April 30, 2021

Mazie Hirono

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) discusses her recent bipartisan bill addressing anti-Asian hate crimes, how her immigrant experience informs her legislative priorities and what caused her to become a more outspoken member of Congress.

Read Full Transcript EXPAND

A heart of fire unleashed.
This week on ‘Firing Line.’

You showed me your care.
You showed me your compassion.
Where is that tonight?

A trailblazing lawmaker with an inspiring immigrant story.
Democrat Mazie Hirono of Hawaii was the first Asian-American woman elected to the Senate…
I do.

…a self-described workhorse who’s dedicated decades to public service, taking on hate crimes against Asian-Americans…
Our community has suffered too much from the two epidemics of racism and COVID.

…with nearly unanimous support.

The yeas are 94.
The nays are 1.

She says she preferred to use her voice behind the scenes… until something happened.

He’s a misogynist and admitted sexual predator and a liar.

With her party in control and pushing an ambitious agenda, what does Senator Mazie Hirono say now?

‘Firing Line with Margaret Hoover’ is made possible in part by… …and by… Corporate funding is provided by…
Senator Mazie Hirono.


Welcome to ‘Firing Line.’

It’s good to be with you.

You are the first female senator elected from Hawaii.
You are the first Asian-American woman in the United States Senate.
And you’re an immigrant, having been born in Japan.
You’ve just published a powerful memoir entitled ‘Heart of Fire: An Immigrant Daughter’s Story.’
And it was dedicated to Laura Sato Hirono, your 96-year-old mother who just passed away.


What is the most important lesson that you learned from your mother that has guided you through your life in public service?

I have three guiding principles that I live by that I learned from my mother.
One person can make a difference, because my mother changed my life by bringing me to this country.
The second is, half the battle is showing up.
I don’t mean just physically showing up, but to stay the course, be very determined about where you need to go.
And my mother stayed the course.
She was very determined to get us away and to succeed in creating a better life for us.
And the third is to take risks.
Get out of your comfort zones.

The Senate has just passed bipartisan legislation that you sponsored — the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act that works with the Department of Justice to protect Asian-American and Pacific Islanders against the horrific rise in violence directed at the community.
You wrote in your book that racism is never far below the surface in our country.


You yourself as a US senator have even found yourself taking personal precautions like not wearing earbuds when you’re walking alone.
Can you tell us how the rise in violence against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders has impacted you personally?

As you say, I’m very careful about awareness of my surroundings.
And, frankly, with the rise in hate crimes and these totally unprovoked kinds of attacks that come from nowhere, I don’t know any Asian person, Pacific Islander person who just walks around as though nothing bad might happen.
I think everyone has become a lot more alert to the fact that they could get attacked.

President Biden has now unveiled all three parts of his Build Back Better plan.
That agenda would include approximately 6 trillion dollars in new spending altogether.
And it has promises to pay for that spending in part by tax increases.
The plan includes $1.8 trillion for a national paid family leave, universal prekindergarten, free community college, and subsidized childcare.

Now, under the Senate rules as they exist right now, most of these progressive agenda items are unlikely to become law.
But what would be your highest priorities?

Considering the state of our economy and the fact that millions of people are still out of work, we need to get things back to some level of normalcy.
First We have to get as many people vaccinated as possible, and then we have to enable women in particular to be able to get back to work because millions of them left the job force during the pandemic.
And that is why those provisions relating to the care economy, such as childcare, family leave, and pre-K — all of those things will help women get back to work.
So I’m not going to parse what we need to do.
It all comes together.

But, realistically, it won’t pass, right?
So, are you saying that the paid family leave is — If you could have one thing, paid family leave would be at the top of your list?

Sure, because we’ve been aware of the need for that for a long, long, long time, and we just can’t get it because we can’t get the Republicans mainly to support it.

