Is there any way to escape high school in Hawaii politics?

Take Mufi Hannemann. The former mayor of Honolulu and candidate for governor studied at Harvard University before serving as special assistant in the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Punahou alum Sen. Brian Schatz, razzing a politician from a rival high school, recently said that Hannemann has an “impressive resume, but a lot of people will say, ‘You know, that guy went Iolani.’”

A bit more seriously, Schatz noted that, in Hawaii, “where you went to high school is almost a defining characteristic.”

There is little doubt that Hannemann, 60, carries traces of Iolani in the minds of some voters. Similarly, Schatz is a U.S. senator but for many people, he’s a product of Punahou. U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa is, of course, a “Waianae girl.” And so on.

The question is why?

Another Punahou graduate Charles Djou, the Republican candidate for the 1st Congressional District, said that high school in this state “is the one thing that can easily and immediately identify individuals geographically, socioeconomically (and) demographically.” It can, he said, provide a sort of “instant connection.”

‘Where You Wen Grad?’

When people ask — sometimes in pidgin — where a local went to school, the question can tap into something deep, especially on the campaign trail. In some ways, Hawaii politics can feel like the continuation of high school by other means.

That is why Civil Beat asked the candidates for governor, Congress or the U.S. Senate to analyze the importance of high school in electoral politics in Hawaii and what sort of kid they were back in the day. (Lightly edited audio recordings of each candidate’s responses can be heard by clicking the “play” button beneath their portrait photos in this article.)

In some ways, Hawaii politics can feel like the continuation of high school by other means.

Several of the candidates we spoke to got their first taste of electoral politics running for student government.

But why on earth do they, decades later, still harvest their high school’s identities with such persistence on the campaign trail?

For a local candidate, Hannemann explained, “It is a matter of being able to identify where you are from. And, most importantly, that you’ll never forget your roots.”

The Iolani boy’s academic roots are more complicated than most. He grew up in Kalihi, his older siblings attended Farrington High School, where he says he wanted to go, but his parents had other plans. His mother, who had only an elementary school education, and his father, who made it through high school, dreamed of sending their son to Harvard. And to them, Hannemann recounted, the road to Harvard passed through Iolani. “It was a total family sacrifice for me to go there.”

His story only heightens the irony of Schatz’s joke about Hannemann. Basically, you can send the Iolani boy to Harvard, but you can’t take Iolani out of the Harvard graduate.

The University of Whatever

Democratic gubernatorial frontrunner David Ige described high school as a key indicator in Hawaii because college-bound kids either disperse in far-off mainland universities or they stay and likely attend the University of Hawaii.

“So where you went to college is a secondary issue for most of us,” said Ige, a UH graduate. “The high school you graduated from is kind of a marker of where you’re from and probably what kind of background or experience you had.”

While often imprecise, such details often allow other people to make assumptions about whether someone grew up in the working or middle class, or in a more elite environment, and give hints about the ethnic and racial divides they may (or may not) have spanned.

But such assumptions can be outdated. Urbanization has transformed much of Oahu, including the identity of areas around many high schools, so the associations that people have don’t always jibe with modern realities.

Ige, 57, attended Pearl City High School in 1971, the year it opened. Sugar cane stalks still poked out of the ground nearby. The Waipahu sugar mills were operating. As Ige notes, “When I was growing up, Pearl City was still considered to be a country school.”

The reserved Democratic gubernatorial candidate is rarely comfortable talking about his personal life other than when he discusses his formative experiences in high school. He recounted how members of his class helped to write the Pearl City High constitution and alma mater, and voted on the institution’s colors (purple and white) and the mascot (the chargers). For Ige, those were formative political experiences.

And because the identity of that school, at least in people’s minds, is in sync with many of his political stances and identity, according to political analyst Neil Milner, it adds to the political mosaic of a candidate who remains supportive of public schools and still “lives in more or less the neighborhood where he grew up.”

Ige is hardly the only politician who was deeply affected by his school. In the islands, it is easy to find multiple generations that (proudly) go to the same high school and many alumni attend their institution’s sports events years or even decades after they graduate.

Republican candidate for governor Duke Aiona, 59, may have studied at the University of the Pacific and then at William S. Richardson School of Law, but he gets emotive when he talks about Saint Louis School, a boys-only Roman Catholic prep institution in Kaimuki that one of his children also attended.

Forty years after graduating, the former lieutenant governor emphasizes the enduring bond between him and his classmates: “It is the brotherhood of Saint Louis, man, you know, it is special.”

The Punahou President

The politics of high schools shift with the times.

Take the divide between public and private school educations, a topic that plays to longstanding stereotypes of poor undereducated kids and the snobby rich haole brat.

“I went to Punahou on a scholarship…. I was raised by a single mom and my grandmother.” — presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008

But in a state where 15 percent of students are in private schools, and where the number rises to 38 percent for kids who study in Honolulu, such tropes have long ago broken down — particularly since Punahou, Iolani and other prominent schools have opened themselves up to greater economic and ethnic diversity.

