Daniel K. Akaka’s retirement means Hawaii loses Akaka’s more than 20 years of seniority, but next year the nation will lose the unique value of a Hawaiian voice in the U.S. Senate.
It may be a subtle perception to the mainland, but Akaka’s skills and talent reverberate in the many people he has brought into government to help.
Charles Freedman, the former communications director for Gov. John Waihee, who went on to be a Hawaiian Electric Co. vice president, says he was working in an antipoverty program in Hilo when he met Akaka.
Akaka in the 1970s was head of the state’s anti-poverty program in Honolulu and was looking to get more grants for day care programs and other services.
"He said, ‘Go get that kid from the Big Island,’" Freedman says, adding that Akaka has the talent to "put teams together and make them feel good about doing extra work."
Akaka’s brother, the Rev. Abraham Akaka, would discuss the spiritual connection between people, but Freedman says the senator had an equal "emotional intelligence."
"Dan is a very self-aware person, he has a way of understanding where people are at and he would then understand what motivates them. He could get them all pulling on the same rope at the same time," Freedman says.
It was a building of relationships that people may not really know exists.
"It is a great emotional intelligence he has. I don’t know if it is part of the aloha spirit, but if people don’t give it, it isn’t there," Freedman says.
Esther Kiaaina, named the Office of Hawaiian Affair chief advocate in 2009, worked in Akaka’s Senate office for nine years and helped handle Akaka’s successful passage of the Hawaiian Apology Resolution in 1993.
After working for Akaka, Kiaaina went on to become the chief of staff for Rep. Robert Underwood in Guam and former Hawaii U.S. Rep. Ed Case.
Akaka was considered the senator for all U.S. areas in the Pacific, not just Hawaii, Kiaaina says.
The U.S. House has nonvoting delegates for Guam and other U.S. territories, but no one in the Senate.
"The belief is that for anyone in an American possession in the Pacific, Dan Akaka is their senator," Kiaaina says.
She recalls how she first started working for Akaka in the tough, no-quarter-given world of Washington, D.C.
"You walk out and it was hard-core, but when I would come back in the office, it was like I was home," Kiaaina says.
The "home sweet Hawaii nei" feeling starts when you enter the office. Chances are you will be greeted by Akaka’s wife, Millie. She is usually barefoot and gossiping with lobbyists and visitors. It could be a visit by the top lobbyist for a hedge fund or a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but they are all talking about the best place to find SPAM musubi in Honolulu.
As Kiaaina said, people forget how the subtle moves and understanding influences the nudge that gets a bill passed.
The Apology Resolution, for instance, was able to clear the House after Akaka made a couple of calls and had the hard vote changed to a simple voice vote.
"People shouldn’t forget that these things don’t happen by magic; it is the result of hard work and a lot of thought," she said.