There have been Republican efforts.
You may disagree with the solutions Republicans come up with, but Ivanka Trump and Marco Rubio did work very earnestly on a proposal for paid family leave.
Is it fair to say that the only reason it hasn’t happened is because Republicans haven’t come to the table?

Well, there haven’t been more — enough of them.
[ Chuckles ] So clearly, in this environment —
So what would it take?
What would it take?

I would say we would have to do either filibuster reform or the Republicans — If Mitch McConnell said today, ‘I’m going to work with the Democrats and we’re going to get these things done,’ it will happen — there will still be the holdouts.
We know who they likely will be.
But things will happen.
But that is not Mitch McConnell’s priority.
His priority is to take back the Senate, which means that he is not about to help Joe Biden get his major pieces of legislation through.
And he’s certainly not going to be helping Democrats with our priorities, so that’s where we are.

I’d like to ask you about your own immigration story.
I mean, you write extensively about your time growing up, your mother working and leaving you and your siblings to take care of yourselves to quite a large extent as she tried to get your lives going in Hawaii.

Yes, and the fact that I am an immigrant, I understand the opportunities that this country provided for me that I would never have had growing up in a little rice farm with my grandparents in a really rural part of Japan.
So I am very grateful and aware of this country, and so what I do is to give back.
But I’m also aware that we are not perfect, that there are wide gaps in the kind of support that we provide to families and women and working people and children in our country.
So those are the people in particular that I really fight for, not to mention the immigrants who continue to come to our country with the hope for a better life.

Your own immigrant story made you fiercely critical of the policies that were pursued by the Trump administration.


From President Trump’s attempt to end DACA to instituting a Muslim ban to separation at the southern border.
Talk about how your own little brother, Wayne, was traumatized by being left in Japan initially when your mother moved you and your other sibling to Hawaii — an episode that makes family separation quite personal for you.

Yes, when my mother brought my older brother and me to Hawaii, it’s because we were old enough to go to school while she went to work to support us.
She had to leave my baby brother in Japan in the loving care of the same grandparents who took care of me from the age of 3 till we arrived in Hawaii.
Little did we know that the separation trauma would be a detriment to my brother for the rest of his tragically short life.
So, yes, we know that when you separate little children from their parents, you are causing huge, lasting harm to them.
But watching Trump do that with not a care about what would happen to these kids was hard to take.
And so I did go to the floor to talk about the lasting harm that separation does.
And this is why, in terms of immigration reform, I have written to President Biden and I make it very clear that family unity should be a guiding principle of immigration reform.

A record number of unaccompanied minors have crossed the border since President Biden took office.
The United States government is holding more than 20,000 migrant children in its care, with a record number held in detention cells.
A article just last week says some children were spending weeks in custody away from their parents or guardians, even if they want to claim their children.
Now, there was justified outrage at the child separation policy under the Trump administration, but, Senator, where is the outcry now?

I know that Joe Biden is — He wants to create a humane immigration system.
He inherited an inhumane, shredded immigration system.
And so, yes, this is a huge, huge concern.
And I think one of the first things that the Biden administration is doing is to find either the parents or vetted sponsors to take these children because we don’t want them in facilities.
So, that takes time.
But in order to build a healthy and humane immigration system, that will take time.

You visited the border yourself in 2018, and you called the situation unacceptable.
You returned the following year in 2019.
Will you urge Vice President Harris, who has been tasked with handling this crisis, to visit the border, as she hasn’t yet been there?

Of course.

Why wouldn’t she have gone yet?

I don’t know. Maybe — We have a few other things to deal with, like the pandemic and everything else, so I’m not going to point fingers at her in the sense of — I hope that she will go down to the border.
I hope that we can have a comprehensive, ‘whole of government’ approach to what we need to do to have a humane immigration system.

According to and an ABC News poll, the majority of Americans actually disapprove of President Biden’s handling of the border.
Senator, why is it so difficult for some to call the situation at the border a crisis?

