Sen. Daniel Akaka (D)
Elected: Appointed May 1990, term expires 2012, 3rd full term.
Born: Sept. 11, 1924, Honolulu .
Education: U. of HI, B.Ed. 1952, M.A. 1966.
Family: Married (Mary Mildred); 5 children.
Military career: Army Corps of Engineers, 1945–47 (WWII).
Elected office: U.S. House of Reps., 1976–90.
Professional Career: Public schl. teacher, principal & admin., 1953–71; Dir., HI Office of Econ. Oppor., 1971–74; Asst., HI Gov. Ariyoshi, 1975–76; Dir., Progressive Neighborhoods Program, 1975–76.
Democrat Daniel Akaka is the first senator of Native Hawaiian descent. Born four days after fellow Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye, he served in the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1940s, then became a public school teacher and principal. In 1971, he was the director of the Hawaii anti-poverty program, and in 1975, he became an assistant to Democratic Gov. George Ariyoshi. The next year, when both of Hawaii’s representatives ran for the Senate, he was elected to the House, where he served quietly on the Appropriations Committee. In May 1990, after the death of Democratic Sen. Spark Matsunaga, Democratic Gov. John Waihee appointed Akaka to the Senate. He has thus been an integral part of the dominant Democratic organization, and a quiet but diligent worker on Hawaii issues, for more than 30 years. But after all of his time in Congress, Akaka is not well known nationally. “I was taught not to be a show horse but a workhorse,” he told The Honolulu Advertiser in 2006. “So, in a way, it’s been a part of me not to brag.”
|Daniel Akaka (D)||210,330||(61%)||($2,651,026)|
|Cynthia Thielen (R)||126,097||(37%)||($356,413)|
|Daniel Akaka (D)||129,158||(55%)|
|Ed Case (D)||107,163||(45%)|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2000 (73%), 1994 (72%), 1990 (54%), 1988 House (89%), 1986 House (76%), 1984 House (82%), 1982 House (89%), 1980 House (90%), 1978 House (86%), 1976 House (80%)
In 2007, as the new chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Akaka pledged to secure more health care funding for American military forces returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. He also wants to reorganize the Department of Veterans Affairs to handle more quickly “invisible wounds” such as post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries. He complained that doctors had been barred from some medical information about injured troops, and he got the Pentagon to reverse its policy. He also called for a new GI Bill with expanded education benefits for veterans. With Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, Akaka enacted in January 2008 an amendment requiring that the Army report to Congress before fixing Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknowns, which has cracks running through the marble monument; he wants to repair the tomb rather than replace it, as some have advocated.
Akaka likely would have become chairman of the more powerful Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in 2009 if Senate Democrats had been successful in ousting Chairman Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent who fell out of favor with Democrats after actively supporting John McCain in the 2008 presidential contest. But Lieberman held on, with support from Obama.
Akaka has waged a lonely and long campaign in the Senate on the issue of Native Hawaiian sovereignty. He was the sponsor of the 1993 Apology Resolution, signed by President Clinton, in which the United States acknowledged as illegal the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893 and the denial of Native Hawaiians’ right to self-determination. Akaka in 2000 introduced a bill that would have recognized Native Hawaiians as an indigenous people with a right to self-determination and would have established a process for formation of a Native Hawaiian governing body that was to have, as many Indian tribes do, a government-to-government relationship with the United States. Many Hawaiians believe they need the law to allow them to negotiate more forcefully with the federal government over land-use issues, a major concern for many residents. A companion bill passed the House that year but died in the Senate. Akaka brought the bill up again in 2001 and it was passed by the Indian Affairs Committee. Akaka had lobbying help from Alaska Native and American Indian groups, but a hold was placed on the bill by a Republican senator after some Native Hawaiians argued against it, saying it would make them wards of the government. (In the Senate, a bill can be stopped indefinitely when a senator declares a “hold”.) Akaka brought the bill up again in 2004 with some changes, but it again was subject to a hold, by Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, who said: “Persons of different races, who live together in the same society, would be subject to different legal codes. This would not produce racial reconciliation in Hawaii. Instead, it is a recipe of permanent racial conflict.”
