BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – A cheerful and gentlemanly U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-HI, gave a classy farewell speech on Sunday as he addressed more than 600 Democrats at their convention for one final time before leaving the U.S. Senate.
The 87-year old opted to retire at the end of his 2012 term after his powerful partner in the U.S. Senate, Hawaii’s Senior Senator Daniel Inouye, said publicly that he could no longer help Akaka with fundraising efforts because of his responsibilities as President Pro temp of the Senate, which includes fundraising for other Democrats.
Akaka was accompanied on stage by his son and granddaughter, both who spoke about him before Akaka took center stage. Akaka’s granddaughter, who is in her second year of college, said her grandfather was her role model. Akaka beamed with pride as his granddaughter, remarkably poised before a packed ballroom that included Hawaii’s top political leaders, spoke of the lessons she learned from him over the years. Akaka and his wife Millie have four sons and a daughter, 15 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
With former Gov. John Waihee, Gov. Neil Abercrombie, Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz sitting in the front row, Akaka gave a stirring speech about his background and how former Gov. Jack Burns and former Gov. George Ariyoshi recruited him into politics by telling him the native Hawaiian community needed a voice.
Akaka became the first Native Hawaiian and the only Chinese American in the U.S. Senate.
A World War II veteran who served in the U.S. Army, and then went on to become a public school teacher and principal, Akaka focused his efforts when in Congress on improving programs for Americans veterans and students.
First elected to the U.S. House in 1976, he was then appointed to the U.S. Senate following the death of U.S. Senator Spark Matsunaga.
Akaka, who is known as one of the kindest people in Hawaii politics, also spoke about the true meaning of Aloha. He brought several members of the audience to tears and led one native Hawaiian woman to spontaneously break into a native Hawaiian chant. At the end of his remarks, Hawaii Democratic Party Chair Dante Carpenter presented Akaka with a Hawaiian statue specially crafted for him.
While Akaka remained beloved by the public throughout his many decades in office, he did introduce controversial legislation entitled the Native Hawaiian Recognition Act, which he hoped would protect funding for native Hawaiian only programs.
Critics of the legislation, which took many forms over the last decade the legislation has been debated, said it would divide Hawaii by race, categorized native Hawaiians as an Indian tribe although they were not tribe based, and cause a number of other social and economic problems and inequities.The legislation, which is supported by President Barack Obama and all U.S. Senate candidates including former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle, but opposed by many conservatives, libertarians and native Hawaiian sovereignty activists, is still being debated today.
According to his Senate web site, Akaka continues to chair the Indian Affairs Committee and the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, and be a member of the Armed Services, Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs and Veterans’ Affairs Committees.