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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 24, 2003

Sen. Dan Akaka — gracious yet tenacious

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Washington Bureau

Sen. Daniel Akaka sang with the Kamehameha Schools Alumni Association choral group during a ceremony honoring King Kamehameha in Washington, D.C., in 2001.

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WASHINGTON — Three days before the United States went to war with Iraq, Sen. Daniel Akaka gave a thorough and scathing critique of the Bush administration's plans.

The United States, the Hawai'i Democrat said, was not ready for the consequences. The administration had failed to convince important allies, was not prepared for a lengthy occupation and had no clear exit strategy to avoid an extended strain on the U.S. military. American soldiers, Akaka said, should not be sacrificed in the "vain pursuit of ill-defined objectives."

His speech, delivered on the Senate floor, one of the toughest assessments of U.S. policy by a member of Congress before the war, was ignored nationally and barely mentioned in Hawai'i.

Today, the United States has removed Iraq President Saddam Hussein from power and killed his two sons but has not found any weapons of mass destruction, the administration's main justification for war. U.S. forces are under guerrilla attack, and the Department of Defense has acknowledged that the occupation has been more difficult and will take longer than first imagined.

You won't find Akaka at a news conference or on the Sunday morning talk shows chest-thumping about how he believes he was right all along. In fact, when you listen to him, you know he really wishes he were wrong.

"I feel badly about that," Akaka said in his Senate office. "They sort of pushed me off and said they had plans. It's obvious now that they didn't have plans.

"It's going to haunt us."

While Akaka has had his hip and both knees replaced in the past few years and has slowed down, he still has the energy for golf. Here he attends a UH baseball game.

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After 12 years in the Senate and 14 years in the House, Akaka remains something of a mystery in national politics. He purposely avoids the media spotlight and the image- and power-conscious social structure of the capital. Like the state he represents, he can seem remote and out-of-step from the whirlwind that is life here.

Always polite and gracious — he often greets friends and acquaintances with a grandfatherly hug — Akaka has chosen to quietly concentrate on issues important to Hawai'i and on a handful of national topics he has taken an interest in over the years.

He prides himself on getting things done through the power of personal relationships and long-term friendships rather than through rhetoric or legislative deal-making.

As the first person of Hawaiian descent to serve in the Senate, Akaka is expected to be an advocate for his people and for Hawai'i, a responsibility that can bring added pressure. His role, with Hawai'i Sen. Dan Inouye, in securing the 1993 apology resolution — in which the United States formally apologized for its hand in the overthrow of the kingdom of Hawai'i — is probably his finest legislative moment. But his legacy may be defined by whether the federal government ever formally recognizes Native Hawaiians as an indigenous people with the right to self-determination.

Known as the Akaka bill, the legislation would create a process for Hawaiians to eventually form their own sovereign government. The Hawaiian community is not completely behind the bill — some fear it will jeopardize independence claims — but there is agreement among the Hawai'i political establishment that federal recognition is necessary to give some legal protection to Native Hawaiian programs that have been challenged as unconstitutional race-based preferences.

Confident, committed

Though his political achievements are sometimes obscured by of his unassuming personality, the senator and his family are well-known across the Islands. Here he's flanked by his brother, the late Rev. Abraham Akaka, right, and the late governor of Hawai'i, John Burns.

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Behind the scenes, some observers think the fate of the bill may rest on the political pull of Inouye, one of the Senate's senior members, and the influence of Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican now expected to deliver on her White House connections.

Conservative Republicans have held up the bill since 2000, usually through anonymous holds in the Senate, but Akaka said he feels confident he and Inouye can win the votes necessary to free the bill if the Senate leadership agrees to go forward.

During the past month, Akaka has talked with several senators about the bill, and hopes to meet early next month with conservatives who have opposed it in the past. This charm offensive may not be enough to win over critics, but Akaka remains committed. "It's ideological and they may never agree,'' he conceded. "But there is a possibility.''

Akaka has always seen the bill in the context of a broader effort by the United States to repair its relationship with Hawai'i. The senator understands that some Hawaiians will settle for nothing less than the restoration of the kingdom, but he argues that Hawaiians are indigenous people of the United States, and as such should at least be given the same sovereign recognition as American Indians and Native Alaskans.

Akaka and his family — his brother was the late Rev. Abraham Akaka, the nationally known pastor of Kawaiaha'o Church — are well known across the Islands, but his unassuming personality and refusal to call attention to himself have sometimes obscured his political achievements. In his first Senate campaign in 1990, one leading Hawai'i Democrat conceded that few people could name his accomplishments during his time in the House.

