Hirono takes experience to Washington
The Democrat looks to focus on challenges facing her district and plan for the future
Sometime in the next two weeks, Mazie Hirono goes to Washington.
When she returns to Honolulu in February, the 59-year old Democratic attorney will be Rep. Mazie Hirono, joining the ranks of Betty Farrington, Pat Saiki and Patsy Mink as one of four women elected to Congress to represent Hawaii.
Hirono enters the job with formidable political experience as a 14-year veteran of the state House, eight years at lieutenant governor and past Democratic standard-bearer against Republican Gov. Linda Lingle.
In a crowded primary election, Hirono eked out an 800-vote victory over state Sen. Colleen Hanabusa, handily beat former Republican Sen. Bob Hogue in the general and now waits to be sworn into office in Washington on Jan. 4.
She has been to Washington for briefings and to start the work of shifting representation of Hawaii's 2nd Congressional district from Rep. Ed Case to herself.
Hirono, who campaigned with the endorsement of members of the late Patsy Mink's family, says she will emphasize some of Mink's issues, such as education, but also look at the new challenges for her rural and suburban district, which comprises Leeward and Windward Oahu and the neighbor islands.
"I am expecting to really push," Hirono said, noting that the previous Congress, run by Republicans instead of Democrats, met for fewer days than any other Congress.
"The Democrats have an agenda, ethics reform, lobbying reform and basic bills for fiscal responsibility that we are looking to handle in the first 100 hours," Hirono said.
Hirono has been named as a member of the transportation committee, a post she hopes will be helpful in steering transit aid to both Oahu and her neighbor island districts.
"Every island has major gridlock," Hirono said.
Case, also a Democratic attorney, who was defeated in a primary race against Sen. Dan Akaka, said when his term expires next month, he will return to Honolulu and is considering practicing law.
"I still have a desire for public service and it seems there will be opportunities for me," Case said, declining to say if he was thinking about anything specific.
Case and Hirono met last month for an afternoon of briefings in his Washington office.
When asked to compare her style to his, Hirono refused, saying "Frankly, Mr. Case's term is almost ending. I am focused on the new term and rather than making a comparison, I am very focused on the future."
Case said he told Hirono that Congress gives members complete flexibility on how to set up an office, whether to have district offices or representatives.
His staff spent some time summarizing what they thought were the upcoming issues.
"It is a steep learning curve. You can be God's gift to government and it is still going to be a steep learning curve. ... The district has incredible pressure because of the population growth," Case said.
Also, he said, although the neighbor islands and their agricultural backgrounds are beautiful, the large amount of vacant land that can be developed make it a difficult lifestyle to preserve.
"There is a tremendous fear of a loss of our lifestyle," Case said.
Observers watching the transition note that Hirono will have to move quickly if she is to gain attention among the 435 members of Congress.
It takes time, says Neal Milner, University of Hawaii ombudsman and political scientist. Even Patsy Mink took time to "develop a national reputation for courage, competence and liberalism," Milner said.
"Overall, the average new congressperson is not very visible and keeps her head down while she learns the ropes and gets in the good graces of the leadership," Milner recommended. "Mazie is likely to follow the typical pattern, which in fact suits her skills and style."
Another UH political scientist, Kate Zhou, said Hirono has work to do.
"Mazie Hirono is considered by most people as a nice person but a weak leader," Zhou said.
Zhou and Milner both pointed to the federal Jones Act, which denies foreign ships from landing goods in Hawaii, as an issue for Hirono to tackle.
"She can make this the biggest fight for average Hawaii people who subsidy the big businesses. By making this as helping the poor, she is in fact following Patsy Mink's tradition," Zhou suggested.
Milner noted that Case split from the rest of the Hawaii delegation by also suggesting a Hawaii exemption for the Jones Act.
Although opposing the rest of the delegation, including Hawaii's dual octogenarian senators, may be tricky, Zhou said, Hirono should move to define herself.
"If she fails to do something to change her image, she may not stay long in D.C.," Zhou warned.