I think the President calls it a crisis.
I would call it a crisis.
We can call it a challenge.
But we know what the factors are.
We know what is happening.
So whatever you call it, we’re going to need to deal with it.
We’re going to need to address it in a humane way.

You have joined more than 30 Senate Democrats in asking the White House to raise the refugee cap to 62,500 from the Trump administration’s 15,000.
Now, this is an issue that the current administration has gone back and forth on.
What is your understanding, Senator, of the White House reluctance to initially raise the cap back to the pre-Trump levels?

I’m not going to speak for the administration, but anything relating to immigration is very difficult to handle.
You know that there is a huge anti-immigrant fervor in our country.
And so walking that line is not easy.
But of course, I’ve certainly voiced — added my voice to those people who are saying you need to raise the cap for refugees because this is a whole different group of people.
They are not awaiting their asylum claims.
These are people who have already been vetted to come to our country, and they usually have church sponsors and other people who will help them to make their way in our country.

President Biden has spoken a lot about unity, from his campaign to his inaugural address.
And you tell some really surprising anecdotes in your book about moments of legislative compromise with former Republican Representative Don Young, with former Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama and also Senator Lindsey Graham.


Share with the audience the story about your impromptu meeting with Jeff Sessions in the Republican cloakroom and what came of it.

I had a bill that I wanted to get unanimous consent to pass through the Senate, which was to help the Philippines, people in the Philippines who had suffered a horrible hurricane.
I saw Jeff Sessions come to object.
He was very surprised that I went into the Republican cloakroom, but I wanted to talk with them.
And I asked them, ‘Why is your caucus against bill?’
And he said, ‘Well, we ought to be consistent.
We don’t like these kinds of bills.’
And I started off by saying, ‘Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.’
And then I just looked at him, and I put my hand to his heart, and I looked at him and I said, ‘This is what I’m appealing to.’
And he just looked at me.
And it’s — it was something that I know he had never experienced, but I think he sensed my utmost sincerity.
So by the time we got back on the floor, he noted that he would work with me to get the bill passed.
And that evening, we were able to come up with language that enabled the bill to not only pass the Senate, but the House, and it went to Barack Obama for signature.
That was a nice moment.
And I’ve had those kinds of moments with Don Young over keeping a program for native Hawaiians and Alaska Natives and indigenous peoples in place.
And Lindsey Graham on comprehensive immigration reform in 2013.

Is that spirit of compromise gone?

It makes it a lot harder now because you have a Republican caucus led by a person who is not very interested in helping pass these kinds of much-needed legislation with a sense of urgency.
His urgency is to take back the Senate in two years.

What kind of reforms do you think would help Congress work better?

Structured reform would be to eliminate the filibuster or put in place a talking filibuster.

Do you prefer eliminating the filibuster or reforming the filibuster?

Well, I’m for eliminating the filibuster, but apparently not everybody on my caucus is at that point yet.

No, they’re not. They’re not.
And one of the arguments is that that could have pretty severe consequences to the legislative agenda in the Senate in 2022 if Republicans were to take the Senate back.
What would the elimination of the filibuster do to your priorities if Democrats didn’t run the chamber?

Well, what would happen is that — We’re, I guess, expecting the Republicans to pass the most horrible legislation that probably takes away a woman’s right to choose, that goes against possibly LGBT rights, all kinds of limitations.
And if that’s where they want to go, believe me, our job as Democrats if the filibuster is eliminated is to make sure that the American public understands — and I’m speaking very plainly — who’s screwing them over.
And it won’t be the Democrats.

So if you could get rid of the filibuster right now, you’d be for it?

It’s not as though this just came to me all of a sudden.
I have been watching Mitch McConnell for the last four years not deal with the real issues that are facing our country.
And I came to the conclusion that we need to eliminate the filibuster so, with a sense of urgency, we can pass legislation that will help our families, will help individuals in our country.

