Mike Honda has had a long and storied career in public service, which started with the Peace Corps in El Salvador to his steady rise up from a teacher, principal, member of the San Jose Planning Commission, San Jose Unified School Board and the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. He was elected to the California state Assembly in 1996 before his elevation to Congress in the 2000 election.
Born in Walnut Grove, Calif. and incarcerated in the Granada (Amache), Colo. concentration camp as a youth, the congressman has often used his wartime experience to remind the country about the dangers of scapegoating others in times of crisis.
After losing the Congressional seat he had held for the past 16 years on Nov. 8, that voice of authenticity is now silenced in the halls of Congress. But now is the time to celebrate the longtime representative from San Jose, who is this year’s Nichi Bei Weekly Nikkei of the Year.
“Mike was a trailblazer,” said political activist Bill Wong, who once worked in Honda’s Assembly office. “Unlike anyone before him, he devoted a significant portion of his political career to establishing a robust pipeline of AAPIs in every corner of the political world. He was a father-like figure … Many AAPI electeds owe their current career to Mike’s support and mentorship. Mike also leaves behind a small army of AAPI staffers and political operatives that will carry on his work.”
In the Assembly, Honda would author landmark legislation that would create the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program — which funded numerous projects that taught the public lessons of the Japanese American concentration camp experience during World War II. This helped to fill in the void years after the original federal educational funding — $50 million as allotted by the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 — had dwindled down to a mere $5 million.
“The California program was successful in continuing the work of the federal program but it also created its own identity by initiating programs appropriate for Californians,” said Dale Shimasaki, the former executive director of the federal Civil Liberties Public Education Fund.
An elected official of unusual principle, Honda was a minority voice against the use of force in the Iraq War.
But it was his efforts to hold the government of Japan accountable for Japanese military atrocities committed during World War II that thrust him into the international spotlight, first through Assembly Joint Resolution 27 in 1999 — which called on Japan to apologize to and give redress for its wartime victims — and then House Resolution 121 in 2007, which demanded an apology to the so-called “comfort women” for their wartime sex enslavement by the Japanese military. Both resolutions passed through their respective legislative bodies.
“The Japanese military had performed many acts of atrocities towards other human beings, and not to address it would say that those lives are nothing,” Honda said in 1999.
“He is driven by principles and issues important to him,” said Shimasaki, the CEO of Strategic Education Services, a Sacramento, Calif.-based government relations and consulting firm. “He is consistent for his passion.”
“He was principled, consistent, and a committed educator,” Wong said. “He used these votes to force a meaningful and productive discussion about justice. Mike will always be the conscience of the community … challenging us to not be afraid to take on difficult issues.”
In light of President-elect Donald Trump citing the Japanese American World War II concentration camps when talking about his proposed ban of Muslims, Honda took issue with the notion, based upon his own experience, saying that “Racial profiling and profiling based upon religion” are “both wrong.”
The chair emeritus of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, Honda is also the founder of the Congressional Anti-Bullying Caucus and a founding member of the LGBT Equality Caucus. He would often speak at the San Jose Day of Remembrance commemoration, reflecting upon the community’s wartime incarceration.
But Honda’s reach went beyond his own career. According to Wong, Honda has played a large role in influencing younger generations of Asian Pacific Americans.
“I can’t tell you how many electeds, political operatives, and legislative staffers who were inspired into service by Mike,” said Wong, a political consultant with nearly 30 years of experience who is the political director for the Asian American Small Business PAC. “There are literally legions of them.”
“During his first term in office (in 1996) he was trying to identify places where qualified APIs could run for and win seats in the legislature,” recalled Shimasaki. “He had a vision of securing 10 members who were API. … Today there are 14.”
And although his role as an elected official seemingly came to an end with his Nov. 8 defeat to Ro Khanna, don’t count Honda completely out, said Wong.
“He might not run for office again, but he’ll still have a big role to play in the world of American politics,” Wong said.