In 2005, Republican Gov. Linda Lingle traveled to Washington to lobby for Akaka’s bill with the White House and Republican senators. But Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., placed a hold on it, claiming the assertion of native rights could lead to legalized gambling in Hawaii, one of only two states without it, and an expansion of gambling on the mainland. In June 2006, Akaka finally got the Senate to consider whether to bring the bill to the floor. It voted 56-41, which was a majority but still four votes short of the 60 needed to bring it up for passage. Republicans cast all 41 votes. When Democrats took majority control of the Senate in 2007, Akaka stepped up his efforts. The House passed the bill in October 2007, and Akaka secured a commitment from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada to bring the bill to the floor. But Reid failed to do so, and some Democrats defended the decision by citing President Bush’s veto threat. Akaka turned his attention to getting an endorsement of his bill added to the 2008 Democratic presidential platform, and said he was “ecstatic” that native-son Barack Obama was supportive. He can be expected to resurrect his efforts in the 111th Congress (2009-10), with Obama in the White House. However, Akaka will still have to contend with resistance from Republicans and perhaps Senate Majority Leader Reid.
Another of Akaka’s legislative causes was passage of a law making permanent the waiver of visa requirements from some countries, including Japan, which sends 2 million visitors a year to Hawaii. He took a leading role in passage of the 1989 and 1994 laws to protect government whistle-blowers and with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has sought to expand those protections to allow federal workers to make classified disclosures to members of Congress and their aides. Akaka was among the nine senators voting against the homeland-security bill of 2002, arguing that it gave the government too much power to compile information about citizens and failed to protect the rights of whistle-blowers. In 2006, he was one of nine Senate Democrats who voted against renewing the USA PATRIOT Act, the Bush administration’s antiterrorism law that expanded law enforcement powers.
Akaka has supported oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, perhaps in part out of solidarity with colleagues from Alaska, who like Hawaiians often feel resentment that policy is made by mainlanders who have little knowledge or understanding of the unique needs of their states. “To some of my colleagues, the debate about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is about energy. To others, it is about the environment,” Akaka said. “To me, the [issue] is really about whether or not the indigenous people who are directly impacted have a voice about the use of their lands.” Akaka and Inouye have been among the few Democrats who have supported deployment of a ballistic missile defense system. Hawaii is much more vulnerable to North Korean missiles than the U.S. mainland.
Since his initial 54%-45% victory in 1990 against Republican Rep. Pat Saiki, Akaka has won re-election by large margins. But in 2006, at the age of 82, he faced a competitive primary challenge from 2nd District Democratic Rep. Ed Case. This was a remarkable election for Hawaii, where the creaky Democratic establishment retains a tight grip on elections and no incumbent member of Congress has ever been defeated for re-election. Akaka was the establishment candidate, strongly supported by labor unions, Inouye, and Hawaii’s other Democratic representative, Neil Abercrombie. Case was an archenemy of the establishment after challenging its candidate in the 2002 primary for governor. The 54-year-old Case argued that Hawaii, with its two octogenarian senators, needed to begin preparing for the inevitable transition by electing a more youthful Democrat who could begin accumulating seniority.
In most other states, Case would have had ample ammunition between Akaka’s low profile in Washington, the failure of his Native Hawaiian federal recognition bill, and a Time magazine article that ranked Akaka as “affectionate and earnest” but one of the five worst senators. But in Hawaii, Akaka is revered for his gentleness and modesty, and there were limits on how far Case could go in criticizing him. Case highlighted his outsider status and noted that Akaka was a “product” of a “culture that perceives any innovation, any advance, any progress, and even any disagreement as a threat to their power.” Akaka played up his vote against authorizing the use of force in Iraq and his close relationship with Inouye, and suggested that Case was not a real Democrat. He won 55%-45%. Akaka carried Oahu, where 69% of the votes were cast, 53%-47%; he won larger margins elsewhere, including 64% in Maui. Case said afterward: “This was a clear and convincing victory for the Democratic machine that has been increasingly hanging on to power in Hawaii by their fingernails.”
The general election was easier for Akaka. The Republican was state Rep. Cynthia Thielen, a moderate who supports abortion rights. Akaka won easily, but Thielen held him to a 61%-37% victory—his lowest Senate re-election percentage.