Fresh off engineering almost unanimous Senate support for her COVID-19 Hate Crimes Bill, the junior senator from Hawaii, Mazie Hirono, is our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast.
The first Asian woman and the only immigrant currently serving in the US Senate, Hirono explains the need for this hate crimes legislation and why in her view, racism toward the Asian American and Pacific Islander community (AAPI) is never far below the surface. She reminds us how Asian Americans, who suffered through the Chinese Exclusion Act in the late 19th century and internment during World War II, have always been viewed as “the other.”
She shares stories about her childhood experiences, the power and inspiration of her mother, and what drove her to politics in a world where women like her were never supposed to run for office. She tells of a sister for whom better health care might have saved her life, and a brother who taught her, first hand, the evil of family separation.
The senator tells us why she no longer does “Senate speak” and how the Trump presidency forced her to find her inner voice. That voice is powerful — she has become the most refreshingly forthright US senator in decades. A symbol of what our founders intended from the US Senate.
Hirono, in addition to being shaped by her immigrant experience, credits the unique diversity and cultural melting pot of Hawaii as a source of her outspoken views about policy and her colleagues.
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Full Text Transcript:
Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Last Thursday, in the United States Senate, a very strange thing happened. A piece of legislation, the COVID-19 Hate Crimes bill, passed the Senate by a vote of 94 to 1. In this day and age, that almost never happens. But it happened because of the passion, the fire, of the junior senator from the great state of Hawaii, Mazie Hirono, the first female senator from Hawaii and the first Asian woman ever elected to the United States Senate.
Her story calls to mind the words of Jack Kennedy who said, ‘The interaction of disparate cultures, the vehemence of the ideals that led the immigrants here, the opportunity offered by a new life, all gave America a flavor and a character that make it unmistakable and as remarkable as it is today.’ Senator Mazie Hirono embodies those words in her career and in the story of her family, a story she tells in her new memoir, Heart of Fire. It is my pleasure to welcome Senator Mazie Hirono here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Senator, good morning. Thanks so much for joining us.
Senator Mazie Hirono: Good morning, Jeff. That was really a wonderful way to introduce my story. Thank you.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. Before we talk about your story specifically, I have to ask you about the COVID-19 Hate Crimes bill which just passed, and first of all, why it was important at this point in time and how it was able to garner the virtually unanimous support that it did?
Senator Mazie Hirono: We’ve all seen the rise in hate crimes in our country during this pandemic. I would say the environment was created by a president who called it the ‘China Virus’ and an administration who referred to it as ‘Kung-flu.’ I think the animus against AAPIs, Asian American Pacific Islanders came to the fore during the period in particular, but the racism in our country has never been far below the surface, so I introduced this bill. We’ve all seen the videos of Asians being kicked and harmed and attacked, unprovoked. Chuck Schumer said, ‘We’re going to do this because it’s important for us to condemn these kinds of crimes against the AAPIs.’
When I first introduced this bill in March, I could not get a single Republican to co-sponsor it. Because it was being fast-tracked, and it began to percolate in the Senate, people began to think about it, and one of the encounters I had with the press early on was, somebody asked me, ‘Well, the Republicans are saying this bill doesn’t go far enough,’ and I just started to laugh because since when do they care about this kind of stuff. I just started to laugh, and I said, ‘Oh, just shut up. If they have something better or stronger, I am all ears.’
I asked the person, ‘By the way, who are these Republican senators? I’d like to talk to them.’ The reporter said, ‘I don’t know.’
Senator Mazie Hirono: Anyway, I began to hear, though, that Senator Collins had some concerns about the bill that I thought I could address, and so I worked really closely with her to address those concerns, but we had other senators who were really interested, like Senator Blumenthal and Moran, Republicans and Democrats, they had a no-hate bill that they wanted to include, and so we began to have these kinds of discussions and the bill gets put on the floor. We had a lot of negotiations because there were over 20 amendments filed on this bill by the likes of Ted Cruz and just the usual suspects.
We came down to voting on three of them. We voted them down. All three would have been basically to gut the bill, but as I started the day, I said to myself, ‘I hope we can get 70 votes because that would be a clear sign that the Senate stands with the AAPI community at a time when they feel under siege and invisible too often,’ but we got 94 votes, so who knew? There’s a little glimmer of potential for other bipartisan bills, and they may not be the huge bills that I’d like to have bipartisan support for, but not likely to get, frankly, because Mitch McConnell’s goal in life is to take back the Senate, which means he doesn’t really want President Biden’s bills to pass.
