Political Survivor: A Closer Look at Hawaiʻi’s First Female Senator, Mazie Hirono

Veteran lawmaker Mazie Hirono started her political career as a scrappy liberal consumer advocate in the Hawai‘i Legislature in the 1980s. In 2013, she won election to the U.S. Senate, becoming the first Asian-American female, the first female senator from Hawai‘i, the first Buddhist senator and the only immigrant currently serving. As she runs for a second term we take a closer look at a politician who’s more interesting now than she’s ever been.
Senator Mazie Hirono at Senate Office Building
PHOTO: Michael Bonfigli


While prepping for eye surgery last year, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono got heart-sinking health news: Routine tests revealed cancer—stage 4 kidney cancer.


The Hawai‘i Democrat recalls staring at her doctor in shock in May 2017: “The first thing that I asked him—and this is true—was ‘am I going to die anytime soon?’ He said no, and I said ‘OK, let’s figure out what we’re going to do to take care of what I have.’”


Hirono, now 70, had surgery to remove a kidney and then a rib. She’s undergoing regular long-term immunotherapy cancer treatments as doctors monitor small spots on her thyroid discovered in October. She’s running for re-election to a second six-year term in the U.S. Senate. Other politicians, a normally vocal group, haven’t offered much criticism of her performance and she faced no serious opposition at press time.


SEE ALSO: U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono on Life as a National Lightning Rod Ahead of Election Day


She’s more outspoken and decisive than ever, a champion of immigrants, women, health care rights, veterans and the military and she’s bluntly challenged President Donald Trump in the national spotlight, often on many of those issues.



That Twitter exchange flared up after New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand called for Trump’s resignation over allegations of sexual misconduct. Trump responded on Twitter, derisively tweeting that Gillibrand went to his office “begging” for campaign contributions and would “do anything” to get them.


Hirono followed her call for Trump’s resignation with statistics detailing why:



Hirono is a liberal Democrat, confident about what she stands for—fighting for people who are struggling: immigrants, kūpuna worried about Social Security and Medicare, veterans, the environment and the LGBTQ community. She’s polished but not flashy, an attorney and a lawmaker, more serious than sociable in her public persona. What’s different now from earlier in her career is that she’s dropped a stoic demeanor to reveal the personal emotion that fuels her convictions. And she speaks up regularly, here at home, on the Senate floor, on CNN and National Public Radio.

  Mazie Hirono

Photo: David Croxford


In February, Hirono won the first-ever Courage Award from the Hawai‘i Comprehensive Cancer Coalition, a group that includes doctors, researchers and advocates working on cancer prevention and treatment. In thanking the group, Hirono said, “I do not consider myself courageous or brave; I just got on with it.”


SEE ALSO: 6 Things We Didn’t Expect from Hawai‘i’s 2018 General Election


Some politicians love to work a room, drawing energy from each hand they shake, while others like the power and policymaking but shrink from the people-pleasing. Hirono falls somewhere in between. She’s not a backslapper chatting up as many people as she can. But she’s mostly comfortable out in the community, evidenced recently with a mix of people she’s known and folks she’s never met at Pālama Settlement and the Waīkīki Health Center’s newest clinic. While some found her aloof in the state Legislature, her recent candor brings people across the room or street to chat, compare notes and comment on cancer, health care and national politics.


Cancer specialist Dr. Shane Morita says Hirono makes a big difference by speaking up about cancer. “She’s helping so many people to get through their treatment because she is sharing her own experience,” Morita says. “How many people have the courage to do that? I know people who don’t even want me to talk to their spouses.”

  Brian Schatz

Hawaiʻi Sen. Brian Schatz at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Photo: Michael Bonfigli


Brian Schatz, Hawai‘i’s other senator, says Hirono’s attitude about cancer and her criticism of the president simply reflect who Hirono is. Both Hirono and Schatz started in the state House, then got elected as lieutenant governor under more bombastic bosses: Schatz to former Gov. Neil Abercrombie, Hirono to former Gov. Ben Cayetano. “To know what matters and to focus on it and to not let anyone or anything stop you, that’s Mazie Hirono,” Schatz says.


