the body politic

Mazie Hirono Is Okay With a Little Confrontation

A long talk about anger with the gloriously foulmouthed senator from Hawaii.

Photo: SOPA Images/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Photo: SOPA Images/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

“I am a regular person, so, sure, I’d like to be liked,” Mazie Hirono, the 73-year-old senator from Hawaii, says with a smile. “But it doesn’t bother me that there are people I trigger to really dislike me. That doesn’t stop me from saying what I want to say.”

Heart of Fire, Hirono’s forthcoming memoir, lays out the stories of three generations of women. There’s her grandmother, a “picture bride” sent from Japan to Hawaii in the 1920s to marry a migrant sugarcane farmworker; she returns to Japan just before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Hirono’s mother, Chieko “Laura” Sato Hirono, marries a chronic drinker and gambler whose family brands her with a hot iron when her breast milk dries up. She escapes that marriage by returning to Hawaii in 1955, bringing 7-year-old Mazie and her older brother, Roy, with her but temporarily leaving a younger son, Wayne, behind.

Hirono writes of those first years in the United States — Laura worked two jobs while Mazie and Roy learned a new language and ways to manage their hunger and fear — then of the family’s slow climb into the middle class and her own ascent to political power. Elected to the state legislature in her 30s, Hirono would serve as Hawaii’s lieutenant governor, lose a gubernatorial bid, and eventually come to Congress. In 2012, she became the first Asian American woman (and only the second woman of color) ever elected to the United States Senate; she is currently the only immigrant serving there.

Hirono’s multigenerational tale is built around her political and feminist awakening to how angry she is — at both inequities and the men around her who have profited from them. In places, Heart of Fire reads like a kind of epic burn book, flaying many of the guys who expected her to serve their needs and ambitions, from her longtime boyfriend, Allison, to the young male activists who become the powerful Democratic men of Hawaii politics and seem to imagine Hirono as their permanent sidekick, not her own political force. Even her beloved and supportive husband of 30 years isn’t spared: Hirono recounts how, when they first dated in their 20s, he urged her to attend Georgetown’s law school, promising to wait for her. Instead, he took up with another woman.

Most powerfully, Heart of Fire is about Hirono’s growing determination to loosen her tongue. We spoke recently about how she learned to give voice to her frustrations with the obstructionist patriarchs in her party and her life as well as those she battles on the right.

RT: I want to begin by talking about the men in your life, personally and professionally. Because you go to town on a lot of them. 

MH: Yes! When I first ran for office, the dominant culture did not have very high expectations of women, certainly of Asian women. Even though I was raised by a highly courageous, independent mother, I had a view of myself as some kind of a helpmate. It took me quite a while to realize, Hey, wait a minute!

RT: Tell me about Allison Lynde, the smart but competitive man you dated on and off for 18 years, because he’s such an important part of your story, even back at the high-school paper, where you first met him. 

MH: It’s so typical, don’t you think? That the girl just busts her ass for three years to get to the point where I’m going to be editor-in-chief of the school paper, and the year I’m supposed to be in charge, the paper adviser says, “There’s gonna be this guy named Allison” — who I’d never heard of — “and he is going to come in as co-editor.” He demanded to be made editor-in-chief! Awesome, isn’t it, that they just think they can do that? And then they proceed not to do any of the work. I finally said, This is bullshit. Actually, I didn’t say bullshit in those days. My language has become a lot more colorful since then.

RT: You write about how competitive he was with you throughout your relationship: “It wasn’t till much later that I grasped how badly Allison needed me to believe in his superior intellect … His reluctance to affirm me was an unconscious effort to bolster his own self-esteem, as if he could elevate himself by subtly putting me down.” 

MH: It took me a while to be done with men telling me what to do. But there were times when Al was very generous and supportive. That’s why it was the kind of relationship where it keeps you going for much longer than you would want it to. The break finally came when he asked me to marry him. That was really the decisive moment when I said to myself, This can’t go on.

