Hawaii’s former governors are worried about the state’s future and think it is time for significant political change.
In lengthy, wide-ranging interviews, four of Hawaii’s five living former governors — men who spent decades in the public limelight — expressed deep concern for the state’s lost sense of direction and fear for the economic prospects of Hawaii’s young people. Only Linda Lingle, Republican governor from 2002 to 2010, declined to be interviewed for this story.
The four former governors — George Ariyoshi, 93, John Waihee III, 73, Ben Cayetano, 80, and Neil Abercrombie, 81 — spoke somberly and earnestly about issues they said had been troubling them recently.
Together the four governed Hawaii for some 33 years, more than half of the state’s political history since statehood was achieved in 1959. All are Democrats who rose to power amid the party’s 60-year ascendancy, and all spent time as lawmakers in the Hawaii Legislature.
All four were path-breakers and political outliers. Ariyoshi was the first governor of Japanese descent in the state, and the first in the nation, which subjected him at times to criticism and racism.
Waihee, who was closely allied with the leaders of the Kalama Valley eviction protest, was the first Native Hawaiian governor.
Cayetano, who grew up poor in Kalihi and held a series of blue-collar jobs before going to law school, was the first Filipino-American to be governor of Hawaii.
And Abercrombie, a white hippie from the mainland, overcame local prejudices against people not born in Hawaii. He went on to serve for years as a U.S. congressman before becoming governor.
Hawaii is unusual among U.S. states for its governors’ ethnic diversity. As a territory, the governors generally reflected mainland leadership — affluent white men. Not surprising since here they were appointed by the U.S. president to hold the post of governor.
Soon after statehood, however, Hawaii’s racially mixed population began selecting candidates that reflected the state’s cultural stew.
“Most other states have not had that kind of diversity,” said Kristoffer Shields, historian and program manager at the Eagleton Center on the American Governor at Rutgers University. “Hawaii’s history is very different.”
Non-white governors are a rarity on the mainland. According to the National Governors Association, in the past 150 years, there have been four black governors, one each in Massachusetts, New York, Virginia and Louisiana. Washington state had an Asian-American, Gary Locke. There have been almost a dozen Hispanic governors, most of them in New Mexico. Oklahoma has elected two Native Americans as governor.
The broad span of time the four Hawaii governors held office is now remembered as a bright era of progressivism. All were involved to varying degrees in creating some of the programs that made the state a leader in advancing social change.
All played roles in creating or revising the laws that, for example, introduced near-universal health insurance and that allowed homeowners to purchase the land under their homes instead of being tied to leasehold contracts. All have been vocal champions of efforts to strengthen the University of Hawaii.
But each of these men has also weathered his share of controversy.
Ariyoshi has been tarnished by allegations that some Democratic insiders used their power to line their pockets; Waihee has been criticized for allegedly showing favoritism to Hawaiian groups and causes; Cayetano was blamed for the ensuing budget cuts when Hawaii’s economy deflated after the Asian financial bubble burst. Abercrombie lost his bid for re-election amid blistering criticism for trying to cut union and retiree benefits during an economic slump and for elevating his young protégé, Brian Schatz, to the U.S. Senate to fill the seat of respected long-term Sen. Daniel Inouye, who had died in office in 2012.
Although all four men have been out of office for years, they are the kupuna of the political hierarchy, and they remain influential leaders whose endorsement is keenly sought by political candidates running for office today.
Civil Beat interviewed each of them separately for this story, spending hours with each former governor.
The men each described what they see as widespread and growing public dissatisfaction with the political system in Hawaii today, citing, variously, the protests at Mauna Kea, Waimanalo and Kahuku; the cost overruns on the rail project; the lack of preschool education; the refusal to raise the minimum wage; the epic government failure that led to a thicket of exorbitantly priced high-rise apartments in Kakaako purchased by investors; and the danger posed by the uncontrolled growth of tourism.
Abercrombie said he sees “disillusionment and demoralization” among Hawaii’s voters, Cayetano remarked on his lost optimism about Hawaii’s future, something he said was a hallmark of his earlier political life, and Waihee said he is detecting a “seismic” shift in values in the state which is causing many people to re-evaluate how they view economic growth.
