Hiram Fong First Asian-American Senator, An R From Hawaii
by Scott Crass, The Moderate Voice, June 7, 2013
It seems unimaginable that Hawaii could elect a Republican to the United States Senate today but once upon a time, literally, for one moment in time, there was such a person. His name was Hiram Fong, and he served the 50th state for the first 18 years of it’s 54 years as part of the union. He would also be the first Asian-American Senator in history.
Daniel Inouye’s monopoly on one Senate seat pretty much deprived any one of either political persuasion from even attempting a run at a Senate seat. But after Fong’s retirement, the other seat was Democratic as well. The ultimate test came in 1990, when Congresswoman Pat Saiki lost a bid to her colleague, Daniel Akaka, who had been appointed to the chamber when Spark Matsunaga had died.
At the House level, the GOP’s luck has been slightly better, but only by a fraction. Saiki held her seat for two terms before her Senate run, and Honolulu Councilman Charlie Djou was able to take advantage of a Democratic split in a special election to take the seat of the state’s new Governor, Neil Abercrombie. He was unseated that November. So that leaves Fong? What was his recipe for success.
Why, he was a centrist.
Hiram Fong (1907-2005) Wiki Photo
Fong was born to poverty in China. His name, meant “ah,” for master, but Hiram came about when he joined the military. He would be elected to the Hawaii territorial House and become Speaker. In 1945, his “Wagner Act” gave rights of workers to unionize. But even before statehood and at the local level, the Democrats reigned supreme and Fong was unseated in 1954.
After The Honolulu Advertiser said Fong “founded more than a half-dozen Honolulu firms, many with the word “Finance” in their titles, including Finance Factors, Finance Realty, Finance Home Builders, Finance Investment and Finance Factors Foundation.” His return came in 1959 upon Hawaii achieving statehood, as he one a seat in the upper chamber that year.
Fong’s first Senate poster, 1959 (SenatorFong.com)
Fong in the 1960′s (SenatorFong.com)
Fong would fly back to Hawaii nine times a year, which he’d say would leave him “drained.” “Being the first Asian in there, I was very, very careful. I knew that if I did anything that was in the line of dereliction of duty, why it would shame me and my family. It would also shame those of my ethnic background and it would shame the people of Hawaii.”
But Fong did use his symbol to make a questionable move or two. In both 1964 and 1968, Fong ran a “favorite son” bid for President. There was little activity outside Hawaii but, it was still eyebrow raising. Nevertheless, his name was put into nomination at the Republican Convention, which made him the first person of Asian-ancestry to have that distinction.
In office, Fong was distinctly moderate, in favor of civil rights. That helped him — tremendous ticket splitting, as Fong held his seat 53-46% as LBJ was winning the state with a staggering 79%. But as time progressed, he became loyal to Nixon.
Fong was as respected as ever. But by 1970, the state’s Democratic trend was almost impossible to beat. Fong won, but just barely. He held off Cecil Heftel by just 8,000 votes, 52-48%. That would prove to be his last hurrah. That year, as in all of his campaigns, his support from the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union was key to his victories.
Fong in retirement (Honolulu Advertiser Photo)
Retirement was not prosperous for Fong. “Senator Hiram Fong’s Plantation and Gardens.” He tried to open a shopping complex but failed. His plantation left him a debt of $700,000. Fong would live to the ripe old age of 97. He was said to have been working until a week before his death.