Sages Over Seventy: Pat Saiki
She exerted enormous influence during decades in public service though she is a proud Republican in a state dominated by Democrats
Fourth in a series of profiles of Hawai‘i’s “Sages Over 70”
Miriam Hallreich needed help when she walked into state Sen. Pat Saiki’s office at the state Capitol in the late 1970s. There was no adequate Department of Education oversight of students struggling with speech, language and hearing disabilities, and as a speech pathologist, Hellreich wanted that fixed.
“Pat listened,” Hellreich remembers, and then said: “Where’s your bill? You can’t affect change in the Legislature without a bill.”
“We have no idea how to do that,” replied Hellreich, and Saiki continued: “This is what you do,” going on to explain the process, and then sending Hellreich home to work on a bill overnight, instructing her to come back at 9 a.m.
“Good job,” said Saiki, reading the results the next morning. “Now you have to have a hearing.”
With the bill introduced, and a hearing that drew an overflow crowd, plus buy-in from Democratic legislators, the bill passed.
Hellreich was on her way to becoming a successful political lobbyist for medical and social causes, and Saiki had again proven that teaching people how to affect political change was a key piece of her lifelong agenda.
Saiki exerted enormous influence during decades in public service – as a legislator, congresswoman and director of the federal Small Business Administration – though she is a proud Republican in a state dominated by Democrats.
She has been an advocate for women’s rights – including successful passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in Hawai‘i – and built a legion of advocates along the way.
“Because of her stubbornness and her persistence, she has taken on some major issues and prevailed.” – Andy Anderson, former State Senator, Republican Gubernatorial Candidate and longtime Businessman
Though in her 90s, Saiki is still working to do that, as a popular public speaker and mentor to all who seek her help. Despite many laws to protect women’s rights, subtle discrimination remains that still needs to be fought, Saiki says.
“I’m not saying that women are not successful; they are successful today. But when things get tough it seems as though women are easier to dismiss. Women seem to be fair game. It’s disappointing to see this continue when the real issue of outright discrimination has been taken care of in the law.
“There was a time when I was active when a woman couldn’t have a credit card in her own name or get a loan or a mortgage. She couldn’t retain her maiden name after a divorce – until we changed the law. I felt very good changing outright and blatant discrimination. Today of course discrimination is much more subtle.”
In her autobiography from Watermark Publishing, “A Woman in the House,” Saiki writes about a career that took her from state politics to a seat in Congress to the top job at the federal Small Business Administration under President George H.W. Bush.
Not as well-known are the people along the way whom she inspired and mentored, like Hellreich.
“After that was all over,” remembers Hellreich of her first legislative success, “Pat called me up and said, ‘I want you to get all your Hawaii Medical Association Auxiliary buddies together, and I’m going to train you at the Legislature all day – how to find and write bills, track issues, find out information, lobby, everything from A to Z.’
“We had 50 people from all islands come for that meeting. One of the women trained in that workshop was Carol McNamee, who went on to found MADD (Hawai‘i). Another was Lila Johnson who headed up the Tobacco Prevention and Education Program for the Health Department.
“It was a new awakening for me,” continues Hellreich, who became a Republican national committeewoman, spending three decades in that role.
Andy Anderson, a former state senator, Republican gubernatorial candidate and longtime businessman who worked with Saiki on many state legislative issues, agrees her impact has been profound.
“Considering she has always been a Republican and in the minority, her participation and contributions are immeasurable,” says Anderson. She has taken on some major issues and prevailed.
“She was very successful in taking on the need for the community college in Kaimukī,” he continues. “That was her project, and she had a lot of opposition. Because of her reputation, style, personality, truthfulness and trustworthiness, she’s been able to participate in a one-party-controlled state very successfully.”