I have been covering Rod Tam for close to 30 years. During that time, his proposals and statements have provided endless fodder for news stories.
When he was in the state Legislature, he introduced a measure to give government workers time off to take naps and eat snacks.
Later, when he was a Honolulu City Council member, he introduced legislation to fine bus passengers who smelled bad.
Tam was interesting to cover because he never ducked questions about his wacky proposals. He faced them head on, although sometimes his explanations seemed as unusual as the statements themselves.
Naps and snacks? He said that resolution was simply to make sure that “bad bosses” did not deny state workers the rest time they were entitled to by law. And the smelly bus rider legislation, he said, was really the proposal of another council member who realized he’d get slammed if he took the lead on the bill himself.
After Tam used the ethnic slur “wetbacks” to say he didn’t want undocumented workers taking construction jobs from Hawaii workers, he later apologized, saying he had heard the term in the play, “The Flower Drum Song.”
“It was an old term. I shouldn’t have used it, ” said Tam.
Now Tam is in the news again, as a candidate for the 13th District state Senate seat to be vacated by longtime Democratic incumbent Suzanne Chun Oakland. Chun Oakland said she is not interested in running again.
Tam, a lifelong Democrat, has switched parties to run as a Republican.
I met with him at Booth District Park in Pauoa Valley to ask him why he wants to make a political comeback, especially as a Republican in a hard-core Democrat state.
And even though five years have passed, I also wanted to ask him about what he learned after spending two nights in jail in 2011.
The court sentenced Tam to two nights in Oahu Community Correctional Center and more than 300 hours of community service in June 2011 after he pleaded guilty to 26 misdemeanor and petty misdemeanor counts for misusing public and campaign funds.
Tam pleaded guilty to: using taxpayer money to pay for restaurant meals not related to city business; falsifying receipts or not properly documenting expense claims with receipts; failing to report two campaign contributions; and misusing campaign funds.
The Ethics Commission also fined Tam in 2010 for wrongfully using taxpayer money to buy restaurant meals totaling more than $22,000. He had to pay $11,700 in restitution.
And, in 2012, the Ethics Commission nailed Tam with an $813.53 fine for misusing city funds to buy city employees appreciation lunches and wrongfully paying for a Chinese banquet for foreign delegates.
“There was no bad intent. I didn’t misuse city funds,” Tam insists now. “What was wrong was I didn’t do a good job of bookkeeping. My problem was errors in calculation in terms of addition and subtraction. I was rushing too fast. I should have turned to staff people to monitor to make sure the expenses were accurately recorded.”
He said of two nights in Oahu Community Correctional Center: “It was cold, very cold. They give you only one blanket and no sheets or a pillow.”
He had no complaints about the food, which he called “basic, plain, like school food.”
The convicted murderer in the cell next to him gave him a towel to use as a pillow and a pair of socks to get warmer, Tam said.
“He kept saying, ‘Rod, are you okay? Rod, are you all right?’ He was a very caring person.”
Tam said he passed his time in jail meditating and reading copies of People magazine and “reflecting on the Constitution and Bill of Rights.”
The positive part of being confined, he said, was that it forced him to slow down and reflect and think about what he said is his real calling, to help people.
Tam said he looks back on the ordeal as similar to those endured by Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi — a time to reflect and regroup.
I reminded him that both of these men were imprisoned for years and not for alleged theft of public money.
“They were confined and it built their character,” Tam said. “It made them stronger. It made me stronger, too.”
He called the period around his guilty plea and the five years after “my sabbatical.”
During this time he cared for his mother, Patsy Tam, who suffered from Alzheimer’s until her death in 2012. He is now caring for his elderly father.
His criminal record has been expunged under Hawaii’s deferred acceptance of guilty plea law. That law allows a criminal defendant who pleads guilty before trial and meets the terms imposed by the court to apply, after a year, to have the charges dismissed and erased from the public record. The expungement eliminates the prior civil admission of guilt by the defendant.
Tam said he decided to make a comeback after being urged to run by former constituents he would chat with when he was buying food and medicine for his parents at the Safeway and Longs Drugs on the Pali Highway .
“They remembered me. They were nice to me. That gave me a glowing good feeling inside,” he said.
Eugene Hamamoto, his neighbor on Booth Road, convinced him to run as a Republican, Tam said.
Tam is the only Republican in the District 13 Senate primary. In the general election, he will face off against the winner of the Democratic primary between candidates including House Judiciary Chairman Karl Rhoads, former Board of Education member Kim Coco Iwamoto and Keone Nakoa, a former Intermediate Court of Appeals law clerk. Also running is Libertarian candidate Harry Ozols.
All three Democratic candidates already have raised and spent substantial sums for their primary bids. Between Jan. 1 and June 20, Rhoads raised $35,485 and spent $54,770, according to campaign finance reports.
Contributors have given Iwamoto $38,745, of which she spent $22,067 in that same time period. She also spent $26,141 of her own money.
Keone Nakoa raised $33,850 and spent $13,278.
Tam listed three donors who contributed a total of $2,656. His campaign has spent $1,230 on signs, campaign literature, office supplies and meals for volunteers.
Tam brushed off the fact that he is being dramatically outspent.
“I have good name recognition in the district,” he said. The district includes the neighborhoods of Liliha, Palama, Iwilei, Nuuanu, Pauoa and Pacific Heights. “I was born in this district and have spent all my life here. They have to spend more money to become known here. I already have a network.”
Tam represented this area in various legislative offices for 28 years. He served as a state House member from 1982 to 1994, in the state Senate from 1994 to 2002 and as a Honolulu City Council member from 2002 until 2010, when he ran unsuccessfully for mayor.
He denied he is running as a Republican now to get a free ride through the primary. Tam said he changed parties because he is fed up with the Democrats.
“They only want to raise taxes and are doing nothing to improve the business climate,” he said.
If elected, he said, “my main focus will be to improve the economy by making it easier for small business to thrive.”
He said another priority would be to provide better information to his district through informational hearings when controversial legislation arises.
He brushed off jibes from Honolulu Star-Advertiser columnist David Shapiro, who once wrote, “It’s hardly news that Tam is one of Hawaii’s most embarrassing specimens of political knucklehead,” and Star-Advertiser columnist Lee Cataluna, who called him “a rash on Hawaii’s okole.”
Tam said, “They have made their careers out of criticizing people. They have to create interest in their writings. That is their job.”
He said he has no regrets.
“I have tried to do what is right. When you get into politics, people are going to criticize you left and right. I am proud of what I have done for our community.”