A Warrior Ready For Washington


Donna Mercado Kim

Donna Mercado Kim has had a good year. She’s humbled the chairman of the University of Hawaii Board of Regents, the Manoa chancellor and the university’s president. The latter resigned, citing health problems. Kim can do that to you.

Then, with the death of U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, the lieutenant governor went to the U.S. Senate, the state Senate president went to the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, and Kim became the state’s 13th Senate president.

Together with House Speaker Joe Souki, Kim made the session a smooth one. Budget numbers matched, agreements were reached on time and adjournment came without delay.

Even the special session on same-sex marriage worked to Kim’s advantage. A practicing Catholic, Kim abandoned the Senate’s Democratic majority and voted against the same-sex marriage bill. She thus became the only announced candidate for the 1st District Congressional seat who can expect a chunk of support from the religious right.

A chunk of same-sex proponents, of course, will not approve of her candidacy. Neither will some who see her as a bully of those who’ve appeared before her committees.

She bridles at the suggestion.

“I take government service seriously,” she says. “I’m passionate about it. I was brought up poor, and I believe we have to hold accountable those who are spending our tax dollars.

“I’m tired of the same old rhetoric, that they didn’t anticipate this or that. Why not? People at the university and in the departments have to know that we mean business, that they can’t thumb their noses at us.”

“Poor” for the Kims meant a family on Camilla Lane in Kalihi-Palama. “We had no running hot water. We had to heat it on the stove.” Her father, Andrew Kim, was a carpenter who worked days, mother Lily Mercado Kim a restaurant worker who had the night shift. Daughter Donna was the middle child of five.

She walked to school, first to Likelike Elementary, then to Kalakaua Intermediate and Farrington High School.

“I was an average, maybe a better than average student, but I didn’t apply myself,” she remembers. “No one pushed me.”

She was the first in her family to graduate from high school.

Kim attended the University of Hawaii for two years; her mixed Korean, Portuguese, Filipino and Spanish look made her Homecoming Queen in her freshman year. She graduated from Washington State University in 1974.

For the next eight years she did a little of everything before “starting a modeling school from scratch. I developed the curriculum, hired the teachers and interviewed prospective students.”

But Kim found her calling while listening to morning drive radio.

“I heard mentioned that two guys I’d known from high school were running for the state Legislature,” she recalls. “I thought, I’m as smart as they are. I’d never been inside either the Capitol or City Hall, but I love a challenge.”

That it proved to be. She won a state House seat by a 29-vote margin. She stayed for only one term before winning a place on the nine-member Honolulu City Council.

There Kim honed her skills as an interrogator of unprepared bureaucrats. When term-limits ended her tenure in Honolulu Hale, she took refuge in the state Senate.

It adds up to 31 years in public office and a reputation for holding folks accountable. Kim can be vague on what she hopes to accomplish in the 435-member United States House of Representatives, but she asks a pertinent question: “Shouldn’t we send our best warrior there?”

A warrior she is.