This change became clear during the 2008 Democratic presidential primary when Hilary Clinton’s local ally, the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, suggested that Barack Obama’s private school education in Hawaii showed he was disconnected from real people in the islands.

“If you ask the people in Hawaii what they know about Barack Obama, I think the honest answer is, ‘Very little,’” Inouye told the Honolulu Advertiser. “He went to school in Hawaii but he went to Punahou, and that was not a school for the impoverished … to suggest that Punahou maybe set his life plan in place, I find it very interesting.”

Inouye, who graduated from McKinley High School, was using a well-worn technique but times had changed.

“Shame on Danny for trying to pull that stunt. I went to Punahou on a scholarship,” Obama responded to KITV during his 2008 campaign. “I was raised by a single mom and my grandmother.”

Inouye quickly apologized to Punahou President Jim Scott and sent a copy of the letter with a note to Obama, who was elected president later that year.

Score one for Punahou alumni.

The Punahou Senator

High school can be a way to localize someone’s neighborhood — which island and which part of it they are from, and which friends two people might have in common.

Playing the which-school game can be about getting to know each other, but it can also be a way to double check who people are in a small community, explained John Rosa, an assistant professor of History at the University Hawaii who previously taught at Kamehameha Schools.

The race was tight, but another Punahou kid pulled it out.

“Hawaii is still kind of a small-town place and there is a little distrust of outsiders… It is: ‘Are you from here, how long have you been here, and can I trust you?’” Rosa said.

Candidates, of course, often need to address such questions.

Brian Schatz ran an ad in the Democratic primaries showing himself in primary school on May Day in 1978, demonstrating that he didn’t just go to high school here; he began his schooling here.

Why would he do that?

Cam Cavasso

It just may have been a counter to the campaign that U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa was preparing in her run against him.

As Milner noted, the congresswoman “pretty much put a halo around her head that said, ‘Waianae girl,” in an effort to portray herself as a sort of working-class candidate of the people. Schatz, in implicit contrast, was supposed to be a pampered haole who grew up in Kahala and studied at Punahou. Naturally, who would have a better sense of the people?

The race was tight, but another Punahou kid pulled it out.

He holds a big lead in polls over Kailua High’s Cam Cavasso, a Republican.

Is Pearl City the New Punahou?

Mark Takai, the Democratic candidate to replace Hanabusa in Congress, sees high school as a palpable translation of localness. “There is a lot of knowledge (and) understanding throughout the islands of where you went to high school, and people visualize, actually, the location, the community. They see it.”

Takai went to the same high school as Ige, meaning that Pearl City High could score big on Election Day — if Ige’s lead in the polls is borne out and if the momentum that has allowed Takai to catch up with Djou in just-released polls, continues.

Asked about the potency of high school in politics, the candidate, who is in a race against a Republican Punahou grad, said, “It is great to talk about young-kid time and, I think, especially important to mention where you are from, so I’m Mark Takai and I’m from Pearl City High School.”

Jeff Davis, the Libertarian candidate for governor who didn’t grow up in Hawaii, sees the harvesting of high school for political gain as another Hawaii tradition, similar to sign waving. Ultimately, he said, it is another way to chase votes. “From my point of view, there’s much bigger fish to fry than ‘which high school I went to.’”

Schools do evolve, of course. The end of the plantation era and the evolving demographics of Hawaii mean that many associations that people have no longer apply when it comes to a school’s identity, ethnic breakdown or the economic status of its students.

Younger people will often have different associations with those institutions, while newer schools, like Kapolei High School, often bring neutral associations for older voters who know so little about them that they have no stereotypical associations to tap into, Milner explained.

“The images take longer to change than the demographics do,” Milner added.

Milner noted that certain schools can offer a veneer of authenticity to candidates, particularly if they went to schools like Waimanalo, Kalihi or Waianae. “I think many more people claim to have grown up in those areas — and to be influenced by them — than actually did.”

But the right school can help politicians emphasize good fundamental local values and even highlight their toughness.

Republican candidate Kawika Crowley, who is running a long-shot campaign to oust Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, doesn’t need to emphasize his high school education to convey his toughness.

The cigar-smoking alum of Hilo High School took up boxing after he got tired of locals beating him up after his family moved to the Big Island in the 1960s.

Gabbard declined to speak with Civil Beat, but for Crowley the potency of high school identities in Hawaii grew out of longstanding competition between islands when there were just one or two schools on many of them.

Crowley says he had a rough time as a haole kid in Hilo after his family arrived from Japan, where they had been living.

He did his best to fit in as well as he could. Channeling the phrasing of his adolescence, he said, “Back then, if you went to Hilo High, you was from Big Island, and you represented Big Island because there was no other school except maybe Konawaena.”

“The whole concept of high school; that represented my hometown, and you wore it proudly… Back then, man, you stood up for the high school you went to.”

Maybe it is for different reasons, but most candidates — especially those of his generation — still do.

Photos were taken by PF Bentley for a multimedia photo/audio project, The Face. Additional reporting by Chad Blair.

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