Hawaii sends nation’s first Asian American woman to Senate

U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono gives a victory speech at the Japanese Cultural Center, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012 in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

NEW YORK — Rep. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, on Tuesday became the first Asian American woman elected to the U.S. Senate. She’ll also be Hawaii’s first female U.S. senator, after defeating former Gov. Linda Lingle.

“Clearly the Senate needs more diversity,” Hirono said. “We don’t even have parity regarding women. We have a ways to go.”

EMILY’s List, a group that works to help pro-choice Democratic women get elected, saw an outpouring of support for women this election season. Since 2010, its membership more than quadrupled from 400,000 to nearly 2 million, according to spokeswoman Jess McIntosh.

“It’s two things,” McIntosh said. “The Republican war on women woke a lot of women up who did not necessarily have politics on the front burner. I think anyone under 45 thought we were completely done debating birth control, and you can see what these awful comments on rape victims are doing to women. It doesn’t matter how they usually vote, they’re outraged. That has sparked a lot of interest in electoral politics that was not previously there.”

Hirono’s victory didn’t come as a surprise. She’s a Democrat in a solidly blue state, and had strong support from the Democratic establishment. That included vocal support from the nation’s most senior senator, Hawaii Democrat Daniel Inouye, who has been a member of Congress since 1959. He offered his congratulations to Hirono and her supporters Tuesday night.

“Since the moment she declared her candidacy, I have said that Mazie is the person Hawaii needs in the Senate,” Inouye said. “She is the bipartisan partner I need.”

But for women in national races — especially minorities — it’s been a long road. Congress has had female representation for less than a century. After Jeanette Rankin, R-Mont., was elected as the United States’ first congresswoman in 1916, a Chicago newspaper had a “character analyst” survey her head. The bridge of Rankin’s nose was a sign of leadership, the report said. Her long jaw line indicated concentration. Her neck showed signs of independence, and “soft fine hair indicates alertness.”

Two decades later, a Miami newspaper described Patsy Mink — then a state senator from Hawaii — as “the cutest senator you ever saw.” Mink, a Japanese American, went on to become the first minority woman in Congress. She authored Title IX, the law that bans gender discrimination among education programs receiving federal money. Many people are familiar with Title IX for the impact it’s had on women’s athletics. Before her death in 2002, Mink was a mentor and friend to Hirono.

“I know that Patsy’s looking down on me and saying, ‘You go girl!’” Hirono said. “She ran for Senate, she ran for president, she ran for mayor, she ran for governor. She lost all those races. Here’s a model of a woman who did not give up. That’s the model I have.”

Hirono is also an immigrant. She was 8 years old when her mother — fleeing Hirono’s alcoholic father — moved them to Hawaii. Hirono says she cried for two days on the crossing from Yokohama Harbor. Another first: Hirono is a Buddhist, too.

“I bring quadruple diversity to the Senate,” Hirono said at a rally earlier in the campaign. “I’m a woman. I’ll be the first Asian woman ever to be elected to the U.S. Senate. I am an immigrant. I am a Buddhist. When I said this at one of my gatherings, they said, ‘Yes, but are you gay?’ and I said, ‘Nobody’s perfect.’”

Hirono says her mother and Mink are the two women who have inspired her most in her political career. But getting to this point has not just been about doggedness. A refusal to give up is not enough, she said.

“Women are not given very much credit for our ability to make strategic political decisions,” Hirono said. “That’s one of the things I do. I don’t just think, ‘I’m going to do it because I’m not going to give up.’ It’s hard. It’s always hard.

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