STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The Senate plans a different sort of summer. Instead of going home this August, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell canceled the recess, says he wants to approve more of President Trump's judicial nominees, who face Democratic resistance. The resisting Democrats include Hawaii's Mazie Hirono. She's the Senate's only immigrant, and its first Asian-American female senator. Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Even in Hawaii, Mazie Hirono is viewed as the, quote, "good girl" of politics - polite, never in your face, not a boat rocker. But in the last year and a half, as one Hawaii columnist put it, she's become, quote, "a bad ass."
MAZIE HIRONO: I always was. I just wasn't very noisy about it. I've been a fighter all my life. I just don't look like that.
TOTENBERG: Hirono recalls a breakfast in 1994 when Ben Cayetano, who was running for governor, was trying to talk her out of running for lieutenant governor because he said she wouldn't help the Democratic ticket.
HIRONO: And I said, well, that's all fine and good, but it's all [expletive] and I'm running. And by the time the primary election comes, people will know who I am.
TOTENBERG: They did. What's more - in the general election, Hirono actually got significantly more votes than Cayetano.
HIRONO: If I had to wait around for somebody to pick me for lieutenant governor, I would never have been picked.
TOTENBERG: In the U.S. Senate, she's known as a workhorse, not a show horse as one of her colleagues put it. But she's the only senator who asks every nominee for any position if they've ever been accused of sexual misconduct and if they've ever signed a nondisclosure agreement. For years, she refused requests for interviews from the national media, seeing little purpose in it, but after a while, she figured out it would help her advance causes she cares about.
HIRONO: I have said to my staff for many years now people are getting screwed in our country every single second, minute, hour of the day. And by our efforts, if we can decrease that number, we will be making a difference. We will be doing our jobs.
TOTENBERG: In fact, Mazie Hirono plays the political game with a quiet rage, bred of personal experience. Born on a rice farm in Japan, she lived with her mother and three siblings in harsh conditions. Her father, an alcoholic and gambler, left the family with his parents, and by the time Hirono was 7, her mother was plotting an escape for herself and her children. They would eventually travel by ship in steerage for a week to Hawaii. There, they lived in a boarding house crowded into one room and sharing a stove and refrigerator with the other boarders. Hirono's mother supported them by working low-wage jobs.
HIRONO: No job security, no health care, no nothing - I don't remember ever going to a doctor in those years. And my greatest fear was that my mother would get sick.
TOTENBERG: After graduating from college and law school with honors, she practiced law and was elected to the state legislature. Her activism in politics sprang from the Vietnam War and from a book, "The Feminine Mystique."
HIRONO: Literally, the light bulb went on, and I thought, why do I think that some guy is going to take care of me? What? Where do I get that from?
TOTENBERG: Indeed, she was 42 when she finally took the plunge, marrying Leighton Kim Oshima. Her friends were shocked by her choice of mate because she'd broken up with Oshima 13 years earlier, and as she puts it...
HIRONO: It was one of these breakups where I burned all his pictures and stuff like that (laughter).
TOTENBERG: Hirono, a Democrat, sees herself today as strategic and able to build bridges. In fact, in the Senate, the first bill she got enacted into law was with the help of then-Senator, now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a man she agrees with about, well, almost nothing. Hirono was trying to move a bill out of committee and onto the Senate floor, and because it involved a charitable tax provision to help victims of a typhoon in the Philippines, there was a deadline.
HIRONO: I'm on the floor about 11 p.m. or so, and I see Jeff Sessions come walking in, and I know he's there to object.
TOTENBERG: A single senator's objection would doom the bill, so she did something unusual. She went to the Republican cloakroom.
HIRONO: I began to talk with him, and I said, why is your caucus so against this bill?
TOTENBERG: Sessions explained that the Republicans felt they had to be consistent in opposing this sort of special tax provision.
HIRONO: And I said, let me tell you why this is important. And then I think what did it was I said I am speaking to this.
TOTENBERG: You're gesturing to your heart.
HIRONO: Yes. And we often don't communicate that way.
TOTENBERG: Sessions did officially object that night but made clear he would work out a compromise.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JEFF SESSIONS: That would accomplish the senator's goals without offending the budget niceties.
TOTENBERG: With Sessions' willingness and Hirono's doggedness, the bill was enacted into law the day before the deadline. Four years later, however, Hirono went to Sessions to tell him she could not support his nomination to be attorney general. Hirono's interactions with Sessions are an example of her soft heart and hard head. She's needed both in the last year. Diagnosed with kidney cancer, she's undergone two major operations. After the second one, a teeth-grindingly painful operation to remove five inches of her rib, she was out for 10 days but back on the Senate floor in time for the big vote on repeal of Obamacare. She had not planned to speak, had no prepared remarks, and she was uncharacteristically emotional.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
HIRONO: I was born at home in rural Japan. I lost a sister to pneumonia when she was only 2 years old. She died at home, not in hospital where maybe her life could have been saved. It's hard for me to talk about this. I think you can tell.
TOTENBERG: Then she turned to her kidney cancer and the treatment enabled by having health insurance that was saving her life.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
HIRONO: When I was diagnosed with kidney cancer and facing my first surgery, I heard from so many of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle who wrote me wonderful notes sharing with me their own experience with major illness in their families. You showed me your care. You showed me your compassion. Where is that tonight?
TOTENBERG: Hirono's voice is rarely that openly passionate. Indeed, she can often have a rather flat affect, an unassuming, even cool, public presence that is in sharp contrast to her earthiness and colorful language in private. After a long, hard day, I asked her why her skepticism about Trump judicial nominees is any different from Republican skepticism about Obama nominees. She said that what she cares about is that judges are fair, qualified and care about individual and civil rights.
HIRONO: If that's considered liberal as opposed to what I call justice and fairness, as I'm wont to say, [expletive] them.
TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.