Your book catalogs your evolution, particularly in the Trump years, of becoming more vocal speaking out.
You write, ‘Of course, I had always had a voice — and I had been using it for decades to advocate for my constituents.
Still, I had to admit there was some truth in the stories claiming that my self-expression was evolving.
The relentless assault on the nation by Trump and his enablers had demanded that I use my voice in a new way.’
Tell me about that evolution for you.

I come from a culture and a background where being vocal, aggressive, in-your-face, those are not rewarded behaviors, especially coming from a woman.
So, in Hawaii, we want to work together in the spirit of aloha and ohana, which means we care about more than just our own families.
Those are values that I hold.
On the other hand, as I said, I’ve always been a very determined person.
I don’t like bullies, and in Trump, we had the biggest bully of them all.
And I began to speak up, and I became my more complete self by exercising my vocal cords more.

In your book, you referenced Mitch McConnell’s inhumanity, you’ve spoken about Lindsey Graham’s lost soul, and you even likened Trump administration officials to rats.
Now, I understand you disagree with their politics.
And you all are on opposite sides of the aisle, you have fundamentally different perspectives on how to approach these policy choices.
But some of that language is pretty dehumanizing and not as much in the spirit of aloha, as you just mentioned.

Well, that’s why I say, as a Buddhist, as a Buddhist, one seeks to be compassionate and kind.
And I don’t always succeed in that.
There are times that I am very provoked to say what is going on, and the swamp that was Trump, the moral morass that was around him — that is true.
There is no question in my mind.
And so, yes, I will use descriptive terms.

So the language is justified in your — in your perspective.

People disagree with me.
It’s not as though I go there saying, ‘Well, now I’m going to use particular words.’
I do think about the policies behind what I’m objecting to and why.
And then what I say is very plain.
And sometimes I swear.
The way I put it is with all the horrible things coming out of the Trump administration, if you’re not moved to swear once in a while, you’re not paying attention.

Does language that dehumanizes political opponents, does that make it harder to get things done?

I’ve used very strong language, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t work with my colleagues, and I do.

You sit on the Judiciary Committee, and you voted against all three of President Trump’s court nominees — Justice Gorsuch, Justice Kavanaugh, Justice Barrett.
President Biden has created a commission to explore the issue of adding new seats to the court and court reform.
And in the past, you’ve said that court reform is long overdue.
Do you support adding seats to the court?

That’s just one way to add more balance, because everybody realizes that we probably have a 6-3, very ideologically conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

So are you for adding seats to the court?

That’s one way.
Another way would be to cycle circuit-court judges to the Supreme Court.
That’s not exactly like adding, but in a way it creates more, I think, opportunities for discussion and different kind of outcomes.

You write about the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in your book, calling her the woman who anchored the progressive wing on the court.
And she called court packing a bad idea.
Justice Stephen Breyer warned against changing the composition of the court just a few weeks ago.
If they resist the idea, why do you suppose you and so many Democrats feel so strongly that it needs to happen?

I think court reform needs to happen because, as I said, we now are going to see a lot more 6-3 decisions, that you can tell, that you can identify as being very ideologically based decisions, not decisions based on fact or the law or precedent.
And, by the way, they also signal what kind of re-hearings they’d like to do.
So, Justices Alito and Thomas have signaled, ‘Oh, we want to revisit Obergefell.’
That is a decision that enabled gay marriages.
This is why you see this whole huge number of cases being brought that will basically limit a woman’s right to choose, that will probably undo protections for LGBTQ people, that will definitely weaken unions and working people’s rights to form unions and stay united.
You will see all of these kinds of things.
I don’t mind conservative judges as long as they can be fair and that they don’t have an ideological agenda.
That is not the case.

As a member of the Judiciary Committee, you strongly condemned Brett Kavanaugh for the sexual misconduct allegations against him during his confirmation hearings.
I want to remind you of something you said to reporters.
Let me — Take a look at this.

