By BECKY BOHRER
HONOLULU — Sen. Daniel Akaka said he knew it was time for him to leave Washington when at a family gathering last year, he didn’t recognize some of his grandchildren — didn’t know their names, didn’t know who their parents are.
“I felt terrible,” he said.
Akaka, who has spent 36 years in Congress, including 22 years in the Senate, said he looks forward to returning to Hawaii and reconnecting with his still-growing family, which includes five children, 15 grandchildren and, soon, 16 great-grandchildren. He leaves a far different Washington than the one he found when he was first elected to the House in 1976 — less compromising, he says, and more partisan. But Akaka said he will miss his colleagues, and the work.
During his career Akaka, 88, built a reputation as an advocate for military veterans, federal employees and Native Hawaiians. Akaka was the first Native Hawaiian to serve in the Senate and is one of the few remaining U.S. Army veterans of World War II serving. He credits the GI Bill, which allowed him and other veterans to get an education and build a new life, with helping him to heal after the war.
Current and former colleagues describe a kind and respectful man, deeply religious — but no pushover. “Strength through aloha,” is how Kawika Riley, a former Akaka aide, puts it.
“When we’re talking about what’s significant about his career in public service, it’s not just how he broke barriers as a Native Hawaiian … but that he did it without sacrificing his Hawaiian values or Hawaiian way of approaching things,” said Riley, who is currently Washington bureau chief for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
Incoming U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who was an aide to Akaka in 2006-08, called him an inspiration.
“He lived aloha with respect. He respected all people, he truly listened, he cared and he stood up for what he believed in and why he was there. And why he was there was to serve the people of Hawaii and his country,” said Gabbard, D-Hawaii. “Even now, after all of these years serving in Congress, he never lost sight of that.”
Akaka never intended to get into politics. He said all he ever wanted to do was help people, and felt he could best do that through his chosen profession, education.
Akaka rose through the ranks, before being chosen to work for then-Gov. John Burns, who saw his leadership potential and encouraged him to run for office. Akaka demurred. It wasn’t until 1976, when a House seat opened up that Akaka, with encouragement from the new governor, said he decided to go for it.
“I feel elated that I was able to then serve even more people of Hawaii, and our country, too,” he said.
Among his proudest achievements is his work on veterans’ issues, including passage of a “21st Century” GI Bill to help veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, expansion of veterans’ services and changes in the way veterans’ health care system is funded. Akaka chaired the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee from 2007 to 2010. This past October, he received a lifetime achievement award for his support of veterans from the Japanese American Veterans Association.
Speaking to his support of federal workers, Akaka, in his farewell address to the Senate last week, said he hoped his colleagues would continue to work on making the federal government an “employer of choice,” saying the country needs the best and brightest working for it.
In that same speech, he also made a final appeal to his colleagues to pass legislation that would allow for Native Hawaiians to form a federally recognized government, an issue he’s unsuccessfully pushed for years.
Akaka said it is only right, and long overdue, to allow for Native Hawaiians to have a government-to-government relationship with the U.S. government, similar to what American Indian tribes have. In an interview later, he blamed misinterpretations about what the bill would do for its failure to advance in the Senate.
While he won’t author such a bill again, “it will forever bear my highest aspirations and heartfelt commitment to the Native Hawaiian people, the State of Hawaii and the United States of America,” he said in his speech.
Earlier this month, President Barack Obama gave Akaka a “shout-out” during the Tribal Nations Conference in Washington for his work for indigenous people. “You know that Danny is going to be retiring this year and he’s such a great friend. … I’ve got to give him a little special props,” said Obama, who was born in Honolulu.
Despite his tenure and accomplishments, Akaka remained Hawaii’s junior senator and was often overshadowed by its senior senator, Daniel Inouye, the longest-serving member of the Senate, who died from respiratory complications Monday. Heading into this election cycle, Akaka faced the potential for a tough campaign and questions about whether it was time to step aside. Rep. Mazie Hirono, 65, will take Akaka’s seat in January.
Akaka expresses gratitude to the people of Hawaii, for giving him what he calls an experience of a lifetime. And he gives credit to his wife of 65 years, Millie, whom he says has come to the office with him nearly every day for the last 22 years, helping him greet constituents, keeping him apprised of news back home, making him lunch and keeping him focused.
Akaka said he has tried to be an example of the spirit of aloha. As he prepares to return home, he said he looks forward to volunteering, mentoring and, of course, family time.