Friends and colleagues mourned the passing of U.S. Rep. K. Mark Takai on Wednesday, describing the congressman as ferociously hardworking with an enthusiasm for politics dating back to his days at Pearl City High School.
Takai died Wednesday morning in Honolulu surrounded by family after a nine-month battle with pancreatic cancer. He is survived by his wife, Sami Takai, their children Matthew, 14, and Kaila, 13, and parents Erik and Naomi.
Takai was born and raised on Oahu and attended the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where he served as student body president, was editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper, Ka Leo O Hawaii, and was a champion swimmer. While there, he earned a bachelor of arts degree in political science and a master’s degree in public health.
A Democrat, he was elected at age 27 to the state House of Representatives, where he served for 20 years before winning a seat in Congress in 2014, representing urban Oahu. He served on the House Armed Forces Committee and the House Committee on Small Business.
Takai, who championed veterans issues throughout his career, also served in the Hawaii National Guard for 17 years and deployed to the Middle East as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2009.
President Barack Obama, in a statement from the White House, said that Takai leaves behind “a legacy of courage, of service, and of hope.”
“Mark was always a fighter. It’s the spirit he brought to more than two decades of public service on behalf of the people of Hawaii,” said Obama. “He stood up for America’s most vulnerable. He championed our troops and veterans, and proudly wore our nation’s uniform. And his relentless push for cancer research inspired countless Americans fighting the same battle as him. Simply put, our country is better off because of Mark’s contributions.”
Members of the state House paused for a moment of silence in honor of their former colleague during a special floor session Wednesday. A number of them choked up when asked to talk about him.
State Rep. Roy Takumi was so emotional about the loss that he declined to be interviewed, and instead put his thoughts down in writing.
“We have lost a son of Hawaii. And I have lost a wonderful colleague but an even better friend,” he wrote. “But I do know that Mark’s hopes and dreams for Hawaii will never die. Please keep Mark’s family in your thoughts and prayers.”
Driven to succeed
House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke, who served in student government with Takai at the University of Hawaii, was moved to tears when she described Takai’s energy, enthusiasm and potential as a leader.
“He had a terrific promise, and I know he would have had a really terrific future in Congress,” she said.
Luke and Takai ran against each other for student government president at Manoa, and Luke won in a very close race. Takai asked for a recount, which ended up increasing Luke’s margin of victory.
Takai teased Luke about the race for years after that. “Whenever he gets a chance he jokes about how I beat him, and (how that) helped to redefine him so he cannot take things for granted,” she said. And Luke would remind Takai of the fruitless recount.
Luke put Takai in charge of the lobbying committee for the student body, and she said it was Takai who persuaded Gov. John Waihee in the late 1980s to build the Stan Sheriff Center sports arena and increase its seating to 10,000 from 5,000.
“Mark kept insisting. One of the things you love about Mark is he does his homework, and he is like a pit bull, and he is going to get to where he wants to,” Luke said. “He will lay out his arguments, and he met with everybody.”
Takai ran again the next year, 1989, and won.
“He loved public service,” Luke said, and helped to persuade her to run for the state House.
State Rep. Aaron Johanson met Takai in 2011 when Johanson was first elected to the state House, and they both represented the Aiea area. Takai had been in the House since 1994, and acted as a mentor to Johanson.
“He was like a brother to everybody. That’s honestly what he felt like to me, was like a mentor and an older brother, and there’s a lot that he would do for people, often unbeknownst to them,” Johanson said.
Takai had a knack for recalling the small details of people’s lives, and “he dealt with each constituent concern with real care and genuine interest,” Johanson said.
Passion for service
Takai was part of a close, extended family with three brothers and sisters. The family was very supportive of Takai’s career, and was a large part of his campaign apparatus, Johanson said.
Takai’s passion for politics and public service began years before he became a legislator, college friends recall.
Scott Ishikawa, a media relations professional and former newspaper reporter, worked at Ka Leo, UH Manoa’s newspaper, while Takai was editor-in-chief.
“Public service was always his calling,” recalled Ishikawa of his college friend. “I think we were all just happy to see him chase his dream and achieve it.”
Ishikawa said Takai always fought for the “average Joe” and that his youthful energy never waned over the years.
“He never outgrew his enthusiasm,” he said. “His eyes seemed to light up every time, whether it was a good or crazy idea.”
Takai publicly confirmed in November he had been diagnosed with cancer, and he underwent surgery at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., to remove a small tumor in his pancreas.
Takai said doctors found the tumor in late October while testing him to determine why he had been experiencing some stomach pain. Takai said the cancer was caught early, and tests showed that the tumor was “isolated.”
“I am in good spirits and thankful that my prognosis remains good thanks to the early detection,” he said at the time. “My family and I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love, support and prayers.”
Takai returned to Congress on a limited work schedule in early December after undergoing surgery, and began chemotherapy at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
“The diagnosis really brings things quickly into focus,” Takai said in a statement after his surgery. “It reminds me of what’s important, and for me that’s faith, family and fighting for Hawaii.”
He announced on Feb. 17 that he would seek re-election to a second term in Congress, saying he hoped to campaign and “aggressively fight this cancer” at the same time.
He announced on May 19 he had changed those plans and would not run for re-election after he learned the cancer had spread.
“In life, we often make plans for ourselves,” Takai said in his statement at the time. “I had envisioned a long career in the U.S. House of Representatives, building up the seniority and influence that were key to Sen. (Daniel) Inouye’s ability to deliver for Hawaii. But as often happens, we find ourselves on a different journey than what we had planned.”
A loss felt by many
As word of his death spread on Wednesday, condolences from colleagues came from around the islands and the nation.
“Mark humbly and effectively served the people of his state House and congressional districts. In the often tumultuous world of politics, he has been a shining example of what it means to be a public servant,” Gov. David Ige said in a statement. “While we will deeply feel the loss of Mark Takai in the public arena, we cannot forget that he was a family man first. His wife, children and extended family will miss him every moment from this day on. Dawn and I extend our deepest sympathies to Sami, Matthew and Kaila. Your husband and father was a man of principle and goodwill. Thank you for sharing him with the citizens of Hawaii.”
Statements praising the congressman and offering condolences to his family were also issued by the other three members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation, U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the House minority leader, Colleen Hanabusa, whom Takai endorsed earlier this year to replace him in Congress, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, Adm. Harry Harris, the commander of U.S. Pacific forces, and many others.
The City Council’s Budget Committee was in session at Honolulu Hale when word broke of Takai’s passing.
The usually stoic Budget chairwoman, Ann Kobayashi, stopped her meeting, and through tears, asked for a moment of silence. “I know our thoughts and prayers are with his family,” she said, her voice shaking.
Services for Takai are pending.
Star-Advertiser reporter Gordon Pang contributed to this report.