A child immigrant who moved from Japan when she was 7, Hirono often tells the story of her single mother’s struggle—moving to Hawai‘i to get away from her husband, an alcoholic compulsive gambler. “I am following the kind of example that my mother set for me when she had the courage to bring three of her children to this country so that we could have a chance at a better life in escaping an abusive marriage,” Hirono says.


She remembers worrying about her mother, being afraid of what might happen if her mother couldn’t go to work. To help out, Hirono worked as a cashier in the school lunchroom at both Koko Head and Queen Ka‘ahumanu elementary schools and delivered Hawai‘i Hochi newspapers after school.


Hirono worked hard, learned English swiftly, excelled academically in public schools and graduated with honors from high school and college.


Back in the 1980s when Hirono got started in politics in the state House, she came across as smart, scrappy and concerned about key issues, especially consumers and women’s rights. But her dispassionate approach earned her a nickname of ice queen. She got the job done. Credited for helping to reform no-fault insurance and condo leasehold laws, making them more consumer-friendly, she also displayed leadership on a decidedly unsexy but comprehensive reform of workers’ compensation insurance through the creation of the nonprofit Hawai‘i Employers’ Mutual Insurance Co., or HEMIC. She’s still pushing hard on some of the same issues and she’s no longer shunning the spotlight.


This Time Its Personal



Her staff calls it The Speech. On July 27, Hirono stood up on the Senate floor to explain in a very personal way why health care matters. It was during Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s third attempt at repealing the Affordable Care Act, with a close vote expected.


Hirono wasn’t scheduled to speak, didn’t have prepared remarks and didn’t even use a podium when she stood up on the Senate floor to call for support of continuing affordable health care. The speech has been watched online more than 2.1 million times:


“I lost a sister to pneumonia when she was only 2 years old in Japan. She died at home, not in a hospital, where maybe her life could have been saved. It’s hard for me to talk about this, I think you can tell,” she said as she teared up.


For the careful Hirono, this was flying without a net. “I certainly wasn’t anticipating what was going to come out of my mouth,” she says.  “It was the first time I ever talked about my younger sister. Very few people knew I even had a younger sister. It was very sad. I remember I was 4 years old,” she says.


Without a script, she continued: “You showed me your care, you showed me your compassion, so where is that tonight?” And she banged on the desk three times to emphasize. “Where is the care that you showed me when I was diagnosed with my illness? I find it hard to believe that we can sit here and vote on a bill that’s going to hurt millions of people. We are better than that.” The vote to repeal failed that night with some crediting Hirono’s emotional appeal as the turning point.


A Different Animal

During her tenure as lieutenant governor, Hirono found herself cast as the boring bureaucrat under the blunt and unpredictable Cayetano. She believed she was trying to be a team player.


Even their political alliance began with a fight. Hirono says she admired Cayetano’s independence and supported him for governor in 1994. Then Cayetano invited her to breakfast to talk her out of running for lieutenant governor, saying both of them were independent so she’d be of limited help in getting him additional votes.

  Mazie Hirono Throwback

PHoto: Courtesy of Mazie Hirono


“I said, well, Ben, that’s all fine and good but it’s all bullshit and I’m running,” Hirono says. “Maybe nobody knows who I am now, but by the time they go to vote in the primary, they will know who I am. That is my job.” She got 16,000 more votes than he did in the primary.


In his autobiography, Cayetano credits Hirono with being reform-minded in helping oust former Speaker Henry Peters from leadership after he became a trustee of the powerful Bishop Estate. But he wrote that he was unimpressed with what she was able to accomplish as his No. 2.


In an interview for this story, Cayetano says, “I think maybe it was hard for her when she was lieutenant governor to be like a second fiddle, because when she was in the Legislature, she was a chairperson and an aggressive one at that.”


