Former U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, the humble and gracious statesman who served in Washington with aloha for more than 3-1/2 decades, died early this morning at the age of 93. He had been hospitalized for months and died at The Villas, a St. Francis care facility.
Akaka’s death was confirmed by his former spokesman Jesse Broder Van Dyke. Services are pending.
Akaka, the first Native Hawaiian to serve in the Senate, was a strong advocate for Native Hawaiians and veterans during a political career that started in the House of Representatives in 1976 and ended in the U.S. Senate in 2013.
Known for a modest political style and described as the embodiment of the aloha spirit, Akaka was widely respected in the islands and Washington. But he rarely sought the national spotlight and instead worked largely under the radar, focusing on issues important to Hawaii.
He retired from the Senate with what some considered an unspectacular record. Time magazine even identified him as one of that body’s most ineffective senators.
The piece of legislation most tied to his name, the Akaka Bill, never mustered enough votes despite 12 years of trying to shepherd a law that would have granted federal recognition to the Native Hawaiian people.
In the Senate, Akaka built a lasting friendship and alliance with powerful Hawaii U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, and together they created a formidable delegation.
With Inouye’s help, Akaka was able to score lots of federal money for Native Hawaiian education, health and social service programs. Akaka and Inouye also persuaded the United States to formally apologize for its role in the overthrow of the kingdom of Hawaii in 1893. President Bill Clinton issued the apology in 1993 on the 100th anniversary of the overthrow.
While Akaka was a loyal Democratic soldier, there were occasions when Akaka defied his party — like the time he voted in support of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge despite overwhelming environmental and party opposition. Akaka explained that he based his decision on a promise he made to the Inupiat who live on the refuge and see drilling as an indigenous right.
A defiant Akaka was also among the Senate minority opposed to the war in Iraq from the start, and even before the hostilities started he warned about the lack of planning for reconstruction and a clear exit strategy.
“He’s been courageous in speaking out against this misguided war in Iraq from the beginning,” U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., told The Honolulu Advertiser in 2006. “He’s a great personal friend and true man of his word. The U.S. Senate needs Danny’s judgment and his unyielding commitment to making America live up to its highest ideals in the years ahead.”
Born Sept. 11, 1924, in Honolulu, Daniel Kahikina Akaka grew up in Pauoa Valley in a poor and devoutly religious household. His older brother, Abraham, would go on to become the well-known pastor of Kawaiaha‘o Church.
Akaka, of Native Hawaiian and Chinese ancestry, attended the Kamehameha School for Boys, graduating in 1942, and then worked as a welder and diesel mechanic with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before entering active duty in the Army just after the war ended.
At the University of Hawaii he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1952 and a master’s in education in 1966. Starting in 1953 he worked as a teacher, vice principal and principal over an 18-year span that saw him take classroom jobs at Kamehameha and several public schools. Among other positions, he was the founding principal at Ewa Beach’s Pohakea Elementary School, which he named. (It means “to give forth light.”)
Akaka married the former Mary Mildred Chong and established a home in Nuuanu. The couple would go on to have five children, 15 grandchildren and even more great-grandchildren.
Akaka left his education career behind in 1971 when he was chosen by Gov. John A. Burns to serve as state director of the Office of Economic Opportunity.
Looking back, Akaka said in a 1991 story in MidWeek that he had been happy as an educator but ultimately decided he could serve more people in government.
In 1974 Gov. George Ariyoshi tapped Akaka to run for lieutenant governor, but he lost in the Democratic primary. He worked as an aide to Ariyoshi and then joined the race for the 2nd Congressional District, which he won in 1976.
In the House, Akaka landed on the Appropriations Committee, which oversees federal spending, and learned how to work behind the scenes to get federal money for his constituents in Central, Leeward and Windward Oahu and the neighbor islands.
While he helped secure funds for projects such as the H-3 freeway, among other things, his record was not widely known when he was appointed to the Senate by Gov. John Waihee in 1990 after U.S. Sen. Spark Matsunaga died.
Pat Saiki, a Republican congresswoman, raised doubts about Akaka’s House achievements in their 1990 special election for the remainder of Matsunaga’s term. But Akaka, who enjoyed establishment and union support, finished the campaign strong and beat Saiki with 54 percent of the vote.
In the Senate, Akaka teamed with Inouye on many occasions. His position on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which authorizes defense projects, allowed him to collaborate with Inouye, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee, on military spending for the islands. Together they designated millions of dollars each year for Hawaii defense projects.
Veterans had a friend in Akaka, too. As chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, he introduced reforms to free up stalled medical care and educational benefits.
He also encouraged the military to examine the service records of Asian-Americans and Pacific islanders from World War II, which led to Inouye and other members of the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team receiving the Medal of Honor.
During his years on Capitol Hill, Akaka fought for the expansion of Hawaii’s national parks, financial literacy for young people and protection against bioterrorism.
In the 1990s Akaka was behind the Hawaiian Home Lands Recovery Act, which pressed the federal government to replace valuable land it acquired when Hawaii was a territory. The senator also made sure the government accurately counted Hawaiians in federal data collection, creating a category for Native Hawaiians and other Pacific islanders.
His propensity to avoid the media spotlight led to some notoriety. Congressional Quarterly’s “Politics in America” described him in 1994 as “virtually invisible,” and Time magazine in 2006 ranked him among the five worst senators, describing him as a “master of the minor resolution and the bill that dies in committee.”
At the time, many people who knew Akaka thought the Time ranking was subjective and unfair, mistaking his humility and focus on Hawaii for weakness.
Akaka, soft-spoken, polite and always ready to greet both friends and acquaintances with a grandfatherly hug, chose to concentrate on issues important to Hawaii and on a handful of national topics he took interest in.
He also prided himself on getting things done through the power of personal relationships and friendships rather than through rhetoric or legislative wheeling and dealing.
In 2000 Akaka introduced the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, which would become known as the Akaka Bill. He was worried about a legal threat to Hawaiian-only programs, and the legislation would have recognized Native Hawaiians as an indigenous people with the right to form their own government.
But the bill, over a dozen years, repeatedly stalled, mainly in the Senate, where it was blocked by conservative Republicans who opposed it as race-based discrimination.
Members of the Hawaii delegation pledged to take up the cause after Akaka’s retirement but allowed the Obama administration to explore federal recognition through the Department of the Interior.
Beating back a solid challenge from former Congressman Ed Case in 2006, Akaka was re-elected at the age of 82 despite being slowed by having a hip and both knees replaced.
When he retired at age 88 in 2012, Akaka bid farewell in a speech described as “a stoic and soulful aloha and mahalo” to his Senate colleagues.
“I want to say mahalo nui loa,” he said in conclusion on the Senate floor.
Akaka was admired by colleagues on both sides of the aisle.
“He’s a lovable person, and most of us are not that lovable,” U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., told the Advertiser in 2003.
“He was a quiet man,” said U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., in 2012. “He was a powerful force, one of the most decent people you’d ever want to meet here.”