However, this was in my view, a very non-controversial bill that eventually garnered this kind of support, and I hope that we can have other bills that may be somewhat controversial, but clearly, this bill was very high profile because of the subject, because of the issue involved.
Jeff Schechtman: We’ve spent the past year, certainly longer than that, but focused for the past year on the subject of racial animus in this country. Talk a little bit about how did the hate crimes that you see and the animus towards the AAPI community is both similar and different than what we were talking about prior to this.
Senator Mazie Hirono: I have said that racism is never far below the surface and certainly that the systemic racism against the Black community is there. We need to face up to it and deal with it. The animus against the AAPIs, we are always viewed as the other perpetual foreigners. The targeting of AAPIs through bills like acts such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, the internment of 120,000 Asian-Americans during World War II, the Muslim ban, these are some manifestations of viewing people as the other, and therefore, you can discriminate against them. This is something that we have to fight back against, and eternal vigilance is required.
How is this different? I don’t know that — well, part of the difference is that you had a president who had a lot to do with creating the environment where this kind of animus would come to the fore, and it would be this total unprovoked vicious attacks against AAPIs mainly. A lot of them were women and seniors. The more defenseless they looked, the more this kind of behavior came to the fore in every state including the District of Columbia. I think it’s always there, and therefore, passing this bill is an important position for the Senate to take, but clearly, there are all kinds of cultural, attitudinal, and other things that do not change, necessarily, because we’ve managed to pass the bill, so we need to get to all those other aspects.
Jeff Schechtman: You do, because we do understand so much more about the culture from what you write in Heart of Fire. I want to talk a little bit about your mother, Laura, who’s at the center of your story, of your memoir. Sadly, she passed away not very long ago, but she did live long enough to see her daughter become a member of the US Senate. Talk about that and how proud she was, obviously, but really what she took away from that.
Senator Mazie Hirono: I think she, as do I, view my journey in politics as a highly unlikely one. Little did either one of us know that this is where I would be, but I’m really glad that I was able to do this because my mother, I had told her at a pretty young age that I wanted to do something more with my life than to make my little self happy, that this country gave me opportunities I never would have had otherwise, thanks to you mom, and so I wanted to do some things, so I majored in psychology so I could become a therapist or helping professions.
But it was through my involvement in anti-war activism that opened my eyes to politics as a way to make social changes, and I still believe that. My mother, who was very unusual in that not once did she ever ask me, ‘When are you going to get married, and when are you going to have children?’ Not once. One of my friends said she couldn’t be a real mother because real mothers are supposed to bug you about things like that. She never did, and I asked her one time, ‘Why?’ she said she just totally ruined her life by marrying my father, who I didn’t get to know and she had to escape from, and she said, ‘Why should I tell you what to do? I trust you to make your decisions.’
Learning from her also, I took risks that — I had experiences that a lot of my classmates did not go down that path. My favorite poem is The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost.
Jeff Schechtman: A little bit about your view of politics, because there certainly are plenty of your colleagues that take a more cautious approach, and you have a reputation for being outspoken, for being straightforward in what you believe in and in your passions. To what extent does that come from your immigrant experience, your mother, your family, the story that you write about in Heart of Fire?
Senator Mazie Hirono: I am in politics because of my immigrant background, and so I never forget where I came from, who I fight for, and why. Yes, if I were not an immigrant and didn’t grow up poor, without healthcare, all of those things that people still need, I doubt that I would have run for office because women of my generation and cultural background, we don’t run for office. We don’t push ourselves forward that way, but for a long time, I was very determined, but I just didn’t have to be so vocal about things in order to get things done.
It is the Trump presidency that truly opened up my vocal cords and speak out against his bully. I didn’t do it for the attention because speaking up and all of that does not come naturally to me. In fact, in law school, my goal in life was never to be called upon. It’s been a journey for me to — I don’t want to say find my voice because that sounds like, I never spoke up. I did, but I think it is a really important part of my being now. I am more completely myself, as I describe it, because I now vocalize what I’ve always been determined to do.
I realize it’s also important for people to know that there’s a person in the Senate — there are many of us, but that I speak very plainly. I don’t sugarcoat anything. People will come up to me, pre-COVID times, and say, I really like to hear you because you do not do the Senate speak stuff. I never learned to do that, by the way.
