Meet Mazie Hirono

At a time when too many people are struggling to make ends meet, hoping the American Dream is still alive -- one candidate for United States Senate knows firsthand what it means to struggle against the odds and build a life on the unique opportunities America has to offer.

Hawaii's own… Mazie Hirono.

Mazie would be the first Asian-American woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate and would be a people's senator -- a leader who comes from humble beginnings, and has overcome difficult obstacles.

Born in Japan, Mazie spent her early years on her grandparents' rice farm, sent there by her mother to escape a father whose chronic alcoholism and compulsive gambling left the family with few means and even less stability. When nearly eight years old, Mazie, her mother and her older brother fled Japan in search of a better life. Her mother had to make the wrenching decision to leave Mazie's baby brother with her grandparents.

With one suitcase with all their belongings, the three crossed the Pacific in steerage and arrived in Hawaii. Life was hard for many years. The family rented a single room in a boarding house in the early years, sharing the single bed by sleeping sideways.

Her mother found work at a Japanese language newspaper, but the pay often didn't go far enough. Mazie saved the dimes her mother gave her and vividly remembers when her mother had to break into her piggy bank to use those dimes to buy food for the family.

Not knowing a word of English, Mazie was enrolled at Ka'ahumanu Elementary School, then at Koko Head Elementary School. Her grandparents and younger brother reunited with the family two years later.

In elementary school, she got her first job -- serving as the student cashier at lunch hour. The pay was a hot lunch every day. In time she'd take on a paper route, in addition to doing the cooking and cleaning at home while her mother and grandparents worked.

Though no one could have predicted it, given where Mazie's journey began, she eventually put herself through the University of Hawaii at Manoa and law school at Georgetown University.

She had decided early on to give back to her community and in school volunteered as a tutor and at a mental hospital. One summer Mazie worked with at-risk teens through the YWCA. It was rewarding work and she recognized the challenges the teens faced, as she had faced challenges herself.

She saw that the kind of change needed to better their lives needed to come on a broader scale. It was her experiences in college that opened her eyes to social activism as a way to give back.

In 1980, by this time a lawyer, she ran for a seat in the Hawaii state legislature. Having grown up seeing how the powerful held sway over the most vulnerable, she made her mark in the state House as a consumer crusader, eventually chairing the powerful Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee. She worked on reforming auto, homeowners' and workers' compensation insurance to better protect consumers and employees. She even changed the law on retail gift cards by extending expiration dates.

In 1994, she was elected lieutenant governor and led efforts to support Hawaii's tourism industry and create jobs, including testifying before Congress to push for visa waivers for South Korean visitors. In addition, she revamped Hawaii's workers' compensation law, creating the Hawaii Employers Mutual Insurance Company (HEMIC). HEMIC created a more competitive workers' compensation insurance market, saving businesses an estimated $85 million in its first year of operation.

Her younger brother's struggles in school are one reason Mazie is a leader in the fight to expand pre-K learning programs to prepare our keiki for success in school. He never received those important early interventions because of the family's circumstances. Both as lieutenant governor by leading the Pre-Plus program and upon her election to Congress, Mazie carried this commitment to give our youngest the strongest start.

When President Obama announced he was investing nearly $500 million in early learning initiatives this year, Civil Beat said the decision came "in large part to Hawaii Congresswoman Mazie Hirono's leadership" for spearheading an effort in Congress to convince the Administration to do so. Her work championing quality early education for our keiki has won Mazie recognition as a national pre-K advocate.

Mazie with her familyBut strengthening our schools shouldn't stop in the early years. Mazie believes that if we have the world's best educated workforce, we'll be able to attract the best jobs to Hawaii. And our children wouldn't have to leave home to follow their dreams. That's why she's fought in Congress to modernize classrooms, beef up accountability measures and improve teacher training so our educators have the support they need.

Now, Mazie's running for Senate because she loves Hawaii and wants to make sure our ohana has the same opportunities she's had.

Mazie lives in Honolulu with her husband, Leighton Kim Oshima, her mother Laura, and their cat Hemic. She's a proud stepmother to Malia Oshima Paul and auntie to Malia's and her husband Scott's two children, Kainoa, a bookworm, and Mehana, a cartwheel expert. A fan of the arts, Mazie was able to get back to working with ceramics a few years ago. She's also an avid e-reader and tries to keep up with her friends by playing Internet Scrabble.