REP. MARK TAKAI: On predecessors and future of Asian Americans in national politics

Freshman congressman Rep. Mark Takai is a 48-year-old veteran and father of two. Born on Oahu and a graduate of the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, Takai was first elected to the Hawai‘i State Legislature in 1994. He  worked with the late Rep. Patsy Mink and Sen. Daniel Inouye.

He has served in the Hawaii National Guard for 14 years, currently a lieutenant colonel, and was deployed to the Middle East in 2009 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He served as president of the Hawaii National Guard Association from 2012 to 2013.

Elected to represent the first district of Hawai‘i in 2014, Takai  represents a state with an Asian majority comprised of diverse ethnicities. As a congressman, he currently serves on the House Armed Services Committee and House Small Business Committee.

Takai, who recently returned from a visit to Israel, visited San Francisco where he gave the Nichi Bei Weekly an interview. The following was edited for length.

NBW: How has Sen. Inouye’s life and experiences played a role in your political career, or even your military career?
MT: I don’t think anybody can be like Sen. Inouye. What he’s done will never be repeated. I had the opportunity to work with him and be mentored by him and some of his people. I truly believe that what he stood for — honor and sacrifice and dedication to country — are critical elements of what I want to and should be standing for as well. …

I’ve had many opportunities to meet with Sen. Inouye. Every time I went to Washington, D.C., he took time to meet with me and took time to meet with other people. Those types of experiences, now that I am in Congress, are very important, because I try to spend as much time as I can with constituents.

(On the House Armed Forces Committee,) one of our focus priorities is defense in the military. I’m just trying to do as much as I can to honor the life and everything Sen. Inouye stood for.

NBW: Have any other Japanese American politicians played a major role?
MT: I don’t know if you know, but Congresswoman Patsy Mink was the first Japanese American female elected to Congress. She and I worked very closely together. We had a great relationship. We worked on education a lot. She was a champion of education. In fact, she was the author of Title IX that gave women equal opportunity in sports.

Very early in my career, we got to know each other. In fact, my family, my parents, lived in Washington, D.C. and my mom would spend time with Congresswoman Mink. … She was a very strong advocate for Japanese Americans, Asian Americans and, really, a very strong progressive. She fought for people that needed a champion. She was a champion to many.

She was one of them that really helped me along in my really early years as an elected official.

NBW: So, it’s the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. What do you think is important within the Voting Rights Act, especially for Asian Americans?
MT: … I believe that voting is a right and a privilege and those of us in our country that don’t vote — it’s … unfortunate at the very least. There are people that want to vote who are not allowed to.

Going back to the Voting Rights Act 50 years ago, when they focused on Selma (Ala.) and marched to Montgomery (Ala.) — it was to provide rights to African Americans. And I had a chance to go to the 50th anniversary and spend some time with some of my colleagues, like (Congressman) John Lewis, and really learn about the history, the challenges that the African Americans faced 50 years ago … We have limitations, restrictions and, really, an erosion of voting rights today that people have fought for and some have died 50 years ago. …

It’s important for all of us as Americans, and specifically for minorities, because of some of the challenges we face now. It’s definitely an issue.

I start with what I said at the beginning. I think more Americans need to care about voting. In Hawai‘i, it’s not good. It’s really low. But I’ve had a chance since getting elected to talk to new (naturalized) citizens … and one of the things they care about most is that opportunity to vote, and I think we need to see that in all Americans.

NBW: Do you feel Asian American voters are engaged then?
MT: I think that, overall, in the past 2014-cycle we have seen a surge of Asian American voters.

Some of us say that we, as an Asian American community, used to be marginalized. But there are many examples in the last cycle, and I do believe, moving forward, from being marginalized, we became the margin (for victory). So we do have a significant bloc, not only in our population but more importantly as voters. I do believe that last year, this year and next year, moving forward, we’re definitely going to have an impact, a tremendous impact. I think that as a result of that impact, you’ve seen an increase in the number of members of Congress serving who are Asian American (and Pacific Islander), we are at an all-time high. It’s only 14, but it’s still the best we’ve ever been.

NBW: What has been your proudest moment in Congress?
MT: There are many, I mention Selma, the visit to Selma, Ala. on the 50th anniversary of the march. … My highlight that I’ll remember forever is introducing my very first bill, which is the Filipino Family Reunification Act.

When you look at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., it’s all the states and the territories that fought on behalf the United States in both the Pacific Theater and the European Theater. One of the places that may surprise you, and surprises many, is that the Philippines is listed there, because they were actually part of the United States. Not a territory or a state, they were a commonwealth. Well, we made a promise to Filipino service members, in this case Filipino Army personnel, that if they fought for us and with us, we would give them citizenship. We reneged. Our country, unfortunately, pulled back on that commitment.

My bill is attempting to provide family members of World War II Filipino veterans an opportunity to come to the United States and be part of the United States. There are not too many left, about 6,000 Filipino soldiers, veterans. There are still quite a number of family members that are wanting to come to the United States. Our bill allows for an expedited process to bring them into the United States.

Just a few weeks ago, the President, in a press release from the White House, (said) he’s supporting it as well. Hopefully we’ll see it happen this year.

It’s tragic, you know? There’s many stories about Asian Americans, but clearly the story about the Filipino veterans of World War II, fighting for our country — and many of them dying for our country — and for us not to follow through on a commitment we made is not American. We want to fix that.

NBW: With a Republican-controlled Congress, President Obama still made great successes in his agenda, what do you attribute that to?
MT: …I think that you’re absolutely right, the President over the past few months has had a surge in success and popularity. Much of it rests, I think, in his work over his seven years as president and many of his efforts are just coming into fruition. Many of the recent successes are mainly in Supreme Court decisions that support the president. …

It’s his ability to utilize some of the tools he has as president, whether it’s the veto pen or his ability to do things through Executive Orders. For example, Honouliuli, the special designation recently given to one of our very famous internment camps in Hawai‘i, was done by Presidential executive order. So the president is taking full advantage of what powers and abilities he has as president to make some of the changes he believes need to be made.

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