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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, August 19, 2004

First Asian in U.S. Senate broke barriers

 •  Political pioneer led Hawai'i into statehood
 •  Photo gallery
 •  Highlights from an historical life and career
 •  Share your condolences and memories

By Lynda Arakawa
Advertiser Capitol Bureau

Hiram Fong, the son of immigrant parents who grew up as a poor kid in Kalihi, leaves an enduring political imprint as the first Asian-American elected to the U.S. Senate and through his work on immigration reform and civil rights.

Growing up poor in Kalihi, Hiram Fong went on to a political career that spanned almost four decades. He retired in 1977.

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Fong's political career spanned nearly four decades in which Hawai'i's political dominance transferred from the Republicans to the Democrats. But Fong, a liberal Republican who appeared to grow more conservative later in his career, drew support not just from his own party but from Democrats as well.

"I think he was able to appeal to both labor and ordinary citizens, which was quite an accomplishment," said Michaelyn Chou, who is completing a biography on Fong.

Former U.S. Rep. Pat Saiki, a fellow Republican, said Fong was influential in attracting more Asian-Americans into the Republican Party at a time when the party was predominantly white.

"I think what he did was he kept the door open here in Hawai'i for those of us of Asian descent to reach higher," Saiki said. "He set a goal for us, a bar that was very high."

Saiki noted how Fong was able to connect with other groups.

"The party was not that popular, not very strong at that time," she said. "He had a following that was so loyal to him. It was clearly across the board, across party lines, across ethnic lines."

Backed statehood

Fong began his political career in 1938 as a representative in the Territorial Legislature, where he served as House speaker from 1948 to 1954. He was a strong advocate of statehood, appearing in 1950 before the U.S. Senate Committee of Interior and Insular Affairs in support of the movement.

In a step that irritated some in the Republican Party but was symbolic of his bipartisan appeal, Fong formed a coalition of Democrats and Republicans when he could not persuade the GOP majority to re-elect him speaker in 1953.

He lost his legislative seat in 1954, the historic year when the Democrats won control of both the state House and Senate. But Fong was not out of politics for long.

When Hawai'i attained statehood, he ran for one of two seats for U.S. Senate in 1959 and won, beating Democrat Frank Fasi. Fong was re-elected to two more Senate terms and retired in 1977.

Although he was a Republican, Fong was endorsed by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, then a significant political base for the Hawai'i Democratic Party. It was Fong's support for unionizing agricultural workers that won the steadfast backing of the ILWU.

"I talked to people in the ILWU and ... they trusted Hiram, that if he said he would do something, he would do it," Chou said. "And Hiram knew how to count votes. He had ways of kind of working with the union and his fellow senators."

Fong was aware that as the first elected Asian-American senator, his actions would reflect on a community that then had little political clout nationally.

"I think that he was actually concerned whether he would be able to make any kind of impact in the Senate, because he was a newcomer and not a Caucasian. And the Senate, of course, was quite traditional. But he seemed to get along with them very well," Chou said.

Opening to the world

Fong is well-remembered for his work on immigration reform. He was instrumental in the passage of the landmark Immigration Reform Act of 1965, the law that eliminated a discriminatory formula that penalized people from Asia and the Pacific. The immigration reform also gave helped reunite families by allowing spouses, children and parents of adult U.S. citizens entry into the country.

"He called it the immigration act for the world," Chou said. "I think that's very telling. He was so proud of that, opening up the citizenship and immigration to all the countries."

Fong was also a strong civil-rights supporter and fought for expanding and strengthening voting rights and for prohibiting discrimination in housing.

Yet for all his liberal views, Fong was a staunch Republican who continued to support President Nixon up to the day the president resigned at the height of the Watergate scandal. And the senator continued to support the Vietnam War even while the country grew increasingly weary of its duration.

His constituency, however, was Fong's major interest, and he won a reputation for responding to constituents' concerns.

With his seniority and membership on the key Senate Appropriations Committee, Fong could exert influence for Hawai'i's benefit.

Among his achievements, he was proud of his role in obtaining defense highway dollars for Ha-

wai'i, money for the East-West Center and federal appointments for Hawai'i's people.

When his colleagues paid tribute to him on the Senate floor before his retirement, Fong said he didn't seriously believe he would be elected to the Senate when he first ran.

"I only thought it would allow my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to say at some future date that their grandfather and great-grandfather was a serious candidate for the United States Senate from the state of Hawai'i," he said.

While he was anxious about whether he would be accepted once elected, he said, "instead of any resentment or prejudice, I found only aloha — friendliness and brotherhood and respect — aloha for my state and aloha for myself."

Reach Lynda Arakawa at larakawa@honoluluadvertiser.com or at 525-8070.

• • •

"Senator Fong was a role model for me, not because he was a Republican, but because he was a man who never let old age slow him down. He told me stories of going to the office in the morning and pulling weeds on his farm in the afternoon, and (he) kept this up until he was almost 90."

Gene Ward | USAID Office of Democracy, senior democracy adviser

"He was a straight shooter. He was an architect of immigration reform. Once a poor Kalihi boy, he rose through study and hard work to achieve much in government and in business."

Larry Nakatsuka | former Fong legislative aide in Washington, D.C.

"Our state can be proud of all of his accomplishments ... He did so much to help all of us Republicans when we were struggling in the early days."

Pat Saiki | former U.S. Representative

"Hiram Fong was a legend in his time. He was a patriot who served as a colonel in the U.S. Army. He was the first Asian-American speaker of the House of Representatives of the Territory of Hawai'i. He was the first senior senator from the state of Hawai'i. He was a most revered Asian-American leader."

Dan Inouye | U.S. senator

"We were out at a huge lu'au in Wai'anae ... and there were 2,000 people at this lu'au. And at that time, Senator Fong must've been well, well into his 80s. And he stood up on this little rise of land to address the crowd, and it was just the most inspiring and motivating speech that I'd ever heard a politician make."

Linda Lingle | Governor

"Senator Fong ... personified the spirit of bipartisan cooperation as he worked with Republican and Democratic colleagues and administrations to enact landmark civil rights legislation in the 1960s, reform U.S. immigration laws to end discrimination against Asian immigrants, improve job-training programs for workers, and fight for equal pay for women."

Daniel Akaka | U.S. Senator

"No matter how high he rose, he always remembered his roots and earned the support of Hawai'i's working families ... He will be missed by all of us, but his contributions will be remembered for generations to come."

Neil Abercrombie | U.S. representative

"Those of us who have been privileged to represent Hawai'i in Congress after him owe him a deep debt of gratitude for the legacy he left behind for Hawai'i in Washington."

Ed Case | U.S. representative

"We are very sad for this news. We lost a good man."

Wen Chung Lin | Chinese Chamber of Commerce executive vice president

"He was a Republican when being a Democrat was very popular. But he managed to transcend party differences. He wanted to get the job done for the betterment of everybody."

Karen Ah Mai | Diamond Head Neighborhood Board member