Ariyoshi, Hawaii’s longest-serving governor, has spent his life focused on finding ways for people to work together better. The title of his 1997 book, “With Obligation To All,” describes his personal journey as the child of an immigrant Japanese stevedore who became the owner of a dry-cleaning shop in Kalihi.
Young Ariyoshi, born in 1926, got help along the way — at his elementary school in Laie, in the diverse Palama neighborhood where the family moved next and from a caring mixed-race teacher at Central Intermediate School who helped him overcome a heavy lisp to better prepare for college.
After he graduated from the University of Michigan Law School, Ariyoshi returned to Hawaii and went to work as a lawyer. He was doing well and making progress in his career but he grew angry about the economic dominance of the largest firms, the so-called Big Five, and the white managers who excluded non-white and poor people from the better jobs and opportunities.
“We need to ask ourselves: Are we doing this the right way? Can we do better?” — George Ariyoshi
The Big Five were Castle & Cooke, Alexander & Baldwin, C. Brewer & Co., American Factors (now Amfac), and Theo H. Davies & Co., large and closely interlocked agriculture companies that were big employers and dominated local politics. In 1932, they employed 40% of the state’s workers.
“When I came back I became aware of the unfairness in our community, how the Big Five controlled everything, the jobs, who gets them and who gets the professional fees,” he recalled in the interview. “Everything was controlled by the Big Five.”
He thought Hawaii needed to change.
“I wanted to live in a community where everybody had a chance,” he said. “Fairness became very important.”
Soon he met Jack Burns, the legendary chairman of the state Democratic Party, and with Burns’s encouragement, Ariyoshi’s path turned to politics.
Burns, too, had had a hard-scrabble childhood. Abandoned by his father and raised by a single mother who worked at the post office, Burns grew up in Kalihi and became a police officer, according to a biography, “John A. Burns, The Man and His Times,” published in 2000.
A white man who frequently lapsed into pidgin, Burns endeared himself to many people of Japanese descent when he headed the Espionage Bureau of the Honolulu Police Department during World War II, arguing to keep local residents out of internment camps and encouraging young men of Japanese descent to join the U.S. military, where many distinguished themselves as members of the 442nd Infantry Regiment.
He became devoted to the New Deal principles of the national Democratic Party and turned his efforts to bringing together blue-collar union workers of all races, and Japanese Americans, the state’s largest single minority group at the time, to forge a new political alliance. Starting in the 1950s, Democrats began sweeping to power.
Riding that wave, Burns became governor in 1962 and won again in 1966. In 1970, when he campaigned a third time, he asked Ariyoshi to run as his lieutenant governor, with an eye to Ariyoshi running for governor in 1974.
“Until then, he told me, no person other than a white man has become governor, no person other than a white man, outside Hawaii, has ever gotten elected,” Ariyoshi recalled. “‘You can make the difference … what you will do is open up the system in Hawaii … if you do that then there will be other people who will follow who will be very different, more local, more varied background.’ And that is exactly what happened.”
Ariyoshi was elected, and then took leadership of the state when Burns fell ill in late 1973. He was subsequently elected and re-elected in his own right, serving as governor for 13 years. He was the first Japanese American to hold that office in Hawaii, and the first to do so nationally as well. It was a time of challenges but also many successes, and Ariyoshi’s 1997 book has the air of a victory lap.
But now Ariyoshi is starting to believe, once again, that Hawaii needs to change.
He has become so preoccupied with the failings of Hawaii’s political process that, despite suffering a broken arm three months ago, he is pushing ahead with work on a book about how Hawaii can get itself back on track.
“I’m doing my book because I’m very concerned about the future,” he said. “I feel the future is not being addressed. And by that I mean the problems come up and people are not trying to address the problems.”
He has strong positions on a number of topics in the news, for example. He believes the Mauna Kea telescope project should go forward because of the economic development potential it would bring, and he thinks that the protesters have shown themselves unwilling to consider the views of others. He thinks that is unacceptable.
Ariyoshi is an environmentalist who supports alternative energy but thinks the controversial wind mills in Kahuku are too tall and perhaps should have been reconfigured to be smaller and less obtrusive. He wants more solar energy but would prefer to see solar panels on rooftops rather than taking over land that could be used for agricultural purposes.