Now, Cayetano praises Hirono: “I think she’s really found her voice, and I’m happy for her.”


Hirono served eight years as lieutenant governor to Cayetano. They share a footnote in Hawai‘i political history for being the only two lieutenant governors since statehood to run for and get re-elected to second terms.

  Mazie Hirono and Ben Cayetano

Mazie Hirono and Ben Cayetano in 1994 on the big island. Hirono served in the No. 2 spot to Cayetano from 1994 to 2002.
Photo: Courtesy of Mazie Hirono


Former Gov. John Waihe‘e believes Cayetano didn’t appreciate how hard Hirono worked as lieutenant governor. “It’s the worst job I ever had, politically,” Waihe‘e says. “It wasn’t because Gov. [George] Ariyoshi and I didn’t get along. It’s just not fulfilling.”


Cayetano admits that being lieutenant governor is a “Rodney Dangerfield” job, a reference to the comic who made a career out of insisting that he got “no respect.”


Working With Republicans?

After 16 years in the state Legislature, longtime Republican politician, businessman and surfer Fred Hemmings disagrees with Hirono on political ideology. “She’s part of what I consider the cabal of people who’ve had a stranglehold on government in Hawai‘i,” Hemmings says.


Hemmings blames Democrats for lackluster leadership on perennial problems: “The cost of living is prohibitive, the homeless situation is epidemic. The housing costs are out of reach of local people that want to live here and have their grandkids and kids live here. Our taxes
are punitive to the working people of Hawai‘i. I have to lay all the blame at the people who have all the power and that’s the party that Mazie supports.”


In 1994, Hemmings was the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor with Pat Saiki when Cayetano and Hirono triumphed. Yet Hemmings also praises his former political opponent: “She’s got a strong will and she’s a strong woman; her record speaks for itself. Mazie’s been tremendously successful as a political leader for Hawai‘i.”


And Hemmings notes that Hirono worked with him to pass legislation when they were both state representatives: “The only time the Democrats let me pass a bill was [one] co-authored by Mazie to raise the tobacco tax,” he says.


Rep. Tulsi Gabbard praises Hirono’s approach: “Too often, unfortunately, people run for Congress for the wrong reasons: for fame, power, or money. But not Mazie. She is motivated by a desire to serve the people of Hawai‘i and has dedicated her life to doing just that.” When the late Sen. Daniel Akaka retired, followed by the death of influential powerhouse Sen. Daniel Inouye in 2012, pundits and politicians posited that the state would lose not just seniority in Congress, but federal support for key programs in the budget. The state’s delegation in D.C., they said, would basically implode.


“That hasn’t happened, has it?” Hirono says. “We need to adjust to new realities.” She says her leadership style is rooted in persuasion, knowing the issues and building relationships so people listen. “You work with others, you compromise … [while] maintaining your core, and know how far to go and being able to walk away from anything,” she says.


And being able to secure funds for the folks back home is often the elephant in the room, or, in this case, the donkey in the room, for any member of Congress. Schatz says the $1.3 trillion federal government spending bill passed by Congress in March added up to a sizable increase in funding for Hawai‘i.


Life in D.C.

In D.C., Hirono wakes at 5 or 6 a.m., reviews briefing notes from staff and paperwork to prepare for meetings and hearings, and reads the news before going to the office around 8 a.m. She sits on five committees so hearings fill many hours.


Most Tuesday mornings in D.C., her office hosts an informal talk-story session at 8:30 for folks from Hawai‘i to discuss issues or just visit. Then there are floor sessions and other meetings. “I usually finish around 7 or 8 p.m.,” she says.

  Mazie Hirono questions Federal Judge

Sen. Hirono questions federal judge nominees as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee in March.
Photo: Michael Bonfigli


How does she stay connected to the daily lives of Hawai‘i residents trying to pay the rent, cover the mortgage, food and medical bills and get kids through school? “I talk with them,” she says, when she’s home. The Senate schedule allows an average of a week a month at home, with some longer stretches and all of August. Hirono says she meets with a lot of seniors about Social Security, Medicare and other federal programs and stays in touch with the military.


