UPDATED:  February 27, 2011 10:42 PM
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Sen. Daniel Akaka’s Legacy of Public Service

By: Jennie L. Ilustre

Recently, U.S. Sen. Daniel Kahikina Akaka (D-Hawaii) received the Lifetime Public Service Award from the Asian American Action Fund (AAA-Fund), based in the nation’s capital. Doubtless the award will be the first of many. On March 2, the hardworking, dedicated lawmaker announced he was retiring in 2012.

The decision to retire was not easy, said Akaka, 86. “At the end of this term, I will have served almost 22 years in the United States Senate and, prior to that, more than 13 years in the United States House of Representatives,” he added. He paid tribute to “my incredible staff” in Washington, D.C. and Hawaii, saying, “They have exemplified the true meaning of being a public servant.”

Akaka’s former Legislative Director and current AAA-Fund Deputy Executive Director Melissa Unemori Hampe presented the award. At the political action committee’s reception, she noted his “distinguished political career spanning decades.”

“As someone who had the privilege of working for Senator Akaka for several years, I know that he is very unique in the Senate,” she said. “He remains extremely modest and gets things done on the goodwill he has built up in his relationships with others.”

She thanked him on behalf of his fellow veterans who sacrificed and put their lives on the line for their country, including Filipino World War II veterans. She noted his work on national and homeland security issue, and his valiant fight for health, education, and human service programs in the current budget debate.

On behalf of Asian American and Pacific Islanders, and American Native Hawaiians, she also said, “Thank you for holding our needs close to your heart.” Akaka is proud of his Native Hawaiian and Chinese ancestry.

Eric Lachica, executive director of the American Coalition for Filipino Veterans, recalled Senator Akaka’s dedication. “Over the years and with his fellow Senator Daniel Inouye, Senator Akaka went all-out in winning the fight for our Filipino American WWII veterans.” In 2009, the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Act was signed into law.

“As a veteran, teacher and legislator, Akaka’s legacy is awesome,” he added. “We look forward to working with him and his friendly, efficient staff to post more legislative victories before he retires in December 2012, such as the Filipino Veterans Family Reunification bill. We salute him for his outstanding service to the nation, and extend best wishes to him and his family.”

Akaka’s retirement announcement has opened the door to the younger generation of public servants. David Catanese of politico.com wrote the Democrats listed Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz and U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa as candidates who could keep Akaka’s seat, adding an aide pointed to the Democrats’ 34-point voter registration edge. The column also mentioned President Obama, who is up for reelection in 2012, carried Hawaii, where he grew up, by 45 percentage points.

Other potential candidates are U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono (D, HI) and former Democratic Rep. Ed Case. It’s too early to predict the primary outcome. Senator Inouye, the powerful chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations and Senate President Pro Tempore, told Politico.com he was keeping out of the Democratic primary fight.

As a good Democrat who wants to keep the seat in the party, Inouye also told the top Capitol Hill-based paper that he would support whoever becomes the party candidate in the November 2012 general elections. Former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle of the Republican Party, who could enter the race, is popular in Hawaii.

To be sure, Inouye would miss his fellow WWII veteran and fellow senator from Hawaii. They’ve fought and won so many battles together. Inouye took the time to drop by the AAA-Fund event before it started. He would have stayed, too. But he was needed at the budget battle.

Greatest Generation

Like Senator Inouye, Akaka is a member of the Greatest Generation who fought in World War II. He served in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from 1943 to 1947. As a legislator, he has been a top advocate for veterans.

As chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, Senator Akaka has worked to improve services, as well as increased employment and housing opportunities, for men and women in the military.

He has served in the U.S. Senate since 1990. He was appointed to the Senate in April 1990, following the demise of Senator Spark M. Matsunaga. He was sworn into office on May 16, 1990. He handily won a spirited special election the following November to complete the rest of the four-year term.

Constituents kept sending him back to Washington, re-electing him in 1994 and 2000 by wide margins. In the Senate, he serves on the committees of Armed Services, Energy and Natural Resources, Governmental Affairs (GAC), Veterans Affairs, and Indian Affairs.

He is a leader in renewable energy research and development, and marine protection and environmental preservation, among other things. He has also made his mark as a champion of the rights of indigenous peoples.

Senator Akaka is a member of the historic Kawaiaha’o Church, where he served as choir director for 17 years. He and his wife Millie have four sons and a daughter. They have 15 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. Family and church–and of course, Hawaii–are enough to make Senator Akaka look forward to his retirement.

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