Sen. Mazie Hirono on Trump, anti-Asian hate crimes and her remarkable immigrant story

The first Asian-American woman in the Senate talks about Trump's racism — and the strength she got from her mom

Published April 26, 2021 5:50AM (EDT)

Senator Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii (Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty Images)
Senator Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii (Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty Images)

When you read Sen. Mazie Hirono's beautiful new book, "Heart of Fire: An Immigrant Daughter's Story," you understand that the Hawaii Democrat's strength to speak truth to power comes from one place: Her mother. Hirono was born in Japan and came to Hawaii with her mom as a child of seven. From her mother she learned a tireless work ethic, the need to stand up for herself and the fact that life can put many obstacles in your way but you can't let them defeat you. 

I discussed both the book and politics of the day with the senator from Hawaii in our recent "Salon Talks" conversation. You can't help but be moved by her book, which is a love letter to her mother intertwined with her own memoir. Hirono, who was the first Asian-American woman in the Senate and the only immigrant currently serving in that chamber, shared details about her father's abusive treatment of her mother, which led her mother to take her children from on the long sea voyage from Japan to Hawaii, where her own mother had been born. From there we learn how Hirono's mother worked numerous jobs to make ends meet and later in life played a key role in Hirono's various political campaigns.

"Heart of Fire" also addresses today's politics, including the oversized role Donald Trump played in inciting anti-Asian hatred, which looms especially large at the moment. In fact, Hirono was the primary sponsor of the anti-Asian hate crimes law that recently passed the Senate, which became necessary in large part because of Trump continually drawing specious links between COVID and the Asian community. 

Hirono also shares an experience that I imagine many women in politics have confronted: being told by men that she wasn't ready to run for higher office. But despite the naysayers and challenges, Hirono rose from being an immigrant child living in a boarding house to the U.S. Senate. And if you ask her how she did it, the senator will gladly tell you it was because of her mother.

Watch the "Salon Talks" interview with Sen. Hirono here or read the transcript below, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Share a little bit about your mom and how she helped shape you and inspire you.

My mother changed my life by bringing me to this country. Back then, for a young wife to decide that she had to leave my father, who I never got to know, and taking three of her children with her, that took tremendous courage. So that is my mother's heart of fire. And as you know, your fire can burn like an ember, it can last for a long time. It can pass from one generation to the next. This book is truly about my mother's story and my grandmother, who also raised me when I was a child and her heart of fire and the risks she took also.

Your mom worked multiple jobs. My immigrant dad, same thing. How much do you have of your mom's immigrant work ethic? 

A lot. Because I watched my mother struggle. She never complained. She just was so determined. And it's not as though she had time to sit us down and say, "Here's what I want to teach you." She just went about her life and showed me that determination and focus and getting control of your life, those are hugely important aspects of my mother's story. 

Over the years I really came to appreciate my mother even more. And so I have said that there's nothing in my life that I can do, in all the races that I've had, that comes nearly as hard as what she did to change our lives.

It was really the anti-war movement that sort of lit the candle for you to get involved. What was it about that that made you say, "You know what? I've got to do more than just ignore this stuff and live my life and have fun?"

At a pretty early age, Dean, I decided that I wasn't put on this earth just to make my little self happy. I said that to my mother. And when I was pretty young, I said and thought that I was going to do something that was going to give back to a country and a state that gave me opportunities I never would have had. I just didn't look at politics as the way that I was going to express that desire. However, it was protesting the Vietnam War, and the first time I ever questioned our government. The first time I sang, "We Shall Overcome" and marched with others was an awakening for me. We have all kinds of awakenings for a lot of us, but that was my political awakening. And I thought, here's a way that we can make some changes through politics. But it also took me a long time to run for office myself.

You mention in your book that every time you aspired to something bigger, like lieutenant governor, the men would be like, "No, no, no. You're not ready. Wait your turn." What's your message to women who are told, "Wait your turn. This is not your time"?

I think that now there are more women who are not going to be diverted from where they're going by people saying to them, "It's not your turn. Wait your turn." In my generation, it was still somewhat unusual for a woman to run for office. So pretty much when I was running for higher office, particularly for lieutenant governor and clearly for governor, these kinds of notions come up: "Are you sure you can do it?" All of that. And this is not unique to me. There are all kinds of studies that show that women are more likely than not to think that we are not as prepared as we should be for elected office. One of my employees told me — and he's a guy — he said, "Yeah, we've got guys who think it's their God-given right to run for office." Women don't think that way.

It took me 10 years after I ran my first campaign for other people to kind of think about, "Oh, I should run for office myself." And this was after somebody came to me and said, "You've been encouraging all of us, younger people, advocates, to run for office. Don't you think it's time you did it?" And I thought, "Oh!"

You ran for governor and you lost. And I think there's a lesson there. What do you tell people about losing a race?