“When I’m home, I’m touching bases, I’m visiting hospitals, I’m visiting schools, I’m talking to veterans groups,” Hirono says.


Her staff says her office handles close to a thousand cases each year—883 in 2017, 875 the year before, 3,121 for 2013-15—most involving immigration issues, veterans, active-duty military, Social Security benefits, visa and passport applications, affordable housing, federal retiree benefits, health care and the U.S. Postal Service.


And she believes her upbringing helps her understand core issues, “because I know what it’s like to be poor, to not have any health insurance, to fear that somebody in the family is going to get sick.”


Sex and Skeptics

As a longtime advocate for women’s rights, Hirono says it was still a tough decision to urge Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota to step down as sexual harassment allegations against him emerged. But she felt it was the right one.



We asked what she thinks about lingering allegations of sexual harassment about the late Inouye.


“It’s very troubling to read about these allegations about a senator that I think so many of us respected and appreciated for all that he did, not just for Hawai‘i, but for the country,” she says, then added, “Sexual harassment and sexual assault should not be tolerated. I make no excuses for anyone who behaved in this way.”


While many found Hirono wishy-washy as lieutenant governor, in the state House, 1980–94, she earned a reputation as an effective lawmaker who asked tough questions as chair of the Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee.


“All the people who saw me operating as lieutenant governor thought that I was this really, really nice person,” Hirono notes with some irony. “While at the Legislature, I would say I evoked fear in people who would come before my committee.” The shift as lieutenant governor was palpable.


SEE ALSO: Why Do So Many Local Politicians Want to Be Hawai‘i’s Lieutenant Governor?


Attorney Bob Toyofuku knows the law, the Legislature and Hawai‘i’s political scene. For decades, he’s honed a reputation as a savvy strategist, a sharp legal mind and an influential lobbyist, respected by folks on various sides of the issues. Toyofuku prefers the sidelines to the spotlight. Yet, each time Hirono asked him for help in an election, he took a public role in her campaign. “Why I gravitated to her is that I always thought she was one of the most honest legislators I met when I started lobbying,” Toyofuku says.


“She’s a smart person and she was tough. She did her homework,” Toyofuku says. “She really does care about doing the right thing.”


In 2002, she intended to run for governor. Then, when Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris said he was planning to run for governor, she changed course and announced she would run for mayor. When Harris subsequently pulled out of the governor’s race, she reassessed and jumped back into the governor’s race. The flip-flop didn’t help her win over skeptics.


But she beat Democrat Ed Case in the primary. She campaigned as an effective lawmaker who passed more than 110 bills over 14 years in the state Legislature while the more confrontational Case passed fewer than 10 in his eight years there. Republican Linda Lingle won.


That loss to Lingle was her first, and only, political defeat. “The race for governor was still the hardest race I’ve ever run,” she says.


Nowadays, Hirono speaks her mind freely, not just on Twitter and in interviews but also talking to people here at home.


Campaigning With Cancer

When she received the Cancer Courage award, Hirono told a crowd of about 300 at the Hilton Hawaiian Village that she’s feeling strong while receiving treatment. She said rib surgery hurt worse than anything she’d ever experienced. “I never felt that kind of pain,” she said. “I must say that at one point when I was recovering I had tears in my eyes because it was so painful and I looked at the nurses and said ‘what the F?’ but I did say the word.”


In April, Hirono officially kicked off her re-election campaign at the state Office of Elections, flanked by supporters. She assures anyone who asks that she’s faring well with the cancer treatment and is optimistic. “I’ve been very open about my health challenge because I think it’s really important for my constituents to know that in spite of the fact that I’m still in treatment that nothing about this treatment prevents me from doing my job.”


