Former U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, who served in Washington for more than three and a half decades, died Thursday night at the age of 93. He had been hospitalized for months.
Akaka’s death was confirmed by his former spokesman Jesse Broder Van Dyke. Services are pending.
Akaka, the first native Hawaiian to serve in the Senate, was a strong advocate for native Hawaiians and veterans during a political career that started in the House of Representatives in 1976 and ended in the U.S. Senate in 2013.
Known for a modest political style and described as the embodiment of the aloha spirit, Akaka was widely respected in the islands and in Washington. But he rarely sought the national spotlight and instead worked largely under the radar, focusing on issues important to Hawaii.
He retired from the Senate with what some considered an unspectacular record. Time magazine even identified him as one of that body’s most ineffective senators.
Born Sept. 11, 1924 in Honolulu, Daniel Kahikina Akaka grew up in Pauoa Valley in a poor and devoutly religious household. His older brother, Abraham Akaka, would go on to become the well-known pastor of Kawaiahao Church.
Akaka, of native Hawaiian and Chinese ancestry, attended the Kamehameha School for Boys, graduating in 1942, and then worked as a welder and diesel mechanic with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before entering active duty in the Army just after the war ended.
Akaka married the former Mary Mildred Chong and established a home in Nuuanu. The couple would go on to have five children, 15 grandchildren and 16 grandchildren.
Akaka left his education career behind in 1971 when he was chosen by Gov. John A. Burns to serve as the state director of the Office of Economic Opportunity.
Looking back, Akaka said in a 1991 story in MidWeek that he had been happy as an educator but ultimately decided he could serve more people in government.
Veterans had a friend in Akaka, too. As chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, he introduced reforms to free up stalled medical care and educational benefits.
He also encouraged the military to examine the service records of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders from World War II, which led to Inouye and other members of the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team receiving the Medal of Honor.
During his years on Capitol Hill, Akaka fought for the expansion of Hawaii’s national parks, financial literacy for young people and protection against bioterrorism.
In 2000 Akaka introduced the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, which would become known as the Akaka bill. He was worried about a legal threat to Hawaiian-only programs, and the legislation would have recognized native Hawaiians as an indigenous people with the right to form their own government.
But the bill, over a dozen years, repeatedly stalled, mainly in the Senate, where it was block by conservative Republicans who oppose it as race-based discrimination.
Members of the Hawaii delegation pledged to take up the cause after Akaka’s retirement but have so far allowed the Obama administration to explore federal recognition through the Department of the Interior.
Beating back a solid challenge from former Congressman Ed Case in 2006, Akaka was reelected at the age of 82 despite being slowed by having his hip and both knees replaced.
When he retired at age 88 in 2012, Akaka bid farewell in a speech described as “a stoic and soulful aloha and mahalo” to his Senate colleagues.
“I want to say mahalo nui loa,” he said in conclusion on the Senate floor.
Akaka was admired by colleagues on both sides of the aisle.
“He’s a lovable person, and most of us are not that lovable,” U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, told the Honolulu Advertiser in 2003.
“He was a quiet man,” said U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, in 2012. “He was a powerful force, one of the most decent people you’d ever want to meet here.”