Jeff Schechtman: To what extent did Hawaii also as a place set the stage for so many of the attitudes that you bring to the Senate today?
Senator Mazie Hirono: Oh, people in Hawaii, we’re very diverse. We appreciate other cultures. We eat each other’s foods. We intermarry to a greater extent than any other state, I’d say. This acceptance, this celebration, literally, of other cultures, is really important at a time when our country is so divided amongst so many, what’s been called tribal lines. I’m so grateful to represent a state like Hawaii, not perfect, no status, but we really do welcome other cultures. That’s also part of my Buddhism. I make it plain that I don’t chant every day and do all of that. It is Buddhism as you seek to embrace compassion and to do good, to help people. Those are good things to try to be.
As I’ve said, I’m not always perfect in that because I can be very terse with people. There’s a certain impatience that arises now and then.
Jeff Schechtman: What, if anything, do you expect to be different when your colleagues have the opportunity to read Heart of Fire and understand your history and your experience, which is very different than most of your colleagues?
Senator Mazie Hirono: Yet, I hope that the readers will be able to find elements of my story that they can relate to. Being poor, that’s one. Not having health care, that’s another. Having a major health diagnosis, a near stage four cancer. There are a lot of people in our country who have cancer. There are a lot of people in the pandemic who couldn’t see their parents. I couldn’t see my mother until she was transitioning to passing to death. Also, for women, I think women will be able to relate to being told, ‘You’re not ready. You can’t do this. You should wait your turn,’ all of those things and having low expectations of ourselves. Those are things that, particularly, women can relate to.
I hope that even if our lives are really different, we all have stories to tell. We all have stories that we can relate to it. I hope that they can.
Jeff Schechtman: You talk about healthcare. This was a big issue for you. Really, it grew in some measure out of your experience with your sister’s death. Talk about that, and you write about it in Heart of Fire?
Senator Mazie Hirono: It was the evening where the Senate was poised to basically destroy the Affordable Care Act and push millions of people off of health care. We were having debates that night, and I didn’t have any prepared remarks or anything, but I thought I had something more to say. It’s the first time that I talked about my sister. Very few people knew that I had a younger sister who died in Japan. I believe that if she had adequate healthcare, she could have survived. She died at home. That evening, I talked about her for the first time. It was very difficult for me to get through.
It was to talk about how important healthcare is. To grow up as a child being afraid that my mother would get sick, wouldn’t be able to go to work. No work, no pay, no food. Literally, that’s how it went. It’s part of my lived experience. When I found my cancer diagnosis, so many of my colleagues, including so many Republicans sent me notes, all of these messages wishing me well, and so they gave me their compassion and their care. That night I banged the table. That was a surprise. As I was speaking, I said, ‘Where’s your compassion? Where’s your care? How can you vote to do this?’ That was that dramatic night when John McCain voted, ‘No.’
Health care is a right not a privilege, just for those who can afford it. That is one of my goals. To make healthcare a right, not a privilege in our country.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that we’ve talked about is your outspokenness, particularly with respect to the former president. One of the things that you felt particularly passionate about was his family separation policy at the border because that touched you very personally. Tell us about that?
Senator Mazie Hirono: When my mother brought my older brother and me to Hawaii, it’s because we were old enough to go to school. My younger brother, Wayne, was only three, and he would not have been able to go to school, and there would be nobody to take care of him, so she made a really hard decision to leave him with my loving grandparents, who also raised me from the age of three till before I came to Hawaii. None of us knew — certainly, my mother didn’t know — that the trauma of the separation would stay with my younger brother for his life, tragically short life, but we understood. I understood what it was, and it broke our hearts when my grandmother finally told us that every night, my baby brother would look at our pictures and ask when are we coming home?
That trauma stayed with him. It stays with me. I get emotional every time I talk about my brother. When Trump imposes his mindless cruelty and separated thousands of children from their parents, he didn’t even care that this would be so traumatic and the harm that we would cause. That is why I spoke out and continue to speak out for a humane immigration policy. Joe Biden inherited a shredded immigration policy, lacking in humanity. To rebuild an immigration system with humanity is going to take time. I know that, but at least we have a president who cares.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about the immigrant experience and your knowledge of it, what you bring to the debate about this. In Washington, you are the only immigrant that is serving in the United States Senate, and that puts a particular burden, I guess, a particular responsibility on you, having had that experience.