RT: As you describe it, you’re in your 30s by that time, working in the state legislature, sitting on the couch, drafting a bill about auto insurers while he’s making himself a cup of coffee. Out of nowhere, he proposes to you, and you write that, as he presses you to answer, he’s sipping his coffee: “Irrelevantly, or perhaps not, it occurred to me that he hadn’t asked if I might want a cup of coffee, too.” You’ll excuse me, Senator, but I screamed. 

MH: Even after 18 years, it took me two weeks to think about whether to accept his proposal. And he had to call me to follow up: So what’s the answer?

RT: You were confident from a young age that you didn’t want traditional early marriage and motherhood. In your 20s, you go to law school on the mainland rather than stay and work for some of your male friends who were Hawaii’s rising political stars. 

MH: I’m really glad my mother never once said to me, “When are you getting married? When are you having children?” Not once. I once asked her why, and she said to me, “I screwed up my life by getting married, so why should I tell you what to do?” My mother was extraordinary in supporting me in all the different things I would do, which were outside the normal stuff that my classmates engaged in. Very few of my high-school classmates, for example, protested the Vietnam War — in a class of 750!

RT: But even given the support your mother offered, it still took you time to get comfortable with more explosive anger.

MH: Yes. For example, today I would never put up with the kind of behavior I experienced with [former Hawaii state legislator] David Hagino. He was one of the male leaders of our little cadre of antiwar activists on the University of Hawaii campus who acted as though he was my mentor. And I never describe anyone as a mentor. Even Patsy Mink [the former Hawaii congresswoman who was the first Asian American woman elected to Congress]. I describe her as an inspiration but not a mentor. I do not put people on a pedestal.

When I was in law school and he stayed in Hawaii to run for Congress, he wrote me this horrible letter. He went on about how I was just this shallow person attaching myself to the antiwar activists like him to validate myself and I had nothing to offer. And I never confronted him about it: I never said, What the fuck is this?

RT: Then when you represented the same district, your relationship again soured. 

MH: When our district was redrawn, some of my colleagues said, “David’s going to stab you in the back.” And I said, “No, no, we’re going to work it out.” But he did stab me in the back, claiming the district for himself, which meant that I had to move. The idea of shaking with anger? I literally shook with anger. But ultimately, he did me a great favor by doing that because I became much more my own self.

RT: You don’t just write about frustrations with men. You also describe conflicts with women, including in your own party. Can you tell me about your interaction with former Maryland senator Barbara Mikulski?

MH: When I got there, I wasn’t the most vocal person in the Senate, but I wanted to be on the Appropriations Committee and Barbara was the head of it. I told her I was interested. She began to lecture me about how I needed to be more outspoken. She used to bring bipartisan women together in her hideaway office to chat. After one of these events, just the Democratic women stayed, and she said, “For example, Mazie …,” and repeated her call for me to be more outspoken. I said, “You know, Barbara, you don’t know anything about me. You don’t know what it took for me to get here. And I am not here to be lectured on how I’m supposed to be by you.”

We’re good friends now. After I began to speak up more, she apologized to me, saying, “I don’t know what I could have been thinking when I spoke to you that way.” But it’s very much a part of people’s ideas about Asian women; we’re supposed to be very compliant and quiet. And there were people who thought of me that way.

RT: The other woman you write about having pretty open conflict with is Susan Collins, the Republican senator from Maine, but in the past two weeks, you’ve been working alongside her.

MH: She and I had our disagreements around Brett Kavanaugh, but I was hearing concerns Susan had about the AAPI hate-crime bill that I am working on. She felt that references in the bill tying the rise in unprovoked attacks against Asian Americans to COVID-19 were too limiting, so we worked it out.

RT: Do you worry that hate-crime legislation, while trying to bring awareness to the rise in violent crimes against the AAPI community, increases criminalization and policing, including in communities that are already vulnerable?