Guess who’s perpetrating all of these kinds of actions.
This is the man in this country.
And I just want to say to the men of this country — just shut up and step up!
Do the right thing!

An example of your augmented, increased vocality.
Listen, you are — you are one of four women on the Judiciary Committee.
And you wrote about Anita Hill’s testimony in your book, about sexual harassment allegations during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings.
At that point, there was not a single women on the Judiciary Committee.

That’s right.

And you write that women across the country watched Anita Hill ‘being demeaned and dismissed by an all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee.’
Now, one of those men was President Joe Biden.
He was the chair of the committee then, and he didn’t allow corroborating witnesses.
How do you reflect on President Biden’s role in the Clarence Thomas hearings now?

Well, I hope that he’s reflecting on his role himself, and I think that he’s probably changed his mind about the fact that when women come forward with these kinds of allegations, they should not be dismissed out of hand.
They should be listened to, and there should be corroboration.

Anita Hill had a long conversation with him and says that she was not convinced that he had taken full responsibility for his conduct in the hearings.

Yeah, and let’s hope that he would not have that kind of hearing should he have another opportunity.
Also, that’s called learning, expanding your thinking about something.

In ‘Heart of Fire, you write about how Betty Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique’ played an important role for you when you were a young woman.
You chose to be photographed, in fact, with that book in a photo op in 2018 when a record number of women were elected to Congress.
47 years earlier, in 1971, Betty Friedan herself appeared on the original ‘Firing Line’ with William F. Buckley Jr.
Take a look at this.

Politically, we must begin to have our own voice.
There must be many, many, many more women than one running for the Senate in ’72.
And we will have our own caucus for the Democratic Convention and the Republican Convention, and We will insist on political priorities for our issues, and we will cross party lines, if need be, to elect women to Congress, to city hall, to state legislature, to the Senate.

You wouldn’t go so far as to say that we should pass a Constitutional amendment saying that 50% of the senators had to be women, would you?

Well, I don’t know whether — I mean, I’m not a good enough lawyer to know whether that should be a Constitutional amendment.
But it wouldn’t hurt.
Wouldn’t hurt. Why not?
[ Both laugh ]
Why not, indeed? [ Laughs ]
Senator, tell me — how did Betty Friedan impact your life?

Even if I was raised in a very nontraditional kind of way, it is hard to escape the expectations of a dominant culture, and the dominant culture was people like me should get married and have children.
I read that book in college, and literally a light bulb went on, and I thought, why, with the kind of background I have, do I think that some guy is going to come and take care of me?
And so, at that point, I began to really look for other ways that I was going to conduct my life.
It’s probably one of the reasons that I didn’t get married until really late in life, because getting married and having children was not at the top of my list of priorities.
I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s a choice that I made.

What advice do you give young women who aspire to a life in public service today when they ask you?

To be true to their values.
First of all, have them, to have a core of priorities and beliefs that will guide you, because in politics you’ll be yanked this way and that, and if you don’t have a moral core that guides you, you are going to be yanked around.
And to be true to yourself.
Easier said than done.
And to be as completely yourself as possible, including vocalizing your views.
And so that’s something that a lot of women don’t get much support of.
And, clearly, women’s anger is totally frowned upon.
And, yet, women have a lot of anger because we’ve had to go through with a lot of the kind of B.S. that we have to contend with.
But you can channel that anger in ways that will make you very determined to get to where you need to go.
So, much as I am a very reserved person by being in politics, I’ve had to really open up to campaigning and talking to people and being much more vocal about things.
And we all have that capacity.
It just took me kind of a long time to get there.
And I hope that they, especially young women — it won’t take them as long to be their more complete selves.

Senator Mazie Hirono, thank you for joining me on ‘Firing Line.’ Aloha.

Thank you. Aloha.

‘Firing Line with Margaret Hoover’ is made possible in part by… …and by… Corporate funding is provided by… ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪
You’re watching PBS.