The Waimanalo ballpark seems ill-considered to him considering the state’s long-ago but fundamental decision to protect the rural character of the Windward side of the island.
“The protesters are thinking about something that is very big and very important, not cutting all the trees, keeping it native and forested,” he said. “I think they may have a point.”
Some of these protests put him in mind of the struggle to stop the U.S. government bombing at Kahoolawe in the 1970s. He said the Native Hawaiians were right.
“We agreed with those protesting, and we stopped it,” he noted.
Ariyoshi is convinced Hawaii’s leaders aren’t doing enough to promote economic growth in the state, suggesting that new areas for development include aquaculture and other ocean-based food and energy production. Space exploration could lead to new technologies that could be further developed on earth.
Housing is a major concern to Ariyoshi, who believes the plight of the homeless will grow more severe unless the state views the situation as a long-term problem and stops looking for a series of short-term fixes.
But he hopes that future doesn’t include more apartment towers, which he thinks have become a blight on the landscape. Gesturing disparagingly out the window of his downtown law office, Ariyoshi frowned as he looked out over the city.
“We sit here, we see all the high-rises that are out here,” he said. “Is that what we want to see happen? Get more and more high rises? Not necessarily for Hawaii’s people but for those who can afford it, those who are not residents living in Hawaii?”
In his new book, Ariyoshi said, he will call for public-spirited citizens to come together to broker a new plan for Hawaii’s future that provides new and better opportunities for coming generations.
“We need to ask ourselves: Are we doing this the right way? Can we do better?”
John Waihee’s roots in Hawaii go back, way back. He talks of being a descendant of King Kamehameha — one of a thousand, he laughs — which gives him an appreciation of the way power can be successfully wielded. But he’s also descended from Kamehameha’s rivals.
As Waihee notes in describing his family, Kamehameha was a pivotal person in Hawaiian history who unified the islands and helped the kingdom fend off foreign interlopers for 100 years. But he did it with a ruthlessness that brought death to his opponents.
It’s the kind of genealogy that engenders a certain political realism and a nuanced worldview.
Waihee, born in 1946 and raised on the Big Island, grew to adulthood at a time that many Hawaiians in his mixed-race community were Republicans.
“Maybe government is in the way.” — John Waihee
But his father was a Hawaiian Telephone Co. repairman who became a close friend of their next door neighbor, Yoshito Takamine, a Democratic state representative, chairman of the House Labor Committee and an official of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Amid the labor protests and strikes of the day during his childhood in the 1950s as workers fought for better pay and working conditions, the Democratic Party fostered a sense of community, Waihee recalled in an oral history interview conducted in 2016 as part of the Kokua Hawaii Oral History Project.
“My dad was pushing for the Democratic candidates,” he said. “I grew up hearing about the necessity for change.”
When he went away to college in the Midwest, he was deeply moved by the civil rights protests he witnessed and the struggle to end the Vietnam War. When he returned to Hawaii with a master’s degree in urban planning, he became part of the coalition that highlighted social injustices, particularly those that affected Native Hawaiians.
Along the way Waihee befriended the people who protested the Kalama Valley evictions in the early 1970s. Bishop Estate was pushing renters and tenant farmers off the land to make way for high-end real estate development in eastern Hawaii Kai. The series of events triggered the political and cultural resurgence that has been called the Hawaiian Renaissance.
Waihee supported the creation of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. in 1974 and played a major role in the state Constitutional Convention in 1978, which led to the founding, in 1979, of the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Waihee was also instrumental in the state’s adoption of Hawaiian as an official language.
In 1980, four years after he received his law degree from the University of Hawaii, he was elected to the Legislature. Two years later he joined Ariyoshi, serving as his lieutenant governor, and in 1986 Waihee became the first Native Hawaiian to be elected governor. His successor, Ben Cayetano, has called Waihee’s quick political ascent a “storybook climb” to the governorship.
Given Waihee’s long interest in issues affecting Hawaiians, it is not surprising that he has closely followed developments involving the current Mauna Kea protest. He said shifting attitudes about the telescope represent to him the way that in Hawaii, opinions can change over time as people become unhappy with a policy direction they once supported.
