for equal opportunity, civil rights and education. She was a courageous and tenacious leader whose lifetime of public service made Hawai'i a better place," U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka said in a statement.

In addition to her years in Congress, Mink served in the Hawai'i Territorial Legislature, in the U.S. Interior Department under President Jimmy Carter and on the Honolulu City Council. At various points in her career she ran unsuccessfully for Honolulu mayor, governor, U.S. senator and, briefly in 1972, for president as a symbol of protest against the Vietnam War.

Mink, who earned her law degree in 1951 but was drawn almost immediately to politics, devoted her entire adult life to public office, serving in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1965 to 1977 and from 1990 to 2002. She said she never thought of retiring.

"I'm not ready to turn it over to anybody," she said in 2000, explaining why she was running for yet another term in the House at age 72. "I don't feel my work has come to an end. I still see so much that needs to be done."

Mink always considered herself a "Kennedy liberal," came into office as part of the huge Lyndon Johnson "coattails class" following President John F. Kennedy's assassination.

Her immediate introduction into Johnson's "Great Society" style of activist politics stayed with her throughout her career, even as the country turned more conservative and other Democrats tried to quietly slide toward the political middle on issues like national defense, tax cuts and spending on social programs. Yet once she was firmly established in Congress, Mink also had the luxury of rarely facing serious opposition from Democrats or Republicans.

Most recently, she was publicly skeptical of the government's response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. She raised concerns about the potential loss of civil liberties and the creation of a new Department of Homeland Security. And she was one of only 11 members of the House who refused to vote for a resolution condemning terrorist attacks on Israel because she said the measure would have cut off diplomatic channels with the Palestinians.

Mink joined the NAACP in the early days of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and had a nearly 100 percent voting record on votes that were supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the League of Conservation Voters. In 1992, McCall's magazine named her one of the 10 best politicians in Congress.

Patsy Mink and the late Sen. Spark Matsunaga discuss a point in 1968.

Advertiser library photo • Oct. 31, 1968

Her brash style and unwavering commitment to social causes often put her at odds with more conservative members of Congress, and even with members of the Hawai'i congressional delegation.

Mink was a passionate Democrat but she was anything but a quiet loyalist within the Hawai'i Democratic Party. In fact, she operated somewhat as an outsider, loyal to her own agenda but not necessarily to the agenda of those who sought to maintain political control above all else.

Mink was also never much of a gladhander, whether it be at political functions or even her own campaign events. She was private and somewhat aloof — some would say gruff — and made it clear that she was never terribly concerned what people thought of her, personally or politically.

On several occasions — at least once successfully — party insiders tried to keep Mink off the official Hawai'i delegation to a national nominating convention. She listened to her own convictions, not to the dictates of party leaders.

Born into the Maui plantation community of Pa'ia on Dec. 6, 1927 to Suematsu and Mitama Takemoto, Mink's first taste of leadership came as student body president and valedictorian at Maui High School in 1944.

Fascinated by what she called "life processes," she began pre-medical studies at the University of Hawai'i. She transferred to a small college in Pennsylvania, and then to the University of Nebraska, where she fought and won a battle against segregated student housing.

After returning to Manoa to graduate, Mink took a job at the Honolulu Academy of Arts but became restless. She applied to dozens of Mainland medical schools but was rejected by all of them because of her gender.

She decided to try law school and was accepted by the prestigious University of Chicago. There, she met John F. Mink of Pennsylvania, a doctoral student in geology. They were married in 1951 and soon their only child was born.

The Mink family moved to Honolulu and Patsy Mink began a private law practice, the first Japanese American woman attorney in Hawai'i. But as a woman and as an Asian, she recalled years later, she simply wasn't well-accepted by the legal "club" of the day.

Congresswoman Patsy Mink's official photo.

Advertiser library photo

She said she quickly realized that unless she actively worked to change things, she would never get anywhere professionally.

"I didn't start off wanting to be in politics," she once told a reporter. "I wanted to be a learned professional, serving the community. But they weren't hiring women just then. Not being able to get a job from anybody changed things."

Her frustration pushed her to join the Democratic Party at a meeting at Mabel Smyth Auditorium in Honolulu.

