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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, September 29, 2002

Hawai'i, nation lose 'a powerful voice'

 •  Political fallout raises hopes and doubts
 •  Mink remembered for her resolve, integrity
 •  What happens next?
 •  A photo retrospective
 •  Editorial: Patsy Mink: A true champion of the people
 •  Ferd Lewis: Mink paved way for female athletes to get in game
 •  Send your tributes, condolences

Advertiser Staff

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

Rep. Patsy Mink's career was a string of firsts, including first Japanese American woman attorney in Hawai'i and first minority woman in Congress. She said barriers to advancement turned her into a rights advocate.

Associated Press

Mink was the first minority woman to serve in Congress. Over the course of 24 years at the Capitol, she never wavered 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 re-election 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. yesterday. It 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. Mink was placed in the intensive care unit Sept. 1.

Her death drew condolences from across the state and nation.

"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," said U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye. "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."

Patsy Takemoto Mink

• Born: Dec. 6, 1927 in Pa'ia, Maui

• Died: Sept. 28, 2002 in Honolulu

• Member of Congress: 1965 to 1977 and 1990 to present. First minority woman elected to Congress.

• Assistant Secretary of State, Oceans and International, Environmental and Scientific Affairs, U.S. Department of State, 1977 to 1978

• National President, Americans for Democratic Action, 1978 to 1981

• Hawai'i State Senate, 1962 to 1964

• Hawai'i Territorial Senate, 1959

• Hawai'i Territorial House of Representatives, 1956 to 1958

• Member of the Honolulu City Council, 1983 to 1987. Council Chairwoman, 1983 to 1985

• Attorney in private practice, 1953 to 1964 and 1987 to 1990. First Asian American woman to practice law in Hawai'i.

• Survived by husband John Francis Mink, hydrologist/geologist and daughter Gwendolyn (Wendy) Mink, professor of women's studies, Smith College, Mass.

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," said U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka 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," who came into office as part of the huge Lyndon Johnson "coattails class" after 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 slide quietly toward the political middle on issues such as 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.

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 party. In fact, she operated somewhat as an outsider, loyal to her own agenda but not necessarily to that of people who sought to maintain political control above all else.

And she was never much of a glad-hander, 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 about what people thought of her, personally or politically.

On several occasions — and 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, 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 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 had their only child.

Rep. Patsy Mink, meeting with reporters on Capitol Hill in 1997, once said of criticism, "I don't think that weighing the mail is the answer."

Associated Press

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 an Asian woman, she recalled years later, she simply was not well accepted by the legal "club" of the day.

She quickly realized that unless she worked actively 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 she never would be satisfied simply to go along with the majority. Historian Lawrence Fuchs has written that the group was created precisely to keep returning war veterans such as Dan Inouye and Spark Matsunaga from taking 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 up-and-comer Inouye.

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

But Mink kept her eye on Congress, and in 1964 was elected to her first term. Mink stood out simply as a woman and an Asian in the nearly all-white, all-male House of Representatives. 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 Lt. Gov. Tom Gill, who served in Congress from 1962 to 1964.

In 1966, she won re-election 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 re-election 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 to what she believed was right. "I don't think that weighing the mail is the answer," she once explained.

Mink won 2 percent of the vote in Oregon's 1972 Democratic presidential primary in a campaign that made the withdrawal from Vietnam 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 joined forces again to move feminist causes from the political fringe 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 lost the Democratic primary to Hawai'i's other House member, Spark M. Matsunaga.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter named Mink 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.

Clearly 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 the Capitol she returned to was a far different place than it had been in the 1970s. Old liberal friends such as 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, found also that her legislation languished.

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

Funeral arrangements are 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.

The Associated Press and Gannett News Service contributed to this report.

Correction: Gwendolyn Mink is a professor of women's studies at Smith College. Information in a previous version of this story was incorrect.