Sen. Mazie Hirono Knows When to Play Nice — and When Not to

The Democrat from Hawaii loves BTS, cats, Japanese television, and when Republicans stop blocking her work toward a more just future for the United States.

Senator Mazie K. Hirono Ladies First
Photo: Kepano Kekuewa

Today in Washington, the Senate is set to vote on the Voting Rights Act of 2021, the most comprehensive voting reform legislation in decades, and no one expects it to pass. This is because Republicans don't want it to, and Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii has had about enough of that obstructionist strategy.

In late-May, I sat down with her for an episode of Ladies First with Laura Brown, filling in for the editor-in-chief on this episode, to speak with the Senator about finding her voice, fighting for justice, and her new memoir, Heart of Fire, which had just been released. At the same time, her COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act had just passed the Senate thanks to sweeping bipartisan support, something her next big priority — the voting rights legislation we are seeing wither before our eyes today — will not have.

"I would like to be collaborative. I think most of us would like to be collaborative and work cooperatively, but these are very divisive times," she says. "And I'm not going to just be really warm and fuzzy when my Republican colleagues are busy trying to kick off millions of people off of healthcare, or they can't even vote for the rescue plan that provides funds and money for millions of people," she says, mentioning the Covid Relief Bill that finally saw President Biden release some $350 billion to states after months of legislative foot-dragging. "So, you know, I'm not going to feel all warm and fuzzy when they're basically screwing people over."

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For those who are unaware, Senator Hirono is the first elected female Senator from Hawaii, the first Asian American woman elected to the Senate, the first US Senator born in Japan, and the only immigrant serving in the Senate right now. She is also the nation's first (and, she adds on-air, still the only) Buddhist Senator. Her background very much drives her priorities in office.

"I prioritize those things that will provide equal justice, and therefore we need to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. I believe in the ability of people to vote without having their votes stolen or suppressed, so we need to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. So those kinds of things that create opportunities for people, that create an equal, or a level playing field for people, those are the things that will get my attention," she says, adding that these are all hugely popular among the American electorate, and still face roadblocks. "When the Republican leader pretty much signals that he would like to see something pass ... then things can happen," she says.

That's how she got the Hate Crimes Act to President Biden's desk, where it was signed into law on May 20, shortly after our call. "Even the Republicans couldn't turn their faces away from what was happening all across the country and these devastating totally unprovoked attacks," she said, noting Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was one of her supporters across the aisle, though others quietly tried to block her bill. "They just didn't know how they could manage to derail it. They tried with some 20 amendments to the bill after it had hit the floor, and they failed. And lo and behold, the bill passed."

It passed indeed, cementing new reporting processes for victims of hate crimes, and changing the way those statistics are recorded, which Sen. Hirono explains will help people bring their suffering out from the shadows and hopefully put a stop to it entirely. She made this happen through sheer will, motivated by worry for people like her and others not like her, and by stepping out of her comfort zone, something she says she will continue to do to make meaningful change. "Clearly it's the marginalized people whose voices are often not heard in the halls of Congress. Those are the people I fight for," she says.

Keep reading for a few things you didn't know about Hawaii's Democratic senator, and listen to Ladies First to learn more about her quietly tenacious fight for justice.

She's part of the BTS 'Army'.

"Oh yes, I love them. I decided I liked them when I heard two of their earlier songs. One is called 'Everybody Say No,' so that's a kind of rebellious anthem that would appeal to me. And the other one is 'Not Today,' which is also another kind of anthem for me. Like, you know, some people want to push us down, but not today — today we fight. [Laughs] That's also from Lord of the Rings, another one of my favorites."

Her cat's name is a total flex.

"I am a total cat person. I had one and he lived with us for over 20 years. And so I have his ashes and he remains on my iPad — the screensaver! I named him for a bill that I got through the state legislature. His name [was] Hemic. It stands for Hawaii Employers Mutual Insurance Company. It's very strange, but you know, it was such a big deal to get that bill passed. The company is the biggest workers comp insurance company now in the state of Hawaii. And so they know I'm the mother of them, as well as mother of the cat."

People ask for her necklace at David Yurman.

"I tend to wear the same earrings and necklace, so I don't have to think about it. This is kind of my signature and it's David Yurman, and some people go into the David Yurman store and they asked for 'the Mazie necklace.' And then I also now have some of my mother's rings. I try to wear something of my mother's every day."

She wants everyone to work for a more just country.

"There's a Japanese word called gaman. It means you just forbear. And at some point that kind of forbearance — I don't consider it healthy. And we're not talking about trying to pit the discrimination, the systemic racial discrimination against the Black community, which continues, which our country has never faced up to, we don't need to compare [it to] the kind of racism that was targeting the Japanese Americans or the Chinese and their Chinese Exclusion Act, or the Muslims, to say that any of this discrimination in our country is not OK. And that racism is never far below the surface in our country against any marginalized group — and therefore, we all have to step up and speak up."

Listen to the full episode and subscribe on Apple, PlayerFM, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts. And tune in weekly to Ladies First with Laura Brown hosted by InStyle's editor in chief Laura Brown, who speaks to guests like Michelle Pfeiffer, Emily Ratajkowski, Cynthia Erivo, Naomi Watts, La La Anthony, Ellen Pompeo, Rep. Katie Porter, and more to discuss current events, politics, some fashion, and, most importantly, the major firsts in their lives.

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