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Ex-senator played key role in social legislation


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POSTED: Thursday, December 31, 2009

Nadao “;Najo”; Yoshinaga, a visionary state senator best known for pushing Hawaii's landmark universal health care act into law, died Tuesday. He was 90.

Yoshinaga was honored by the state Legislature at a March 18 joint session marking the 50th anniversary of statehood. He retired in 1974 after 20 years as a legislator, but continued to mentor younger generations of Democratic lawmakers.

“;We should continue the idea that no matter how small a state or how poor or far away, we can still be the greatest place to work and live and retire and visit,”; Yoshinaga told the Star-Bulletin this year.

U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, who like Yoshinaga was a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and part of the generation of Democrats who ended Republican domination of Hawaii politics, said his friend “;played a key role in the socio-economic development of Hawaii.”;

Inouye added in a written statement, “;He had the reputation for being a tough, no-holds-barred political leader. Hawaii will miss Najo. I will miss Najo.”;

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Said city Managing Director Kirk Caldwell: “;If there were more Najos today, we would have solved the furlough problem. We would have solved a lot of other problems.”; Caldwell befriended Yoshinaga while serving in the state House.

“;Senator Yoshinaga was a visionary, a motivator and an unrivaled political issue manager,”; said Chuck Freedman, executive director of the Democratic Party of Hawaii. “;In his latter years, Senator Yoshinaga continued to encourage the next generation of politicians to be compassionate, bold and to dream big. He was humble, steadfast and truly one of a kind.”;

The 1974 Prepaid Health Care Act required employers to provide medical coverage for workers and to this day has helped Hawaii maintain one of the lowest rates of uninsured people in the country.

Yoshinaga was cheering efforts by President Barack Obama to push legislation for a national health care plan. “;Now is the time that we have come the closest to convincing the American people we should have a stronger plan,”; he said earlier this month.

Yoshinaga was also responsible for laws that established the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts and the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women. Yoshinaga was also known for his environmental protection legislation and support of labor.

“;In my opinion, he was probably one of Hawaii's greatest politicians,”; said state Rep. Jon Riki Karamatsu, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who met weekly with Yoshinaga at the Capitol. “;He may not have been the most famous politician, but he was definitely the most effective. He was not the kind of person who bragged. He was very humble. He was still a visionary.”;

Yoshinaga graduated from Maui High School and the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He volunteered to join the 442nd and after World War II used the GI Bill to study law at DePaul University.

“;There was all this inequity that he wanted to correct,”; Karamatsu said. “;He wanted to ensure that all people in Hawaii had an equal shot at everything.”;

Caldwell said he once asked Yoshinaga what he would have done differently as a leader.

“;He sat up on the edge of my couch and said, 'I would have dreamed bigger.'”;

Services have not been announced.

Star-Bulletin reporter Mary Adamski contributed to this report.