No well-known challengers are running against her. Her campaign’s report to the Federal Elections Commission showed $3.6 million received, $1.6 million spent and $2 million on hand as of mid-April.


Fast Facts: Mazie Hirono

Mazie Hirono as Assistant Majority Floor Leader

in the state house.
Photo: Courtesy of Mazie Hirono
  • Born: Fukushima, Japan, Nov. 3, 1947. Moved to Hawai‘i in 1955 at age 7.

  • Education: Kaimukī High School, earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from UH Mānoa in 1970 (graduated Phi Beta Kappa). Earned her law degree from Georgetown University Law Center in 1978.

  • Political tagline: A Voice for All

  • Political offices held: Served in the state House, 1980–94, representing neighborhoods that included McCully, Makiki, Ala Moana and Kaka‘ako. Lieutenant governor (to Gov. Ben Cayetano), 1994–2002; U.S. House, 2006–12; U.S. Senate, since 2012.

Mazie Hirono signs a bill into law
While acting governor, Hirono signs a bill into law.
Photo: Courtesy of Mazie Hirono


  • Political races lost: In 2002, she tried to succeed Gov. Ben Cayetano, won the primary but lost to Republican Linda Lingle.

    • In an interview for this story, Cayetano says, “I think maybe it was hard for her when she was lieutenant governor to be like a second fiddle, because when she was in the Legislature, she was a chairperson and an aggressive one at that.”

  • Opponents in this race: At press time for this issue, Republicans Robert Helsham Sr. and Thomas White and nonpartisan Arturo Reyes had committed to running.

  • Family: Married to attorney Leighton Kim Oshima; one stepdaughter.

Mazie Hirono with husband
With husband, Leighton Kim oshima
Photo: Courtesy of Mazie Hirono


  • Fun facts: Makes ceramic pottery. She’s an opera fan who has seen Wagner’s Ring cycle in five cities. In September, Time magazine named Hirono among 46 Firsts, a series about “women who are changing the world.” She still watches Seinfeld with her husband, indulges in Korean dramas (“It’s like my People magazine”) and reads a lot.

    • Her husband’s take on what people don’t know about her: “Mazie has a very strong sense of humor. And she loves books. She reads books about books. She bought a book about bookshelves.”

Mazie Hirono reading to students
Photo: Courtesy of Mazie Hirono


  • Career: Worked in state legislative positions, 1973–75; Hawai‘i state deputy attorney general, antitrust division, 1978–80; lawyer, Shim Tam Kirimitsu Kitamura & Chang, 1984–88.


Hirono’s Secret Weapon​

Those who’ve known Hirono the longest point to husband Leighton Oshima as her secret weapon. He dismisses the compliment with a smile and the story of when they first crossed paths at a Young Democrats meeting in 1973 at the Waikīkī library. Oshima recalls: “We were duly unimpressed with each other: Mazie in her rubber slippers and pedal pushers with all these tablets and notepads, a huge stack of notebooks. And I’m just like, who takes notes at a Young Democrats meeting?”


Hirono was president of the group. “She looked at me and said: ‘So I hear you’re an attorney’ in a way that made me feel embarrassed to be an attorney.” Oshima leaned conservative; Hirono aligned liberal with state Rep. David Hagino and the palaka power progressives.


Hirono and Oshima dated in the ’70s, then went separate ways. After earning a law degree from George Washington University’s law school, he worked as a litigator in the state attorney general’s office and later in private practice. He married and had a child. She moved to D.C. and went to Georgetown University law school. By the late ’80s, he was divorced. They got back together and married in 1989.


“When we got married, I told him this better be good because I don’t have time for another one,” Hirono says. They’ve been married 28 years.

  Mazie Hirono files for reelection



Oshima works in private practice in Honolulu specializing in insurance defense. His job as a political spouse? “I try to be anonymous and quiet and supportive,” Oshima says.


He comes across decidedly understated, deeply interested in politics and public affairs, affable and comfortable in his own role. When he sat down for our interview, he wore a long-sleeved gray University of Michigan T-shirt over his dress shirt at his law office.


