Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono’s voice dripped with disgust as she evaluated how Republicans have treated the woman accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were in high school.
“You know what? They’ve extended a finger,” the junior senator from Hawaii said in an interview Thursday. “That’s how I look at it.”
Hirono has emerged as a leading critic of the GOP’s handling of Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation against Kavanaugh and one of Ford’s staunchest defenders, eclipsing higher-profile Democratic senators, including some with presidential aspirations who have angled for attention.
The 70-year-old first-term senator has gained national notice for urging men to “shut up and step up,” and telling Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in a Capitol hallway this week to “do the right thing.”
“I’m very graphic in what I say, because this is what’s happening,” she said in the interview in her Senate office. “I’m very upset by this.”
Hirono is quickly becoming a hero on the left. Her sudden appeal to broad swaths of the Democratic Party reflects her ability to channel the anger of the party’s base like few other elected officials, at a moment when many of these voters are itching for a fight against Trump and Republicans, with the midterm elections less than two months away.
“She speaks for a large contingent of people out there that want to see the Democrats show a little bit more fire in the belly,” said Brian Fallon, who heads the liberal group Demand Justice, which opposes Kavanaugh. “Ninety percent of the other Democrats in the caucus could learn a thing or two from how she speaks.”
As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee who has made it a habit to press Trump administration nominees over whether they have sexually assaulted anyone, Hirono is also cementing her status as a principal political figure in the #MeToo movement.
On Thursday, Hirono held a news conference down the hall from her office with women who graduated from the school that Ford attended, as they delivered a letter expressing solidarity with their fellow alumna. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), a potential presidential candidate, joined Hirono.
Like many Democrats, Hirono has been critical of Republican demands that Ford decide this week whether she will appear before the Judiciary Committee on Monday, and she has urged the panel to delay its hearing until after an FBI investigation is conducted. Ford told her story publicly for the first time in an interview with The Washington Post published Sunday. Hirono said she believes Ford’s account.
The bluntness of Hirono’s comments has set her apart from her colleagues.
“Guess who is perpetuating all of these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country. And I just want to say to the men in this country — just shut up and step up. Do the right thing for a change,” she told reporters Tuesday, remarks that went viral on social media. She also emphasized her message — “do the right thing” — to McConnell as he walked by.
Asked Thursday how McConnell responded to her remarks, she said, “It’s kind of hard to read him.” But Hirono clearly left an impression on the majority leader’s top deputy, Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.).
“I did take note of that,” said Cornyn, speaking of Hirono’s “shut up and step up” remarks. He declined to opine on them. “I’m not going to get into a spat with a fellow senator on the Judiciary Committee, unless I have to,” he said.
Other Republicans have been openly critical, arguing that Hirono has come to symbolize a movement that is more interested in posturing for the cameras than getting to the bottom of investigating the Kavanaugh allegation in a timely manner.
“She unfortunately personifies the dysfunction that we are seeing among Senate Democrats right now,” said Carrie Severino, chief counsel and policy director of Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative group supporting Kavanaugh. “They have been reduced to just yelling in a microphone.”
Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), two potential presidential candidates, grabbed the spotlight during Kavanugh’s confirmation hearings by fighting Republicans over confidential documents and pressing Kavanaugh over special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe.
When she questioned Kavanaugh, Hirono made two personal inquiries that have become routine parts of her vetting of Trump’s nominees this year.
“Since you became a legal adult, have you ever made unwanted requests for sexual favors or committed any verbal or physical harassment or assault of a sexual nature?” she asked. Kavanaugh replied, “No.”
“Have you ever faced discipline or entered into a settlement related to this kind of conduct?” she asked next. He said he had not.
Kavanaugh has unequivocally denied that he sexually assaulted Ford, which she said she believes occurred in the summer of 1982, when she was 15 and he would have been 17.
Hirono is the only immigrant in the U.S. Senate. She talks on her official website of a difficult upbringing in Japan and her father’s alcoholism and compulsive gambling. When she was nearly 8, she says, her mother brought her and her brother to Hawaii.
She graduated from law school and rose through the ranks of Democratic politics in Hawaii, starting in the state legislature. Hirono recalled fighting for sexual assault victims early in her career.
“I’ve been fighting these fights for a — I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono said in the interview, glancing over at an aide before uttering the expletive a few moments later as the interview continued.
First elected to the U.S. House in 2006, she joined the Senate in 2013, winning the seat held by Daniel Akaka, who long represented the state in the Senate alongside fellow Democrat Daniel Inouye.
Neither Akaka nor Inouye, now both deceased, embraced political combat with Republicans the way Hirono and liberal Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz have during the Trump era.
Hirono, who announced last year that she had been diagnosed with kidney cancer, is running for reelection this year and is heavily favored to win. As she opposed the ultimately unsuccessful Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act last year, she mentioned her battle with cancer in an emotional speech on the Senate floor.
“I heard from so many of my colleagues, including so many of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle,” Hirono said in the speech. “You showed me your care, you showed me your compassion. Where is that tonight?” she asked, pounding her hand on her desk.
“Thankfully, I had health insurance,” she said in an earlier speech. “No one should have to worry about whether they can afford the health care that one day might save their life.”
Now, she is laser-focused on Kavanaugh and Ford. An attorney for Ford said Thursday that her appearing at a hearing on Monday to detail her claims is “not possible” but she could testify later in the week.
Hirono said her comments about men stepping up were not from a script. She hinted that she might make more attention-grabbing comments in the near future.
“Sometimes, I just, I say various things,” Hirono said, with a chuckle.