By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
They traveled from other states and even 5,000 miles from France to support the first Asian, female U.S. (and the only immigrant) senator, Mazie K. Hirono, and her re-election campaign at a Pioneer Square restaurant on Aug. 28.
One of only two female Asian senators, Hirono of Hawaii raised $50,000 from a diverse Asian audience of more than 30 people at Matsu Restaurant. (The other Asian female senator is Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois.)
“Hirono was the first senator to sponsor COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act during the height of anti-Asian hate crime,” said Jeffrey Roh, the event’s emcee and one of the hosts. It was passed in 2021 with bipartisan support.
A U.S. senator represents the whole country, Hirono said. The bills she sponsors and votes for affect every single state.
Her event was about more than fundraising. Her multiple messages included the recent wildfires in Maui, climate change, anti-Asian hate crimes, and the most unexpected topic was her interest in preserving Chinatowns in the United States. Inspired by Grace Young of San Francisco, who started the movement of saving America’s Chinatowns, Hirono made a point of visiting Seattle’s Chinatown during her trip.
At 75, Hirono’s life is inspiring. Born in Japan, she was raised on a rice farm in a rural area. When she was 7 years old, her mother left her abusive husband and brought her two children to Hawaii, leaving her grandparents and youngest brother behind. As a child, she had worked in farms in Japan, as well as Hawaii. She didn’t speak a word of English when she entered first grade.
In her book, “Heart of Fire: An Immigrant Daughter‘s Story,” Hirono wrote, “In bringing us to the United States, my mother radically changed the trajectory of my life, making it possible for a daughter who might have grown up to marry a rice farmer in rural Japan to become the first Asian American woman and the only immigrant serving in the United States Senate.”
Prior to her senate win in 2013, Hirono served in Hawaii in several political offices, including the Hawaii House of Representatives, as the state’s lieutenant governor and also as a Congressional member. A graduate of University of Hawaii, Hirono has a law degree from Georgetown University.
“Sen. Hirono unapologetically speaks out for our people,” said Rep. Marilyn Strickland. “She pulls no punches…She helps people to understand the differences in our diaspora” that AAPI has a diverse heritage background…and is “unapologetically outspoken and not the stereotypes that people have on us. She leads the way.”
It is important “to use your voice, not just find your voice,” Hirono said. And “tell your stories.”
“Representation matters,” Hirono said. “Republicans don’t like words such as ‘diversity, representation, and inclusion’ and also prevent funding of any training programs for diversity and equality in hiring.”
Sam Cho, Seattle Port Commission president and one of the event hosts, gave Hirono a three-hour tour of the Chinatown-International District the following day.
The tour featured the Panama Hotel Tea Room and Japantown. Hirono stopped by Uwajimaya and bought souvenirs from the Kinokuniya bookstore. Then, they had lunch at Tai Tung Restaurant’s famous corner where Bruce Lee used to sit.
As told to Cho, Hirono said Seattle has a beautiful Chinatown-International District with such a rich history. She also said, “We need to work to ensure that we preserve all Chinatowns and ethnic towns around the country.” She plans to post a video of the U.S. Chinatowns she has visited in the future.
The event’s implications
Cho said the successful fundraiser “showed what we can do and the potential of the community.”
Though the fundraiser was committed to Hirono last year, the organizers prepared the event for two months. The organizers never set a goal, but the amount raised impressed both the organizers and the guest of honor.
”She didn’t realize that she had fans from all over the country,” said Roh. “It’s one of the most memorable fundraising events” he had organized over the years, as he included a number of powerful and prominent guests—Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, state Sen. Manka Dhingra, and state Rep. Sharon T. Santos.
“Sen. Hirono is really a national treasure,” said community leader Rita Brogan. “She continues to make a huge impact with her commitment to human and civil rights. She is courageous in a quiet and determined way.”
“As an Asian legislator, meeting Senator Hirono was a deeply meaningful experience,” said state Sen. Joe Nguyen, AAPI Victory Fund CEO. “Her warmth, kindness, and incredible presence resonated with me, reinforcing the significance of diverse voices in politics.”
To achieve the $50,000 amount, the event had the support of big donors, such as Microsoft and two AAPI Victory Fund co-founders, Shekar Narashimhan and Bel Leong-Hong, who each contributed $3,300—the maximum amount allowed. AAA Fund donated $5,000 for candidates it has reviewed, interviewed, and endorsed.
The election’s significance
“Maui’s tragedy was the worst tragedy in our 150 years of history,” said Hirono, who has visited Maui several times since then. “Maui’s fire destruction was complete … Already “$29 million has been dispersed for Maui’s disaster,” she said, but “it will take years to rebuild.”
Cho said it is not enough to have resources, you need senators and Congress members who can deliver. That means knowing how to get those resources for their own and other states.
“Hirono was the one to mobilize federal resources to get FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), two White House AAPI on the ground after it happened,” said Roh. To mobilize both local and national support for Maui was crucial after the firestorm, he added.
The outcome of her re-election in 2024 is significant as it can shift the balance of power in the U.S. Senate. Though her campaign “might not be a multi-million-dollar like the many U.S. mainland senate candidates,” Hirono said, it is important to take note of her race. If she loses, the Senate would flip to Republican control. Presently, the Democrats have 51 senators, only one seat more than the Republicans.
Several people have told her that she has done a “good job,” she recalled. Just paying lip service is not enough, she needs support of all kinds including financial resources and spreading the word, “I am on their side…fighting for them,” Hirono said.
The additional $50,000 raised may have pushed Hirono’s campaign to reach a million dollars for her re-election campaign, as she had raised $913,000 so far, according to opensecrets.org.
Former Congressman Jim McDermott, who had moved to France, flew all the way to Seattle to see Hirono. He noticed that Hirono brought her books for her donors, and yet she didn’t even mention a word of it in her speech, typical of her style.
She is great at promoting other people and causes, but not herself, said McDermott. When she fights for other people and her principles, “She goes for broke” and “never half way.”
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.