Even now, as an experienced legislator, Akaka is reluctant to talk about himself, a trait he shares with Inouye.

In the 1990s, Akaka was behind the Hawaiian Home Lands Recovery Act, which urged the federal government to replace valuable land it acquired when Hawai'i was a territory. The senator also made sure that the government accurately counted Hawaiians in federal data collection, creating a category for Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders.

Akaka also worked to expand Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park and Pu'uhonua o Honaunau

National Historical Park on the Big Island. He encouraged the military to examine the service records of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders from World War II, which led to Inouye and other members of the famed 442nd

Regimental Combat Team receiving the Medal of Honor.

Since joining the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2001, Akaka has had a say in authorizing military programs, which, when combined with Inouye's pivotal position as the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee, means the two can carve out millions of dollars each year for Hawai'i defense projects.


Akaka and friend Loren Miller spent time on a missionary schooner in 1947. Friends say Akaka's strengths are his warmth and humility.

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Inouye and Akaka are a team in the Senate, but their relationship is more professional than personal, according to their staffs. The two are friendly and share much in common — at 78, they are the same age and were born within four days of each other; they both served in World War II — but they don't often see each other outside work.

"They've both been in the business a long time,'' said Jennifer Goto-Sabas of Inouye's office in Honolulu. "They know each others' strengths and weaknesses."

Friends say Akaka's strengths are his warmth and humility, which can mask what his staff describes as an understated yet surprising tenacity.

"He's a lovable person, and most of us are not that lovable,'' said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. On Wednesday mornings when the Senate is in session, Akaka and Inhofe usually attend a prayer breakfast. They have become close through religion, and, since both are Army veterans, also decided to form an Army caucus to monitor military issues.

"It's unusual because he's moderate-to-liberal and I'm a hardcore conservative,'' Inhofe said. "We don't vote alike very often, but it doesn't matter."

Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski, a Republican who served with Akaka in the Senate, remembers when the pair would visit the territories and other locales in the Pacific as part of committee assignments. Akaka, Murkowski recalled, seemed to have a friend or relative everywhere they went and knew all the local songs.

"He could sing right along," Murkowski said. "Danny is the kind of individual who is very genuine and personal with his interest in you."

At home, people who know Akaka describe him as gracious and open-minded. Corbett Kalama, a senior vice president at First Hawaiian Bank who was on an early working group on the Akaka bill, said the senator gave no rigid guidelines on how to approach the subject.

"He epitomizes the word, 'aloha,' " Kalama said. "He's very warm. He's very comfortable. But you still have a great respect for him as a leader."

Apology resolution 'historic'

Daniel Kahikina Akaka

Age: 78

Family: Married 55 years to Mary Mildred Chong (Millie); five children, 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren

Appointed to the U.S. Senate in April 1990 after Spark Matsunaga died. First elected to Congress in 1976.

Of Hawaiian-Chinese ancestry, Akaka is known at home and in Washington as a Hawaiian and a champion of Hawaiian causes. But internationally, he has gained attention for the Chinese side of his heritage. For instance, he accompanied former President Bill Clinton on his historic trip to China in 1998 in part because he was the only member of the U.S. Senate of Chinese heritage.

Kekuni Blaisdell, a Hawaiian sovereignty activist, went to Kamehameha Schools with Akaka and is a family friend. The two men disagree about federal recognition, but Blaisdell calls Akaka's work on the apology resolution historic.

"It's a very profound step in the restoration of our nation," said Blaisdell, who wants a Hawaiian government recognized as independent under international law.

Akaka has had his hip and both knees replaced during the past few years and has slowed down, but he still has the energy for golf and has no immediate plans to retire when his term ends in 2006.

While the Akaka bill is clearly his priority, the senator also has other projects. He wants the government to take better care of soldiers, from recruitment and retention to a more seamless transition into retirement and veterans care.

He has also developed a strong interest in homeland security, warning of the threat of bioterrorism on agriculture and that unwanted radioactive waste could be turned into makeshift "dirty bombs."

On Iraq, the senator wants the Bush administration to be realistic about what it will take to stabilize and rebuild the country. He reminds you, subtly, that people who questioned the administration before the war were marginalized, including retired Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, of Kaua'i, who predicted that hundreds of thousands of soldiers would be needed during reconstruction.

"I think it's going to take a long time to deal with this," Akaka said. "And lots of money."