Senator Mazie Hirono: There are a lot of my colleagues who have immigrant backgrounds, in fact. For the Indigenous Peoples of our country, most of us are all, we all have immigrant pasts. I’m not the only one who speaks for immigration reform, but I have a particular experience, first-hand experience, that a lot of my colleagues don’t have, of being an immigrant, coming to this country being poor. We still see this country, so many of us see this country as a place of opportunity. That’s what my mother sought for us, and that’s what I want our country to be, to truly be that beacon of hope.
These are not just words, nice-sounding words to me or to all the other immigrants who came here, hoping for a better life that this country holds the possibility for.
Jeff Schechtman: Is that part of the debate that gets left behind? Amidst all the rhetoric and all the words and all the policy discussions, there’s an emotional level to this, a human level to this, that somehow gets left out of the immigration debate?
Senator Mazie Hirono: I think I’m so close to that experience that I never forget because while I was almost eight, and people say you’re young. Oh, no, our brain synapses are pretty much in place by the time we’re five years old, so I spent my formative years in a whole another country, so I have that first-hand experience, and why I really fought for family unity as a guiding principle in the comprehensive immigration reform bill that I worked on in 2013. That family unity was definitely not embodied in that bipartisan bill.
Now we know, after seeing the horror of the family separation, that my colleagues very much support and also President Biden supports family unity as an abiding principle for immigration reform because regardless of whether you have all these degrees and you come to a country, but you can’t thrive in another country unless you have your family around us. For immigrants like me, being poor, you need the family, everybody has to work, to make it in this country.
Jeff Schechtman: What do you expect to happen now that this piece of legislation, the COVID-19 Hate Crimes bill has passed? Hopefully, it will be signed by the president very soon. What do you expect it to be able to do, and what do you see in this ongoing battle with respect to hate crimes against the AAPI community?
Senator Mazie Hirono: From a totally pragmatic standpoint, the provisions of this bill are very straightforward. We asked the Department of Justice to appoint a person to expedite review of these hate crimes, to work with state and local law enforcement to set up online reporting because these kinds are very underreported, to make sure that people understand what hate crimes and incidents are, so that we have a data basis on which to decide how best we can prevent these kinds of crimes and move forward as a country, but because we passed this bill doesn’t mean that everybody’s hearts and minds will follow.
Obviously, there are cultural and attitudinal issues that continue to be there. I think there’s an educational component. I didn’t even learn that Japanese-Americans were interned until, my gosh, I was in college or something. These things need to be taught. The Chinese Exclusion Act needs to be taught. The murder of Vincent Chin because his murderers thought he was Japanese, and this was a time when the Japanese auto industry was seen to harm our auto industry. These kinds of things ought to be taught. Not to mention the systemic racism against Black people in this country.
There are educational components, so what we need to do — my hope is that with this bill, this community knows that we have a Senate, and soon the House, that stands with them, and we will work through this, and coming out of the other end, I hope to a better place in terms of race relations. To a better place, but it’s not going to be easy.
Jeff Schechtman: Finally, Senator, what else is on your plate? What are your focuses now that this legislation has passed? What’s next on your agenda?
Senator Mazie Hirono: Well, we need to pass Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, the Build Back Better bill because it also deals with the care economy, so the importance of enabling women in our country to get back to work, so that family leave — its really important to have family leave. That’s a huge thing that I would like to help Joe Biden. We may have to change the filibuster rules in order to get that done. Then I would like to see comprehensive immigration reform. Then I’d like gun legislation. I would like the George Floyd Policing bill to pass. Those are just some of the things that we need to get done.
Jeff Schechtman: I’ve got to ask you before I let you go. Your reaction to former President Bush’s comments recently about immigration in his support of immigration reform?
Senator Mazie Hirono: Well, that’s nice. I’m wondering whether the rest of the Republican party that’s still very enamored with the attitudes of Trump, whether they’re listening. They still go to Florida and kiss Trump’s ring. It’s pretty amazing. This totally divisive, corrupt former president.
Jeff Schechtman: Senator Mazie Hirono. Her book is Heart of Fire: An Immigrant Daughter’s Story. Senator, I thank you so much for spending time with us. Truly appreciate it.
Senator Mazie Hirono: Thanks, Jeff. To all your listeners, stay safe, be kind.
Jeff Scechtman: Aloha.
Senator Mazie Hirono: Aloha.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio, WhoWhatWhy, podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Edward Kimmel / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) and Patrick & Preston Thomas / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
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