Having spent time in the senatorial spousal club, he notes male spouses aren’t generally asked to take on responsibilities that their female counterparts shoulder. “People don’t ask me to serve on committees, so it’s unfair in that respect,” he says.



Oshima says people do underestimate Hirono. “I think they always have because of her style. She works hard and she works behind the scenes. She’s not out for publicity.”


After the sexual assault revelations about politically connected Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, Hirono began asking every judicial appointee two questions:



“Since you became a legal adult, have you ever made unwanted requests for sex favors or committed any verbal or physical harassment or assault of a sexual nature?” And the second: “Have you ever faced discipline or entered into a settlement related to this kind of conduct?”


She asked each judicial nominee the questions, including recently appointed Hawai‘i judge Jill Otake, who was confirmed.


Colleagues from other states credit Hirono as an effective advocate, including fellow Sen. Elizabeth Warren. “I work shoulder to shoulder with Mazie every day. She’s tough as nails and a fierce fighter for Hawai‘i,” says Warren, a Democrat known nationally for being silenced on the Senate floor by a Republican leader. The move gave rise to the catchphrase, “nevertheless, she persisted.”


Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat from North Dakota, was elected to the Senate the same year as Hirono. She’s also battled cancer, which she believes provides a jolt of perspective.


Heitkamp says Hirono is a wise and practical negotiator with a reassuring  demeanor. During times of heated discussions, she says Hirono offered a lei to help Republican and Democratic senators keep talking productively. Heitkamp says, “I would give the senator talking at that moment the lei to wear so they wouldn’t be interrupted—since senators often talk over each other. So it was Mazie’s lei that helped promote discussion. It’s also symbolic of the type of person Mazie is.”


Life at Home

Back in the Islands, Hirono keeps an eye on what she eats, “mostly vegan before 6,” on a normal workday. She does crave her comfort foods: noodles, miso soup and Hawaiian food, heading to Kaka‘ako’s Highway Inn for poke, poi and squid lū‘au.


In Hawai‘i, Hirono and Oshima live with her mother, Laura, now 92, on Wai‘alae Nui Ridge. The three have helped each other over decades of multigenerational living. The elder Hirono cooked and tended the yard for years until a stroke slowed her down. “Between my brother-in-law and me, we are the primary caregivers,” Oshima says. And he shows off lovely greeting cards she still makes with pressed flowers and greens from the garden.

  Mazie Hirono Throwback

Mazie Hirono visits Kalaupapa.
Photo: Courtesy of Mazie Hirono


Oshima likes to visit D.C., where he can do his own work remotely, but he shudders at the weather and the lack of plate lunches. “They don’t have Rainbow Drive-In,” he says.


Did he ever think Hirono should retire after the cancer diagnosis? Oshima says no: “She loves what she’s doing. This is her purpose in life, to serve. I have to remind myself that she’s a cancer survivor.”


Hirono has a favorite postcancer punchline: “I am here to tell you that I am plugging away, not fading away. My voice remains strong.”


In Congress, Rep. Colleen Hanabusa and Hirono served together. Prior to being in Congress, both worked as attorneys and both were elected to the state Legislature, at different times. In 2006, Hirono beat second-place finisher Hanabusa in a competitive Democratic primary for the U.S. House seat vacated by Rep. Ed Case. Ten Democrats vied for the seat that year.


Hanabusa, who is running for governor, believes people often project their stereotypic expectations on Hirono.


“The misconception that people have is she’s a quiet reserved Japanese-American female,” Hanabusa says. “That is wrong. I think Mazie is someone who picks her battles and speaks her mind.”


Hirono is heartened by the record number of women in the Senate, 22: “I think it’s important for people to recognize that it’s not just white guys who are serving in Congress.”


And Hirono plans to keep advocating for what she believes: “I’ve always been very focused on what I do. I have just not been terribly noisy about it.”