He recalled that when planning for the telescope began decades ago, support for it was nearly universal. It was seen as a good way to promote the state’s economic future, by making Hawaii a center for astronomical studies, bolstered by widespread enthusiasm over the first voyages of Hokulea, the Polynesian Voyaging Society, in the 1970s.
“When I was in office, Mauna Kea is not the problem,” he said in the interview with Civil Beat. “Mauna Kea, building observatories on Mauna Kea, this is apple pie. And the Hawaiian community, the broader community, was united in doing this.”
But things look different now, he said, an example of change that he called “not so much seismic but evolutionary.”
“People are saying, ‘Whoa, it’s time for a correction,’” he said. “There were costs associated with it. And those costs were not taken into consideration, and maybe there’s a need for an adjustment.”
Waihee thinks Mauna Kea has grown into a symbol of the growing frustration among young Hawaiian activists who have lost faith in the political and legal system.
The debate has been misrepresented as a conflict between Hawaiian culture and science, he said. He believes the issue involves a more substantial question of who benefits from economic activity and who does not and the fear that people who live in other parts of the world will end up the major beneficiaries and take away the profits.
Young people in Hawaii, not just Native Hawaiians, believe they are being forced out of the state so that other people can replace them, he said.
They have stopped believing in things that politicians told them were good, such as Mauna Kea, but that have turned out to be false promises, he said.
Those fears have been confirmed by what has happened in Kakaako, Waihee said, where the original intention was to create affordable homes for local families.
“We took millions of public dollars, taxpayer dollars, money from struggling families, on the bet that if we improved the infrastructure in Kakaako, and we gave all kinds of breaks in terms of development rules and the like, that it could happen,” he said.
“People who live here and work here paid for Kakaako. And yet today when we look at that, we have to ask ourselves, where are the benefits?”
“I don’t know a single person, even those with means, who is living in Kakaako. I’ve been told as recently as yesterday that one-third of the condos that have been sold are dark, which means that one-third of the condos there don’t have ownership that goes home every night to stay in it.”
“If you look at that as your example, you’ve got to ask yourself, what is the benefit of economic stimulation?”
Waihee expects the next census to show that more Hawaiians have moved to the mainland than remain in Hawaii. He said many people fear that the government has done little to prevent the population replacement and instead has exacerbated the problem by encouraging rich people from other places to move here.
In the past the government had sought to make a better society for local residents but, he said, many people no longer believe that to be true.
“Maybe government is in the way,” he said.
The next governor of Hawaii was also a first. Ben Cayetano was the first governor in the United States of Filipino American heritage.
A self-described Kalihi “street kid,” Cayetano’s father worked as a waiter at the Outrigger Canoe Club, a private social club in Waikiki whose membership at that time was limited to affluent whites and Hawaiians. Cayetano’s mother, who later developed a dependency on prescription drugs to cope with a back ailment, was frequently absent from his life in his early years.
This kind of fractured family life for Filipinos was not unusual when he was growing up, Cayetano said in the Civil Beat interview.
While Chinese immigrants intermarried with Hawaiian women and founded their own clans, Japanese newcomers to Hawaii were ethnocentric and married within their own community, he said, sending away for picture brides if no Japanese women were available. Those families had more economic and social security.
“I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat. But you need to have an effective, loyal opposition. Otherwise, things get out of hand in politics.” — Ben Cayetano
But Filipinos, he said, were mostly men who immigrated on their own and many of them stayed single and alone.
“The Filipino family was very slow in developing,” he said.
But what all the non-white groups shared, however, was a sense of unfairness.
“The demographics of that time, the haole population was really small and somewhat elitist,” he recalled. “It was a small, elitist, South American-style economy, except it wasn’t bananas. It was sugar cane and pineapple.”
In Hawaii, he said, “You had about 10% of the population running things, and the other 90% were pretty much everybody else, workers. And the workers were basically Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Hawaiians. Mostly people of color.”
The big turning point for many of these workers was World War II, he said, because they went to the mainland, experienced both the racism and economic opportunity there, and came back eager to make changes in Hawaii.