MH: As far as I’m concerned, the focus is on the victims, not on the perpetrators. It doesn’t amend any existing laws; these incidents can already be prosecuted. The purpose of this bill is to collect data. It’s reporting-focused, so we can gauge the depth and extent of these kinds of attacks. Beyond the substance of the bill, it will be a recognition that this is a huge concern for our community. In many instances, the AAPI community feels invisible. From the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Japanese internment camps, the racism in our country is never far below the surface, and AAPIs are always viewed as foreign and the other, so to see people with platforms being able to speak out is important.

RT: Certainly, some of the Republican enthusiasm for it, though, is about increasing penalties and incarceration, no?

MH: There are about 20 amendments that have been proposed, and two relate to hate crimes being subject to the death penalty. [Hirono opposes the death penalty, and has said that “the way it is applied in our country is racist and immoral.”] Most of those kinds of amendments would be what I call “ideological posturing.”

RT: In the book, you write vividly about your disgust for many of your right-wing peers, describing their “puppetlike abandonment of conscience,” calling them “simpering Republican zombies” and “cowardly sycophants who had abdicated their responsibility to the American people” in favor of “vitriolic hatred of the other.” You also write about bipartisan successes, teaming up with Alaska Republican Don Young on education funding for indigenous communities and even about decent interactions you had with Lindsey Graham, pre-Trump. 

MH: I am more than happy to work with my Republican colleagues. But on the big things, I know we’re not going to come to an agreement, so I don’t have heartfelt discussions with them. What is there to say when they refuse to stand up to this hideous person called Trump? I watch how they vote. They vote against health care for millions of people without even batting an eye? My gosh. They perpetrate the big lie leading to all these state legislative bodies trying to enact overt voter suppression and steal people’s votes. The Trump years unlocked my vocal powers, to speak plainly.

RT: You obviously felt anger prior to Trump. What spurs women to get to the point — pardon my own language — at which they No Longer Give a Fuck?

MH: For me, it was a combination of external stimuli: What’s going on with my health [Hirono was diagnosed with stage-four cancer in 2017], Republicans trying to get rid of health care, Trump doing all the horrible things. I didn’t ask for attention, but I realized that people were longing for someone to speak plainly and say “This is just such fucking bullshit!” People want to know that there are people like me and others who are fighting for them.

Anger in men is so much more accepted. Case in point is Kavanaugh — how angry he was. He behaved in ways that, coming from a woman, would have been deemed out of control, but coming from Kavanaugh, it was about how horribly we had treated him. Excuse me, if Christine Ford had behaved that way, she would have been totally shunted aside. But here comes a guy, and now he has a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. Women have a lot of pent-up anger because things have been pretty unfair. The way I express it, I don’t think I’m out of control. I think I’m very much in control when I say to Bill Barr, “You’re a fucking liar.” I didn’t use the F-word, but … what the heck. I think it is very important for women to express anger.

Most of us are acculturated to be cooperative. And it’s not like I’m running around being angry all the time. I think I’m still perceived as kind of a nice person. But when time calls for it, one should be very firm in one’s anger — anger that comes across as true and not just made up. To me, Ted Cruz is a guy who’s just angry all the time. It’s like, Are you for real? Is this an act?

RT: You met with President Biden and Vice-President Harris on Thursday along with other members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

MH: We had a lovely meeting. At one point, after some of the others left and we were talking about a few things, I said to the president, “It’s so nice that you’re not crazy.”

RT: So much of your frustration seems to come from the period in which Democrats had no power. Now your party has the White House, the House, and a majority in the Senate. So what are the roadblocks to making the kind of progress you want to make?

MH: As Democrats, we actually want to help people, not screw them. So we’re going to have to work through some differences about how we’re going to get to the “help people” part. I have confidence: A lot of people talk about Joe Manchin, but he voted to uphold the Affordable Care Act. At one point, Joe opened the door to a talking filibuster, and if that’s a way that we’re going to be able to proceed, I would support that. On the other hand, I’m all for getting rid of the filibuster altogether. You have Mitch McConnell, whose goal in life is to retake the Senate, so I have a sense of urgency.

