Mazie Hirono is Hawai’i’s first woman and the country’s first Asian American woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate. Born in Fukushima, Japan, she previously served in the U.S. House of Representatives, as the lieutenant governor of Hawai’i, and in the Hawai’i House of Representatives. Before joining a Zócalo/Daniel K. Inouye Institute panel, “Does a New Wave of Anti-Asian Racism Require New Ways of Fighting Back?,” Hirono spoke in the virtual green room about scoring a “10” in Room Rater, growing up in Koko Head, and how Ruth Bader Ginsburg reminds her to “fight the good fight.”
What is your favorite plant?
Right now it's the Anthurium plant because that's the plant that people see when I'm doing these Zoom interviews. By the way, you should know that I rated a 10 in Room Rater. Are you familiar with Room Rater?
You'll have to catch me up.
Since so many of us do Zoom interviews, this [Twitter account rates] the rooms, the environments from which we do these calls. They rate where people stand, what rooms they're in, and they've rated queen Elizabeth—who does have an entire palace to work with—and Prince Charles and Hillary Clinton. It's pretty funny. The most you can get is a 10, and for quite a while I got a nine—but I now have been getting 10s, which is hilarious because I just have my little condo. But I like art, so I have art here, and people usually comment on the plant that I have, which—right now—is an Anthurium. That's my favorite plant, because it's the only live plant that I have in my apartment.
What’s your favorite piece of art on your wall?
Right now for my apartment in D.C., I have art quilts. I have a lot of original art in my home in Hawai’i because I love art, and so my home is filled with paintings and a couple of sculptural pieces. But for D.C., I decided that at some point I am going to go back to Hawai’i and it's kind of hard to pack big paintings. I love quilts, so I have art quilts that I've collected over the years. And the other funny thing is, people really pay attention to your environment in room rater, so right now I have three quilts that can often be seen in my Zoom interviews. A member of the international art quilt society, or organization, who lives in Canada, saw this and sent out the interview, and two people contacted me because I’d bought their quilts.
What aspect of your work in the last few years are you most proud of?
Speaking up and speaking out, and being very critical of what the president is doing [when it comes to his] policies that are just mindless cruelty: separation of children at the border, the Muslim ban, his anti-immigrant posture—you name it. It is really, really important in this time for many more voices to be speaking out.
Does this feel like a pivot for you to be so vocal against the administration?
I've always been a fighter, but I just didn't have to be so noisy about it.
Is there a teacher or a boss who has made a significant impact on your life?
The one person who has totally changed my life by bringing me to this country is my mother, and so I always credit her. She's the one person who changed my life.
As far as teachers, I stay in touch with my sixth-grade teacher. He was very kind to me. He knew I was an immigrant; he knew that my family was struggling. After I became elected, he's the only one of my teachers who came to my opening day to congratulate me.
I first got elected in 1980, so we've stayed in touch for a long time. And he's also a military intelligence service person, so he came to Washington, D.C., when the 442nd, the 100th, and the MIS people got the Congressional Medal of Honor. I have a lovely picture of him and his daughter and me on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. His name is Yoshinobu Oshiro.
Do you keep any mementos or items on your desk that help you stay centered or motivated?
Right now I am teleworking from home and on the edge of my counter I have stick-on notes. And I have one that says “calm down.”
There are so many times that I have to remind myself, just calm down! You should see the edge of my counter, which is sort of marble. All these stick-on notes stick really well, and I just stick a lot of notes on there.
What is the strangest gift that you've received from a constituent?
There is a person who gave me an Indonesian batik stamp. It's made out of metal and the Indonesians use it when they're batiking their cloth.
What was the most difficult part of becoming a lawmaker when you first joined the Hawai’i House of Representatives in 1980?
Back then, there were not that many women in office. So there were a number of gender issues that came my way. But it's something that women face in politics.
Did you ever consider giving up?
No. I'm still here after all these years—1980 and here we are, 2020.
When I first started running for office, I thought, "OK, I'll do this for 10 years." Time goes by really fast, but one thing I know is that it's not a matter of how long you've been around, it's really whether you still have the fight in you. And I still have the fight in me.
As a kid, where was your favorite place to be in Honolulu?
Probably when I was growing up in Koko Head, it was going to Hanauma Bay. It is now a nature preserve, but at the time that I was a kid going there, swimming during the summers, we could just walk to the bay. It's really a beautiful, beautiful area.
You've been making homemade paper in quarantine. Can you talk about how creativity comes into play as a politician?
Politics is a creative endeavor because you really have to think of a lot of different ways to be an advocate and push for the legislation or whatever you're doing. It is very creative because you do have to work with other people, and we're not all alike. I find it a creative outlet, but I also think that it is really important for us to exercise both the left and right brain parts.
Politics is often very left brain. The right brain part is really important because that is the creative part, and these are times when I think we need to be a lot more flexible, and flexibility is creativity. I love art and that's part of what I do, is to pay attention to the right brain side of me. That's an important part of keeping me on a somewhat even keel.
You served on the Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, which has since been disbanded. Did you learn anything during that experience that was surprising to you?
Every day, there are 500 billion tweets sent out and over a billion YouTube items. There's a lot of room for misinformation and everything else. On the Judiciary Committee, we have had some hearings focusing on what Big Tech needs to do to ferret out total misinformation. It's been quite the challenge to figure it out because the Republicans' perspective is that Big Tech has a bias against conservative content, even if there is no such bias.
I have concerns about Big Tech not taking down, for example, active shootings, which is very, very painful to the families of the victims. It takes quite a lot to get some of those things off the internet. There is room for us to figure out how to set some parameters clearly on issues such as child pornography. The companies are supposed to be removing these kinds of content but it's still there.
So part of what I am concerned about is the immunity that Big Tech has for basically monitoring content. They have legislative immunity from monitoring those contents, and I think we need to look at whether or not we want to continue to provide them with total immunity, because I believe they have some responsibility to eliminate those kinds of contents.
My last question is on a more hopeful note: What is the last thing that inspired you?
Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death—not only was it so unexpected, but it reminds me how much she just stayed the course. For decades on that court, she stayed the course. She is a reminder of what we need to continue to do, which is to fight for equal rights for everyone and to fight the good fight.