Cayetano remembers that the haoles held themselves apart from others, and that the other racial groups had more contact with each other and intermarried more. It was natural that they joined to forge a cohesive and effective political party under the Democratic banner.
As he describes in his blunt and revealing autobiography, “Ben: A Memoir, From Street Kid in Kalihi to Governor,” published in 2009, Cayetano as a teenager watched political developments in the state with interest as politicians fought over whether Hawaii should become a state and whether Republicans or Democrats would win ascendancy.
But soon he was absorbed with his own struggles to build a life for himself and his young wife and child, holding a series of low-level, blue-collar jobs to support his family.
He was passed over for jobs he thought he should have gotten. By the early 1960s, he had grown discouraged. He listened carefully when a friend who was Filipino American suggested they should move to the mainland.
“Filipinos don’t have much of a chance here,” Cayetano later recalled him saying. “If you are not haole, Japanese or Chinese, you can’t get ahead. They just don’t think we’re good enough.”
But Cayetano didn’t have the money to make the move. And then fate intervened.
Cayetano waged a bet on a Los Angeles Rams-San Francisco 49ers football game and won big. A month later he hit the jackpot again by betting right on another team. In 1963, the Cayetanos flew to Los Angeles and a new life.
Cayetano signed up for junior college, then graduated from UCLA and then Loyola Law School, holding down part-time jobs while his wife worked as a waitress to bolster their income. During those years, he became a civil rights activist, recalling that students then, including himself, were an “anti-authoritarian bunch.”
He returned to Hawaii in the early 1970s, as the state boomed with Japanese investment. He worked as a trial lawyer and in 1975 was elected to the Legislature, serving from 1975 to 1986, and then from 1986 to 1994 as lieutenant governor under Waihee.
Elected governor himself in 1994, he got bad news almost immediately. As the Asian economic bubble burst, Japanese investment in Hawaii declined rapidly and many foreign companies sold properties at rock-bottom prices. Tax revenues fell. Gov. Cayetano’s tenure in office was spent making budget cuts and finding ways to stop the financial losses from getting worse.
The economy eventually began to rebound near the end of his time in office. Cayetano left office in 2002 with an insider’s understanding of the state’s infrastructure and economy.
A Republican, Linda Lingle, the former mayor of Maui, replaced him, a sharp repudiation of the Democratic Party. She won the office partly as a result of her own political skills and partly out of public disgust over the Democratic Party’s role in the Bishop Estate financial scandals of the 1990s.
In 2012, Cayetano unsuccessfully ran for mayor on an anti-rail platform. He was defeated by Kirk Caldwell, an enthusiastic rail proponent. At the time, the rail project was projected to cost about $5.3 billion. Plagued by delays and cost overruns, the price tag is now pegged at more than $9 billion.
Since then, Cayetano has grown even more worried about Hawaii.
He thinks the dynamic idealism of Hawaii’s Democratic Party, the force that created the social advances of the 1960s and 1970s, has dissipated and that some new kind of political alliance needs to emerge to combat the atrophy that has set in.
“The Hawaii Democratic Party is probably the oldest political machine in the United States which has had a continuing unbroken steam of power, political power,” he said. “You know, this is the bluest state in the nation. And it’s not good for us. You know me — I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat. But you need to have an effective, loyal opposition. Otherwise, things get out of hand in politics.”
The end result, Cayetano said, has been outmigration by the people who should have become the state’s political leaders.
“I think we lose the best and the brightest — too much of the best and the brightest,” he said.
The sense that Hawaii’s youth are being forced out of the state is also a disturbing recurring theme to Neil Abercrombie.
He said that everywhere he goes, young people are talking about moving away.
It’s not surprising that Abercrombie would be concerned about the problems of young people because he has always viewed himself as an advocate for the young and for the youth movement.
Born in Buffalo, New York, in 1938, Abercrombie attended Union College, a private, then all-male college in upstate New York. He moved to Hawaii soon after it became a state in 1959.
“The Democrats say, ‘We are in this together.’ No, we’re not.” — Neil Abercrombie
He worked as a locker-room clerk, a waiter and a custodian while he pursued graduate studies at the University of Hawaii, earning a master’s degree and then a doctorate. He fortuitously befriended an interesting young couple, Barack Obama Sr. and Ann Dunham, who had a young son, also named Barack.
