Democratic Rep. Mazie Hirono turned back a strong challenge from Republican Linda Lingle, to whom she lost the Hawaii governor’s race a decade earlier, to keep the Senate seat in her party’s hands. Hirono overcame criticism from Lingle that she was an ineffective legislator, an argument that worked for challengers in other states but not one where favorite son Barack Obama was on the ballot.
As in her other campaigns, Hirono made much of her early-life hardships, which she says inform her liberal politics. She was born in Fukushima, Japan, and immigrated to Hawaii just before her eighth birthday with her mother, who fled an abusive husband with alcohol and gambling problems. As a child, she shared a single bed in a boardinghouse room with her mother and older brother, and at age 10 went to work to support the family. She mastered English in public schools and became a naturalized citizen in 1959, the year that Hawaii became a state.
After graduating from the University of Hawaii, Hirono got involved in politics by working on state House campaigns. She then earned a law degree from Georgetown University and worked in the Hawaii attorney general’s office. She ran for the state House in 1980 and won, holding the seat for 14 years. In 1994, she was elected to the first of two terms as lieutenant governor. Running against Lingle eight years later, her poorly organized campaign was undermined by Democratic corruption scandals and other problems, and she lost, 52 percent to 47 percent.
Hirono formed a political action committee to assist state-level Democratic women supporting abortion rights. She got her chance to become an elected official again in 2006, when Rep. Ed Case challenged Sen. Daniel Akaka in the Democratic primary. She emerged atop a 10-candidate Democratic primary field and easily beat GOP state Sen. Bob Hogue in a district that had never elected a Republican. She became the first Asian immigrant woman to serve in Congress.
Hirono has had a solidly liberal voting record and a relatively low profile in the House. Her enthusiastic support of the Democratic agenda led the Hawaii Tribune-Herald to say, in endorsing her in 2008, “We wish she’d be a little more independent and less partisan.” Like her soon-to-be Senate colleague Daniel Inouye, she has been a staunch defender of earmarking to benefit the state, and in fiscal 2010 ranked third among all House members in accumulating special-request spending items, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. She has said that each of the projects she requests has “an intrinsic value” and can often yield benefits far beyond their local scope. As a member of the Education and Labor Committee, she has made early childhood education one of her signature issues.
When Akaka announced his retirement after three terms, Hirono was considered the early Democratic favorite. But Republicans got their wish when Lingle, after months of deliberation, agreed to run. She initially made the race competitive, campaigning on her successful record in the statehouse as a moderate and stressing that she wouldn’t be beholden to Senate GOP leaders. She ran an ad criticizing Hirono for not getting any of her own bills signed into law. But Lingle said she would vote for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, which Hawaii political analysts said wouldn’t play well in Obama’s home state.
Hirono chose not to focus on her own record or what she would do in the Senate. Instead, she repeatedly argued that Lingle would vote with Republicans and that a vote for Lingle potentially could put the GOP in the majority, which she claimed would lead to the repeal of health care reform, provide more tax cuts for the wealthy, and threaten Social Security and Medicare. Bringing the argument closer to home, she also asserted that a Republican majority would threaten the influence of Inouye, the Appropriations Committee’s top Democrat and a beloved icon to Hawaiians. She opened a double-digit lead by early October and won with ease.