When the Young Democrats organization was born at the party's 1954 convention, Mink was chosen president, an early sign that Mink would never be satisfied to simply go along with the majority. Historian Lawrence Fuchs has written that the Young Democrats was created precisely to keep returning war veterans such as Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga from taking total control of the Democratic Party.

Mink was elected to the Territorial House in 1956 and to the Territorial Senate in 1958. Her first electoral loss came in 1959, when she was defeated in the Democratic primary race for Congress by an up-and-comer named Daniel Inouye.

She returned to the state Senate, where she chaired the Education Committee.

But Mink kept her eye on Congress and in 1964 she was elected to her first term. Simply as a woman and as an Asian, Mink stood out in the nearly all-white, all-male House of Representatives. But her blunt, forceful, even harsh style of speaking, especially on such issues as civil rights, public education and the Vietnam War, gave Mink national exposure.

"She didn't mind believing in things and letting people know about it," said former lieutenant governor Tom Gill, who served in Congress from 1962-64

In 1966, she won reelection by the highest vote tally ever recorded at that time in the state.

Mink was one of the earliest and loudest opponents in Congress to the war in Vietnam, and she accompanied fellow Rep. Bella Abzug of New York to Paris to talk to participants in the Vietnam War peace talks.

It was a position that did not endear her to many of her own constituents and also grated on the politically influential Hawai'i veterans of World War II. During a heated 1968 reelection campaign against former Mayor Neal Blaisdell, her opponents painted her as "a friend of Hanoi" and "Patsy Pink" because of her anti-war voting record.

Despite criticism, Mink held strong to what she believed was right. "I don't think that weighing the mail is the answer," she once explained.

U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink helped dedicate the Duke Kahanamoku stamp last month, joining entertainer Danny Kaleikini and U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye.

Advertiser library photo • Aug. 24, 2002

Mink won 2 percent of the vote in Oregon's 1972 Democratic presidential primary in a campaign that made the withdrawal from Vietnam as its only issue. Even as a critic of the war, Mink found she could count on strong support from organized labor and from the $5 and $10 backers upon whom she had always relied.

Mink and Abzug also joined forces to move feminist causes from the fringe of politics to the mainstream. In what is perhaps Mink's must enduring legacy, she was among the authors of the landmark Women's Educational Equity Act, known as Title IX, which required equal support for men and women in academics and athletics at any institution receiving federal money. The law triggered a boom in women's college athletics programs.

"She earned an honored place in American history as the author of Title IX," said U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, who represents Hawai'i's 1st District. "Her legacy survives on every school and college campus in America."

After 12 years in the U.S. House, Mink sought a seat in the Senate in 1976, but she lost in the Democratic primary to Hawaii's other House member, Spark M. Matsunaga.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter named Mink as assistant secretary of state for oceans and international, environmental and scientific affairs.

Later, she became president of the liberal political action group Americans for Democratic Action, a national post she held for three years. The group tried to promote her as a potential vice presidential candidate.

Back on O'ahu and living in Waipahu in 1983, she was elected to the City Council and served more than two years as chairwoman.

Clearlty restless and missing the ability to influence more than zoning regulations, Mink ran for governor in 1986 but lost in the primary. Two years later, she ran for Honolulu mayor and lost.

In 1990, she got another shot at Congress when Daniel Akaka was appointed to fill the Senate vacancy left by the death of Spark Matsunaga. She won the special election to serve out Akaka's term in the House.

But Mink returned to a Capitol that was a far different place than it had been in the 1970s. Old liberal friends like Abzug were long gone, many of them replaced by a new breed of centrist Democrat less friendly to labor and expansive social programs. When Republicans took over the House in 1994, Mink found herself marginalized, and, still unwilling to compromise, she also found that her legislation languished.

In addition to her husband and daughter, Mink is survived by her brother, Eugene Takemoto of 'Aiea.

Funeral arrangements were pending. The family asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Patsy Takemoto Mink Education Fund for Low-Income Women and Children, which the family plans to establish in her honor.

Advertiser staff writers Mike Gordon, Vicki Viotti and Lynda Arakawa contributed to this report. The Associated Press and Gannett News Service also contributed to this report.

Correction: U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink was re-elected to Congress in 1990. An earlier version of this story had other information.