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Politics Hawai‘i-Style

Part one of a two-part series.

October 10, 2013
Susan Halas - Contributing Writer ( , Maui Weekly

I got interested in Hawai'i politics around 1970 in San Francisco when my husband, Dan, worked on a political campaign film to re-elect then-Hawai'i Gov. Jack Burns.

Burns was the Democratic incumbent. On film, he came across as a sour-faced old man who seldom smiled. He was running against a stiff opponent in the primary in the form of Tom Gill, another Democrat.

The Burns' group hired Joe Napolitan, a Mainland political consultant, who in turn hired a San Francisco company to make the film. The idea was to shoot it "verite-style" as a documentary--a kind of forerunner to today's reality TV.

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Susan Halas

The premise of verite is that life is interesting, and if you shoot enough film, you can almost always (with skillful editing) make it more compelling than scripted, acted campaign ads. So that was their concept, and the assignment was to turn Burns--this grouchy old geezer--into a softhearted, grandfatherly kind of candidate--the perfect leader for the State of Hawai'i.

To do it, they shot enormous ratios (more than 100 to 1), which meant for every minute of finished film that aired there were at least 100 or more minutes in the can that never got used.

It was in the raw footage that I first saw many of the Hawai'i politicians who were later to become so much a part of the everyday landscape in my life as a Maui reporter. They appeared as little flickering heads on the Movieola--a forerunner to today's modern editing equipment. There was Patsy Mink, George Ariyoshi, Dan Inouye and all the rest--except much younger and they were all saying "Jack Burns, he's our guy."

I wasn't directly involved in the film, except maybe to synch up a few reels, but we discussed it endlessly at home. I hung out with Dan in the editing room because that was the only chance I had to spend time with him. It was a kind of permanent twilight zone, with images of the islands running forward and backward over and over late into the night.

At the time, we were listening to lots of popular music at home. Among the LP albums was one by the Beach Boys with the song "Catch a Wave." One night while we were editing the footage and looking for music to go with it, I suggested that the song would be a good sound bridge and also a good title for our mini-doc. With its surfing theme and the suggestion of the surging power of the ocean, I thought it could be popular in Hawai'i.

Dan agreed and brought it to the attention of the management. They liked the idea and spent a fortune to buy the one-time-use rights for the music. "Catch a Wave" became the name of the movie. When it aired in Hawai'i during the 1970 election, I was told it had a big impact, and Burns won handily.

"Catch a Wave" became synonymous with his victory. In fact, a book that was later written about the campaign and his years as governor carried the same title. All that was unknown to me--back then it was just another film assignment that was part of my husband's job. But it foreshadowed what was to come next.

So now, fast-forward to the summer of 1976. Jimmy Carter is running for president and Susan Halas has just joined the staff of The Maui News as girl reporter. She is 33 years old and recently divorced. Her beat is supposed to be all-round public affairs writer with a stiff dose of local politics.

Here, I should add that I had what I thought was a pretty good background in politics. I'd done advocacy media and ballot issues in California for citizen's action groups, labor unions and candidates whose views ranged from liberal to conservative as I worked my way up the news and public affairs food chain in a big American city.

I was also active in my media union and was its delegate to the SF Central Labor Council. That organization, almost all male, was political to the max. I foolishly believed that I was in some way prepared to cover local and state politics in the islands.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Local Hawai'i politics in the 1970s was entirely different from anything I had ever experienced before. For one thing, it was totally devoid of any "issues."

Issues per se were never mentioned--ever, under any circumstances. That year, 1976, was not only a presidential year, it was also a year that many of the people who were to become fixtures on the local scene made their first bid for public office.

I especially recall Dan Akaka, who was first running for the U.S. House and later became a U.S. Senator. Also debuting was Robert Nakasone, who was running for the first time for County Council; he later went on to have a very long career in the state House. They were both Democrats.

At the time, I was unaware that one reason "issues" are seldom discussed here is because we live on an island, and most of the voters will still be around and living in close quarters after the election.

So no matter who wins, you will still have to get along with each other. Because this is a small place and you will run into them at the grocery store, the movies, the ball game and parents' night at the school. So, "Eh, no make enemies. No talk stink." In this setting, it was never a good idea to bring up things that you might not agree about. And they didn't.

I soon discovered that the criteria to get elected here never rested on what a person thought about issues--never. It was defined by whether they could throw a good party: the better the party, the more chance of winning.

I can still remember my first Akaka event at the old Pu'unene Club House, where he got up on the stage and sang and sang and sang, including what became his signature tune, "Where I Live There are Rainbows."

I sat through it all, my little notebook poised to record his speech, but no speech ever came. Just endless solo tunes from the candidate and lots of food. The crowd was very enthusiastic. Akaka won the election and stayed in office from 1977 to 2013.

Likewise, that was the year I first interviewed Nakasone. He was a modest, slender man of Okinawan ancestry who ran a paint store in Kahului. On the outside, he appeared shy and quiet. When I first spoke with him, he had a difficult time putting two sentences together in a row. Know-it-all Susan immediately concluded he had no chance.

Well, wrong again. On election night, my editor sent me out to make the rounds of campaign headquarters to see how everything was going. My first stop was Tam's San Pan (later, the Gardenia Lounge), a restaurant on Lower Main in Wailuku where the Nakasone group was beginning to gather.

I had never seen so much food in my life. This was not catered or purchased food--this was food prepared by campaign volunteers. When I saw it being carted in the door by the literal truckload, I realized that a crowd big enough to eat all this food, and a group big enough to cook it was definitely big enough to win.

And indeed, Nakasone did win. He came in first and he was the county's top vote getter in his maiden race. By the end of the night, it was all gone--were no leftovers. Not so much as a grain of rice remained.

Next week, see part two, "Politics and Food."



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