That you can survive it. You can live to tell the tale. The governor's race was the toughest race. And even after I lost that race that night, my mother told me, "Another door will open." I said to both my mother and my husband, "I think I have one big race left in me. I don't know if I'll ever get another chance. But I think I have one big race left in me." As I said in the book, that's when my husband began to set aside money for me to be able to take that shot when it came. And it did come.

It didn't take me long when that opening came, to decide that I would run, because that was the one big race left in me. And I thought I either had to win that race or not. There's a lot that you can learn from losing a big race. I had never lost a race up to that point. And I learned from that how to win the next one. Because people asked me, "How are you going to win?" I said, "Well, I learned how to win." Especially when I ran for the Senate against the same person who beat me for governor.

What do you learn about yourself when you lose an election? What did it make you do in reassessing your choices, your priorities and what you wanted to do with your life?

I had already said that I thought I had one big race left in me. And I spent that time, basically about three years before I ran for U.S. House, just restoring myself and getting back into the art that I loved. I had taken a lot of art history courses. I took all kinds of applied art courses, drawing and painting ceramics, everything. Basket weaving, I took. I love art. So I was able to get back to it in a way that I continue to this day. I gave myself that time to restore myself, and I got to travel with my husband where I could be the spouse that didn't work. It was really nice.

But at some point I thought, "Well, I should be working." So after three years, I thought I should become an arbitrator or something like that. But right around that time, my husband said, "I don't think you're going to be happy doing all that. You should just do what makes you happy." That is my husband. He's very precious, unique. Uniquely supportive and totally unthreatened by me, to the point where my friends ask if he has any brothers.

Is it as simple as that it brings you joy to help others as an elected official? Does it bring you self fulfillment?

It's a purpose, to be able to help other people. I feel really grateful, who would've thunk it! I have classmates now who say, "We didn't know you were interested in politics." In high school, it was not as though that manifested itself. This is one of my other little sayings, that one should not peak in high school.

You became very outspoken during the Trump administration. In your book you talk about Trump's cruel family separation policy, and it made you reflect on your own brother who passed, and how he was separated from your family. Share a little bit about that and why it so pained you, what Trump was doing, taking children away from their mothers.

I had a younger brother who was left in Japan when my mother brought the two older kids. And she explained to me why she did that. My younger brother would be too young to go to school. So she brought the two older kids.

We didn't know at that time the trauma of that separation from his mother for two whole years. And that trauma stayed with him for his whole life. So I really understood from my own family's experience what family separation, how traumatic that is. To watch Trump separating thousands of little kids with no thought and no record as to how to reunite these children with their parents, it was just so painful that I spoke up. But I've been speaking out against his mindless cruelty from practically very soon after he got elected. He was terrible during the campaign, and he did not get any better. There were all these people who thought, "Well, he's going to grow into the presidency." Are you kidding me? 

You introduced the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act along with Congresswoman Grace Meng of New York. From your point of view and from being part of the community, the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community, how much do Trump's words, in your view, play a role in this uptick we're seeing in hate crimes?

Of course it played a role. When the president of the United States starts calling the virus, "the China virus" and members of his administration called it the "kung flu," it just created an environment where people who have those kinds of discriminatory attitudes to begin with, and toss in some sadism, violence and everything else, to act out in this way to randomly have unprovoked attacks against Asian-Americans. 

Trump just threw more gasoline on the flames by his discriminatory language. It's very harmful, to say the least. So my bill is, in my view, not controversial. It just calls for the DOJ to appoint someone to pay attention, to review these kinds of hate crimes, to work with state and county law enforcement and advocacy groups, to make sure that we get the kind of information and reporting that we need to find out the extent of this problem and to be able to do something about it. President Biden is already putting that in place, thank goodness.

Has Trump been held accountable, in your view? If he's not held accountable, are you concerned for the future of our nation, that we'll see more similar events to Jan. 6, from Trump or Trump-like figures in the future?

Trump has not been held accountable by the Senate, that's for sure. And they had two chances to do it. So the House impeached him, twice, and the Senate did not convict him, twice. And I say that we all lived through Jan. 6. It's not like the first impeachment. Jan. 6 was an experience we all had. 

In your book, "Heart of Fire," at the end, you talk about the crane. And in fact, before we started the interview, you mentioned there are cranes behind you. And that they are about healing and hope. Does America need some cranes right now? 

So people began to send me cranes when I got my cancer diagnosis. So people who come to my office, they will fold cranes. I now have thousands of cranes. I decided to install them in my office, on the branches of cherry trees that I literally find walking around in D.C. I don't cut off the cherry branches, but they fall during the windy times. It has to be cherry blossom branches. So I've collected all these branches, which I have installed, and I put on them the cranes that people have folded. I usually ask them to sign the wing of the crane and date. Generals, ambassadors, people who know nothing about Japanese culture will fold the cranes.

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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Asian Americans Books Donald Trump Hate Crimes Hawaii Heart Of Fire Interview Mazie Hirono Salon Talks Salontv