I am privileged to serve the people of Hawaii in the United States Senate. As an immigrant who grew up under difficult circumstances, I recognize that my path to the Senate was unlikely. At the same time, my experiences have shown me the incredible opportunities available in America and have fueled my desire to give back.
Of course, I owe much to the courage and determination of my mother. My early childhood was spent on my grandparents' rice farm in Fukushima, Japan. My mother sent me to live with my grandparents because of family circumstances. My father was an alcoholic and compulsive gambler and I did not get to know him much. As a result, our family had little stability or money. At times, he would even sell my mother's belongings to gamble away.
But instead of watching our family continue to suffer, my mother made the courageous decision to seek a better life for us. She plotted and planned in secret, and when I was nearly eight years old, we literally escaped to this place called Hawaii and this country called America. My mother, brother and I boarded the President Cleveland in Yokohama and set sail across the Pacific in steerage.
Like many immigrants, our new life was not easy. In the beginning, my mother worked at a Japanese language newspaper for minimum wages with no benefits. She worked two jobs as a single mother to keep food on the table and a roof over our heads. We didn't have much, but we persevered.
Thanks to my mother's courage, I was able to take advantage of the educational opportunities available in Hawaii's public schools. When I began elementary school, I neither spoke nor read English. My love of reading was awakened by class trips to our school library where our librarian read to us books like Mary Poppins. I also remember being a student cashier in elementary school to pay for my lunches. At that time, I dreamt of being a teacher or a counselor so I could one day help others.
My time at the University of Hawaii at Manoa opened my eyes to a life in public service and advocacy. Through volunteer and tutor work, as well as weekly visits with patients at the state mental health facility, I saw how important it was for underserved populations to be heard. Participating in grassroots student protests over the Vietnam War ignited my sense of possibility over what ordinary people joining together could accomplish.
I felt that studying law would help me develop the skills I would need to more effectively advocate for others. I attended Georgetown University Law Center because it had a strong clinical program and I wanted to focus on public interest law. After graduation, I worked in the antitrust division of the Hawaii attorney general's office.
Although prior to law school I had helped many others run for office, I had not thought much about becoming a candidate myself. However, with the encouragement of others, I successfully ran for a seat in the Hawaii House of Representatives in 1980. As chair of the House Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee, I focused on greater protections for Hawaii's workers and consumers.
After serving more than a decade in the House, I was elected lieutenant governor in 1994. I led an effort to revamp Hawaii's workers' compensation insurance laws, saving businesses millions. I also helped lead state efforts to improve early childhood education and promote Hawaii's tourism industry through visa reform, issues I continue to champion in the U.S. Senate.
As my party's first female nominee for governor, although I lost the race in 2002, I wanted to keep other women running for office and founded the Patsy T. Mink PAC in 2004 to that end. Congresswoman Patsy Mink, for whom Title IX was renamed after her death, was my friend and continuing inspiration.
In 2006, I was elected to Congress by voters in Hawaii's second congressional district, representing the seat once held by Patsy. During my time in the House, our nation and state faced incredible challenges and opportunities. I supported struggling families by preserving Hawaii's pre-paid health care law, teamed up with colleagues across the aisle to protect Native Hawaiian education programs, promoted food and energy sustainability and sponsored legislation to support Hawaii's critical tourism industry and create jobs.
With the retirement of Senator Daniel Akaka, the people of Hawaii elected me to the U.S. Senate, where I serve as the first and only Asian American woman and first woman senator from Hawaii. It was a privilege to have worked with Senators Inouye and Akaka over the years, and I am working to deliver results for Hawaii by building on the strong foundations they laid. I serve on the Committee on Armed Services, Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Select Committee on Intelligence, Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, and am the Ranking Member of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power. All of these committees deal with issues important to Hawaii's people.
It is a privilege to do my very best for Hawaii in the U.S. Senate. With my background and experiences, I never forget where I came from or who I fight for and why.