Condolences and fond remembrances began pouring in, from Hawaii to Washington, as news spread of the death of former U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, who died Friday at age 93 from organ failure.
Friends, former colleagues, employees and admirers shared a common sentiment: that the affable senator embodied the aloha spirit in a dignified way, exuding the trademark characteristics of humility, warmth and respect, and fostering collaboration even in the harshest of political climates.
“Akaka has been called the embodiment of aloha, but he was more than that,” said Jim Borg, a retired Honolulu Star-Advertiser assistant city editor who collaborated on the senator’s memoir book.
“He represented the kind of collegial and congenial spirit that is so glaringly missing in Washington today,” Borg said. “He was never one to make fiery floor speeches, preferring to work the corridors of the Capitol, cultivating personal relationships with even his fiercest adversaries. That’s how he got the job done for Hawaii: with persistence rather than partisanship.”
Akaka, the highest-ranking Native Hawaiian in elected office, was a staunch advocate for Native Hawaiians and veterans during a political career that spanned nearly four decades in Congress.
Gov. David Ige on Friday ordered the state’s flags to be flown at half-staff in Akaka’s memory until the senator’s interment. “Our state mourns the loss of this man of upright character,” Ige said in a statement.
TIMELINE: DANIEL AKAKA
>> Sept. 11, 1924: Born in Honolulu.
>> 1942: Graduates from Kamehameha School for Boys.
>> 1945-1947: Serves in the United States Army Corps of Engineers.
>> May 22, 1948: Marries Mary Mildred “Millie” Chong at Kawaiaha‘o Church.
>> 1952: Graduates from the University of Hawaii with a Bachelor of Education degree.
>> 1953: Earns professional certificate in secondary education.
>> 1953-1960: Works as public high school teacher.
>> 1960: Works as a school vice principal.
>> 1961: Earns professional school administrator’s certificate.
>> 1963-1971: Works as public school principal.
>> 1966: Earns master’s in education at UH.
>> June, 1966: Named Father of the Year by state Department of Education.
>> 1968-1971: Works as state Department of Education program specialist and chief program planner.
>> 1971-1974: Becomes director of the Hawaii Office of Economic Opportunity.
>> 1975-1976: Works as special assistant to Gov. George Ariyoshi.
>> Nov. 2 1976: Elected as Democrat to the House of Representatives serving Hawaii’s Second Congressional District.
>> Jan. 3, 1977: Begins serving in Congress.
>> May 16, 1990: Resigns from the House.
>> April 28, 1990: Appointed by Gov. John Waihee to the U.S. Senate to fill the vacancy created by the death of Spark Matsunaga.
>> May 16, 1990: Officially becomes the first Hawaiian and Polynesian-American U.S. senator.
>> Nov. 6, 1990: Elected in special election to complete Matsunaga’s term.
>> July 20, 2000: First introduces legislation that would evolve into the Akaka Bill, which aimed to allow for a Native Hawaiian government under federal recognition.
>> Jan. 12, 2007: Becomes chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
>> January, 2011: Becomes chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
>> March 2, 2011: Announces he would not run for re-election.
>> March 20, 2011: Introduces the Akaka Bill for the last time. It failed.
>> Jan. 3, 2013: Officially ends final Senate term and is succeeded by newly elected fellow Democrat Mazie Hirono.
The state Senate and House of Representatives both held a moment of silence on the chamber floors during Friday’s floor sessions.
Former staffers say the senator’s values earned him deep respect from colleagues across political parties.
“Everybody talks about living aloha, but he demonstrated how to do that in an environment that didn’t reward it,” said Noelani Kalipi, who worked for the senator in a number of roles starting as an intern and later as counsel, deputy legislative director and staff director.
“Capitol Hill is someplace where you show your power, but he was so deeply respected by his colleagues because of the fact that he had these values and they could trust him,” Kalipi said. “He was really focused on what’s good for Hawaii and what we need to do. He wasn’t focused on making sure that everyone knew that he was the one doing it.”
Kalipi first met Akaka in 1976 when she was 6 years old and Akaka was campaigning for the U.S. House.
She was writing name tags in the Hilo Civic Center at one of Akaka’s chili dinner campaign events when the former schoolteacher told her, “You have nice penmanship. When you grow up, you can come work for me,” she recalled. “And I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to.’”
Kalipi and others said it was mandatory for them to likewise serve with aloha.
“If you worked for him, it was mandated: to represent the senator and aloha,” said Donalyn Dela Cruz, who served as Akaka’s press secretary. “Sen. Akaka knew how to hold people accountable — without attacking.”
“I once told him, sometimes it’s very difficult to try to get your point across unless you’re heard at a certain level. Sometimes things just aren’t fair, and you want to call people out on it. I asked him, How do you do that as a leader?” said Dela Cruz, who affectionately called the senator Boss. “He looked at me and said, ‘Measure your words.’”
Jesse Broder Van Dyke, who was Akaka’s communications director from 2006 until the senator’s retirement in 2013, said Akaka always took a genuine interest in people.
“I would see a lot of high-profile senators in D.C. with their staff chasing around them and never really engaging on a personal level,” Broder Van Dyke said. “From the first interview I had with Sen. Akaka when he gave me a big hug and told me I was part of the ohana, all the way through to when I visited him at the hospital, he always asked me about my mom and how I was doing.”
Kalipi said the senator often shared childhood lessons as the youngest son in his family, growing up in Pauoa Valley, that revealed the values instilled in him at a young age.
Akaka’s mother, for example, would often welcome strangers into their humble one-bedroom home without hesitation.
“He’d pull on her muumuu and say, ‘Mom, we don’t have anything to feed them.’ And she would say, ‘That’s OK, boy. Go get water. It’s about welcoming them, letting them know they’re welcome. We’ll just get to know them, and the gift will be that we talk story,’” Kalipi recalled him saying.
“That really said a lot about how he was raised and why he would take the time, why he would invest the time, in building relationships and talking to people and really listening, really connecting,” she said.
Esther Kiaaina, who was the senator’s legislative assistant from 1990 to 1999, said Akaka was a champion for Native Hawaiians and other indigenous peoples and that his death is a tremendous loss for the community.
She was working for the senator when in 1993 President Bill Clinton issued the Apology Resolution for the role the United States played in the overthrow of the kingdom of Hawaii in 1893.
In 2000 Akaka introduced the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, which would become known as the Akaka Bill, in an effort to secure federal recognition for the Native Hawaiian people. Although the effort never became law, Kiaaina said an administrative rule adopted by the Interior Department in 2016 allows for federal recognition, thanks to Akaka’s work.
“Separate from the aloha spirit, no one has done more in Hawaii’s modern history to advance that dialogue, to move the Hawaiian people forward, than he has,” Kiaaina said. “I call myself one of his foot soldiers who will carry on his legacy of trying to make Hawaii a better place for all people.”