Hawaii’s U.S. senators paid tribute on the Senate floor today to the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, who died Friday at age 93.
Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono remarked on Akaka’s nearly 40-year political career in Washington, while recalling examples of how the late senator served with aloha, earning the moniker “ambassador of aloha.”
“Sen. Akaka’s care, empathy and compassion were evident to everyone who knew him,” said Hirono, who draped a maile lei over her lectern in his memory.
“He brought people together to solve problems and create opportunities. His legislative style wasn’t flashy or over the top. He put his head down and got to work. And he built relationships with colleagues to get things done,” Hirono said.
Schatz said Akaka leaves behind “a legacy of integrity, kindness and service to Hawaii and to the nation.”
“He didn’t just represent Hawaii’s interest in the Congress, he showed the world what Hawaii represents. In the words of President Kennedy: ‘All that we are and all that we hope to be,’” Schatz said. “He was loved by colleagues in both parties because he was kind to everyone. In fact, he never said a bad word about anyone — not even in private.”
Schatz appeared to draw a few subtle contrasts between Akaka’s style and actions and those of the Trump administration.
He said, for example, that Akaka “always fought hard for veterans, for their benefits, for their recognition — no matter the color of their skin or their country of origin.”
“Once when someone challenged him on the cost of benefits for veterans, he answered by saying, and I quote: ‘The price has already been paid many times over by the service of the brave men and women who wore our nation’s uniform,’” Schatz said. “Sen. Akaka never forgot the cost of war on our country.”
He also called Akaka a champion for federal employees, noting how the senator sponsored whistleblower legislation to protect employees from retaliation for reporting waste, fraud and abuse.
“This was a theme of Sen. Akaka’s career — to advocate for people who did not have power, for people who were vulnerable,” Schatz said. “He was a champion for the federal government employees who continue to this day to be a punching bag for some.”
Both senators described Akaka as a tireless advocate for Native Hawaiians and veterans issues in Congress.
Hirono said Akaka lobbied for his namesake legislation, the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act — or the Akaka Bill — for more than a decade to try to establish a process for federal recognition for Native Hawaiians “to achieve parity with Alaska natives and American Indians.”
“While the Native Hawaiian community has differences on the issue of federal recognition, everyone can agree that Sen. Akaka pushed for the passage of the Akaka Bill because he wanted equity and justice for Native Hawaiian people,” she said.
Schatz noted that Akaka, a World War II veteran, made use of the G.I. Bill and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from the University of Hawaii.
“He was deeply convinced that the government could improve people’s lives because he had seen that in his own life as a beneficiary of the G.I. Bill,” Schatz said. “He would become the senator to modernize that bill, bringing it into the 21st century.”
Schatz closed his remarks with comments from longtime U.S. Senate Chaplain Barry Black. Akaka was a faithful attendee of the weekly Senate prayer breakfast.
Black admired what he called Akaka’s “ethical congruence,” because his actions backed up his rhetoric.
“The United States Senate and our country would be better off if there were more leaders like Danny,” Schatz quoted Black as saying. “He fought for the vulnerable, promoted peace, and looked for common ground. Most of all, he embodied the aloha spirit and showed us all what it means to have a pure heart and be a true public servant.”