Hirono takes spotlight with impassioned plea to keep Obamacare

By:  Dan Nakaso
U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono on Friday won praise for a deeply personal and passionate plea on the Senate floor against repealing Obamacare in which she referred to her stage 4 kidney cancer diagnosis and asked her colleagues, “Where is your compassion?”

Political pundits said Thursday night’s speech could elevate Hirono’s profile across the country and help congressional Democrats shore up Obamacare.

“I would say that I am probably the only senator here who was not born in a hospital,” Hirono said in her speech. “I was born at home in rural Japan. I lost a sister to pneumonia when she was only 2 years old in Japan. She died at home. … It’s hard for me to talk about this.”

Hirono spoke of her immigrant upbringing in Hawaii where “my greatest fear was that my mother would get sick, and if she got sick, how were we going to pay for her care? How would she go to work? And if she didn’t go to work, there would be no pay, there would be no money. I know what it’s like to run out of money at the end of the month. That was my life as an immigrant here. And now, here I am a United States senator. I am fighting kidney cancer, and I am just so grateful that I had health insurance.”

Hirono repeatedly spoke of the kind thoughts her Senate colleagues offered in response to her cancer diagnosis and repeated a theme: “You showed me your care,” Hirono said. “You showed me your compassion. Where is that tonight?”

Hirono told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Friday from Washington, D.C., that “it was hard for me in the sense that I have never talked about my sister and her death. But I thought it was important for me to tell that story and let people in our country know that there are so many of us who can relate to what they’re going through.”

Hirono, 69, said she is still recovering from her second surgery in May for a rib resection that she said was “more painful” than a previous operation to remove her right kidney.

“I feel OK,” she said. “I’m OK enough to get back to work as I have for the last several weeks.”

She also took to Twitter on Thursday in her push to defeat the repeal of Obamacare.
“I learned this year that we are all one diagnosis away from a major illness. My fight against cancer focused my fight against #Trumpcare,” she tweeted.

On Friday, Democracy for America, a Vermont-based progressive political action committee, endorsed Hirono following “her heartfelt speech (that) helped derail the seven-year campaign by Senate Republicans to repeal Obamacare.”

The organization’s spokesman, Neil Sroka, told the Star-Advertiser that Hirono’s “emotionally powerful” speech likely will raise her political profile in the health care debate.

“It’s a perfect example of someone who doesn’t just understand people’s lives, but has lived the struggles of people’s lives,” Sroka said. “She has had an increasingly visible role in the Senate over these last six years, and I think she’s only going to become more powerful.”

Colin Moore, a University of Hawaii associate professor of political science and director of UH’s Public Policy Center, said “there’s no doubt” that Hirono’s speech “dramatically” raised awareness of her among people outside of the islands.

“‘Where is your compassion?’ might have been one of the most effective lines to come out of the health care debate,” Moore said. “For whatever reason, she hasn’t had a national profile. It could be a great opportunity, because of her own experience with cancer, to become a strong advocate for people who face diseases like that. She could transform this moment of media celebrity into some real achievements.”
Retired UH political science professor Neal Milner said Hirono rarely gets credit for her “feistiness.”

“I think she’s been in the shadow of other politicians in this state,” Milner said. “The kind of storylines we have for her always made her more of a supporting role. In Sen. Hirono’s case, that was the perception but it was somewhat unfair.”

Now, Milner said, “the cancer story and her opposition to Trump makes her more attractive to the media. It’s a compelling narrative. But we’ve generally underestimated the feistiness part of the story that was always there.”