Founded as a haven for men facing religious persecution in England, the United States has never been the tolerant utopia some of its Anglican founders envisioned. The country has never had a Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu president and elected its first Catholic president nearly two hundred years into its existence. The election of John Kennedy put an end to a period where it was thought unthinkable to elect anyone of the Catholic denomination to lead the country, yet, even since that pivotal moment, the country has maintained fairly homogenous representation.
On Election Day 2012, however, our elected representation grew a bit more diverse. Nobody was more responsible for this gain than former Hawaii congresswoman Mazie Hirono (D), who replaced former Hawaii senator Daniel Akaka. Hirono is the first Buddhist senator as well as the first Asian-American woman to ever be elected to the Senate; six years ago, Hirono earned the same distinctions in the House.
Hirono enters the Senate at a time of mass political upheaval for the people of Hawaii. The island nation has only had six senators during its statehood. In addition to Akaka’s retirement, senior Senate member Daniel Inuoye passed away and in his spot came former lieutenant governor Brian Schatz. Schatz and Hirono, as first-term senators, represent the youngest state delegation in the Senate, and the people of Hawaii realize there will be large changes from in years past, where Inuoye secured high-dollar earmarked benefits for his constituents.
In an article about Inuoye’s influence in the Senate, the New York Times’ Jeremy Peters wrote “Hawaii, it is often joked here, has three industries: tourism, the military, and Dan Inuoye.” Inuoye persuaded the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force, and Marine Corps to all keep stations on the island even after the outposts outlived their usefulness to national security. Still in mourning for the state’s long-lost senator, Hirono and Schatz face the tall task of living up to the icon’s legacy. Hirono, however, has frequently overcome larger obstacles.
Hirono was born in Japan and spent her childhood on the rice farm of her grandparents, fleeing an alcoholic father whose gambling habits decimated the family’s financial assets and caused Hirono’s mother to send her child abroad. When she was eight, Hirono joined her mother and older brother in a voyage to America to make a better life for themselves. Traveling with only one suitcase that contained all her family’s belongings, Hirono started school without knowing a word in English. She worked since she was in elementary school, simultaneously taking on a job in the school cafeteria and a morning paper route.
Hirono overcame adversity to graduate from the University of Hawaii-Manoa and earned admission to Georgetown University Law School, where she graduated in 1978. Hirono returned home and after two years was elected to office in the Hawaii state legislature, retiring 14 years later to run for statewide office. For the next eight years she served as the state’s lieutenant governor after winning back-to-back elections. She lost a gubernatorial bid in 2002. Hirono was not discouraged, however, and won election to the House of Representatives in 2006 and served there until declaring her candidacy for the open Senate seat, being vacated by Akaka.
Legislatively, Hirono has been most passionate about our nation’s immigration problems, pushing for comprehensive immigration reform and a path to citizenship for all immigrants. She supports the DREAM Act and argues that the rival notion, championed by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, of self-deportation does not have substantive legislative ability to induce change. Hirono is solidly liberal on social issues—voting with the party line on almost all issues regarding gun control and female rights, including abortion.