RT: How do you think your family’s experiences have shaped some of your legislative decisions? 

MH: I know what it is like to be so scared that my mother would get sick. And also when I got sick as a child, nobody in my family went to the doctor. We didn’t have health care. I didn’t know what that meant. You don’t have to go through horrible times in order to empathize; I have colleagues who don’t have the background I have and yet they are empathetic and listen to their constituents. But in the culture of Hawaii, if I had not been an immigrant, if I had had a background as a middle-class kid, I don’t think I would have run for office. It’s because I’m an immigrant and the experiences I had that made me think I should do more with my life than make my own little self happy.

RT: Speaking of immigration, your stance on family reunification preceded the Trump administration’s child-separation policy.

MH: In 2013, I kept trying to push family unity as a guiding principle to the men working on immigration reform. I said, “I don’t care how much education or how many great jobs immigrants have had: Particularly if you don’t have all of that, what you need in order to thrive and be happy is your family.” In my own family, it took three generations — us, my mother, my grandparents — everyone working in order to keep our family going. I know from my younger brother, Wayne, the pain that separation causes. Wayne was left behind in Japan with our grandparents when he was 3 years old because he was too young to go to school. It was heartbreaking to know that he would look at our family picture every day and ask my grandmother when we were coming back.

Wayne had learning disabilities; he struggled from kindergarten on. He got kicked out in tenth grade. He finally had a job at an auto-repair shop, but the thing he really loved was fishing. I was in law school, and I never talked about my family with anybody but I was with my good friend in New York and I was talking about my brother and how he fishes off the rocks. And my friend said, “Isn’t that dangerous?” I said, “Oh, he’s so used to it.” But … that day, he drowned. It’s still hard for me. Such a hard life he had.

RT: And you see the sadness of his life as shaped in part by that early separation?

MH: And the fact that we had a school system that wasn’t geared toward kids like him. That’s one of the reasons I am such a huge proponent of schools that look at every child individually. Schools are set up for kids like me: We get off on getting good grades. But what if you didn’t get good grades?

At one of the Senate’s prayer breakfasts — which I do not go to, but two of my good friends were co-chairs and asked me to — I talked about Wayne and how important education is, especially to immigrants. I said, “My younger brother was never adequately supported or diagnosed, and he did not experience one fucking day of achievement or excellence or happiness in school!” There was like total silence at the prayer breakfast; you just saw all these Republican guys sitting there.

RT: I’m assuming you didn’t say the F-word at … the prayer breakfast.  

MH: Oh no, I did.

RT: As far as our current immigration policy, what needs to be done next, including for the unaccompanied kids at the border?

MH: Trump basically destroyed any kind of a humane approach to immigration. The Biden administration needs to build a humane immigration policy that has a lot of different moving parts: We need to provide more resources to the countries from which people are fleeing, we need to increase the number of judges doing asylum claims, we have to help these children who were traumatized by the separation. That would be a whole new area of focus; right now, there’s nothing. We traumatize them, and there’s nothing after that for them. I think Biden should relook at the refugee numbers. I hope he will reconsider that. He said to all of us [who met with him on Thursday] that if we disagree with him, we should just tell him, so I will do that.

RT: So much of your book is about your mother, who sadly passed away a couple of weeks ago at 96. Was she able to read it?

MH: I’m grateful I wrote this book. She was not able to give voice to anything much anymore, and I thought, If I am ever going to write a book, this is the chance to write her story and my grandmother’s story. I went home a few weeks ago because I had been told she was transitioning. I had to miss a couple of votes. The hardcover book got sent to me overnight so I could at least read it to her. Even though she was in a sleep, I felt like it was important. I told her, “Mom, I wrote a book for you,” and the day I was going to read from it is the day she passed. I got special permission to have the book cremated with her. So that is a comfort to me. To know that the book is with her.

Mazie Hirono Isn’t Afraid of Conflict