I keep thinking about Ted Stevens, or as he’s known in Alaska, Uncle Ted.

Senator Stevens was the Senate Minority Whip when I first landed in Washington, a 16-year-old congressional page plucked out of Mississippi to the halls of Congress. Everyone warned me about him. “He’s really gruff. He cusses a lot. Don’t screw up when he wants something.”

But I liked him. He cared about Alaska and didn’t seem to give a damn about the politics. He considered it a means to an end – a process that had to be mastered to deliver the goods to the far-flung desolate corner that is Alaska. He and Senator Dan Inouye seemed to bond over that – how long it took to get home, how Washington didn’t understand what it means to be disconnected from the mainland U.S.

Sens. Dan Inouye and Ted Stevens

Sens. Dan Inouye, center, and Ted Stevens, right.

Flickr.com

Senator Stevens took the time to get to know me, be kind to me. I’d kill time in his office when I had to work late and he’d tell stories of Alaska and feed me smoked salmon. I’d never had smoked salmon and hadn’t acquired the taste, but he shared it and I ate it.

Several election cycles and many years later, I’d moved on, but Senator Stevens was still fighting the good fight – until a zealous prosecutor set his sites on the Senator. Something about illegal campaign contributions and corruption and dirty deeds under the cloak of secrecy and deceit.

Senator Stevens was outraged, indignant, just as the man I’d known so many years earlier would be. He vowed to fight it, and he did. But he lost. He lost his Senate seat. He lost his dignity. He lost the respect of the people he’d served so well for so many years. And eventually, he lost his life in a plane crash, just as his first wife had, decades earlier.

Politics too often works with the short lens – right now, today, get-it-done-no-matter-the-details. Sometime after Senator Steven’s political career was eviscerated but before that plane felled him, the long lens of political ethics told another story – one of hidden evidence, shady legal dealings, a rush to judgment.

“Prosecutorial misconduct” they called it, clearing his name and going after the ones who’d smudged it in the first place. But no one could give him that Senate seat back. No one could put him back in the halls of Congress where for six decades he’d done the business of Alaska.

I took comfort knowing that his name had been cleared before he died, but I knew the man I so admired never recovered from that public shaming – and the people of Alaska were robbed of a good man doing their business.

Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi screwed up. Using the company card for a surfboard and hostess bar charges are the kinds of screw-ups amateurs make, saying they always intended to pay it back. It doesn’t look good. I get it. And as the stories unfold, it seems likely that the aphrodisiac of power took root – went to his head as they say – nudging him toward arrogance, carelessness. I am quite certain the same could be said for my friend, Senator Stevens. (No one – and I mean no one – ever thought of Uncle Ted as a teddy bear, or even someone you’d want to wile away an afternoon with.)

In no way should Mayor Kenoi get a free pass on this – that’s not how the system works. Justice needs to run its course and remedies enacted. But he is not just the man who screwed up. He’s also the man who has inspired young people in this state to do better, to aim higher, to better themselves. He has built allies in unlikely places and brought national attention to much of the good that is Hawaii.

I support Mayor Kenoi when he says he’s done talking about this. Let the lawyers and the regulators and the courts do their thing. He’s got work to do, a county to manage, a vision to oversee. Plenty of eyes are on him now, and I doubt he’ll be returning to any hostess bar anytime soon.

As for the rest of us, I hope we can put the short lens back on the shelf, let the system do its job, and keep our personal and political agendas separate from the work at hand.  Yes, the system initially failed Senator Stevens, but the court of public opinion fueled those fires of political zealots, making the scales of justice hard to balance. No amount of public apology and regret could undo the scars left on him, his family, and the people of Alaska.

Mayor Kenoi has been good for the Big Island, and perhaps he is someone who can be good for our state. Good political leaders are hard to find.

Inspirational political leaders are an even rarer breed.  The mayor has been a steady steersman in the canoe so far. Let’s not throw him to the sharks just yet.

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About the Author

  • Powell Berger
    Powell Berger is a Honolulu-based freelance writer, strategic communications consultant, and long-time political observer. Her monthly column, The Careerist, appears in Hawaii Business magazine, along with her other works about the nexus of business and life in Hawaii. Nationally, she can be found covering education at BrightReads, travel at Fodors and On Your Terms, and life at places like Full Grown People and The Atlantic. She lives in Kakaako.