Abercrombie burst onto the local scene in 1969, appearing bare-chested in a photograph in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. The article described him as a lecturer in the American Studies department at the university, loudly touting the appeal of “revolutionaries” who seek “pro-human” values.
A year later, Abercrombie ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate, competing for the Democratic nomination against broadcaster Cec Heftel.
Pacific Business News described him as a “32-year-old campus radical” with a “Rasputin beard.” He lost that first race — popular Republican incumbent Sen. Hiram Fong went on to narrowly defeat Heftel — but he persisted.
Despite his flamboyant and unconventional style, or perhaps because of it, Abercrombie was soon elected to the Legislature, serving in the House and then the Senate from 1975 to 1986. He famously motored around town with his picture and name emblazoned on the door of a taxi, a mobile advertising tactic that also served to underscore his disdain for corporate campaign financing. He later spent two years on the Honolulu City Council and then ran for Congress, representing Hawaii in Washington for more than a decade.
In 1996, he co-authored legislation that created public-private venture partnerships between the military and private developers to build, manage and maintain housing for military families nationwide, which led to the construction of thousands of housing units on military bases in Hawaii, an action he said would boost local construction employment and reduce the strains on Hawaii’s civilian housing stock.
Abercrombie was elected governor in 2010, campaigning on an ambitious program he called “A New Day in Hawaii.” But, back in Hawaii after more than a decade in Washington, his popularity began to slip.
Hawaii had been hit hard by the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009 and Abercrombie’s efforts to restore the state to financial stability alienated many voters and retirees. He also angered the still-strong Japanese voting bloc by his failure to appoint Colleen Hanabusa, who the late Sen. Dan Inouye had wanted to replace him in the Senate, instead choosing his own lieutenant governor, Brian Schatz.
In 2014, the veteran politician was defeated by David Ige, then a state senator who is now serving his second term as governor.
In the last few years, Abercrombie has had a lot of time to think about Hawaii and the lessons he learned in his political life. He is writing an autobiography.
He thinks Hawaii is changing, and not for the better.
In the past, he said, young people were able to make their own way because jobs paid enough for a worker to afford an apartment and a car.
“People were optimistic,” he recalled. “Now what you’ve got is that one foot in front of the other and trying to figure out how you are going to pay your bills … And then you get resentment, right? And your resentments build up.”
In previous decades, Abercrombie said, the Democratic Party was concerned about helping the middle and lower classes advance. Now, he believes that many elected officials are no longer truly committed to Democratic political ideology.
Instead, he said, many state lawmakers are “political entrepreneurs” who are focused on advancing themselves and their own financial interests, not the needs of the general populace.
“The working class, which has been the foundation of the Democratic Party, is under severe pressure,” he said. “It’s disappearing. The working middle class is being driven to the margins. And we’re getting an overclass and an underclass in Hawaii. In a certain sense we are getting into a new plantation economy and a new plantation social construct.
“The whole idea of breaking out of the plantation economy before was to have a middle class and a working class that was progressing,” he said. “The whole idea of the Democratic Party, each of the governors, is that we sacrifice now, for the future … Everybody. Everyone would progress. And now we don’t have that view anymore.”
For Abercrombie, the best example of that is the state’s repeated failure to create a statewide universal preschool program that would prepare the state’s children for success in elementary school. He received only partial funding for it. It’s unjust that the children of the affluent get early education assistance that poorer children don’t get, giving them an advantage from the very start, he said.
This year, Ige and legislative leaders are proposing a dramatic expansion of preschool for 4-year-olds, hoping to roll it out by 2030.
Currently, three states — Florida, Georgia and Oklahoma — offer universal preschool, and 39 states and the District of Columbia offer it more widely but not universally.
Abercrombie believes that the lack of universal preschool demonstrates that short-sighted political leaders in Hawaii have grown complacent and are no longer looking after the needs of average-income people.
He said legislators don’t consider child care an important problem because they can afford to pay for it themselves.
“The Democrats say, ‘We are in this together,’” he said. “No, we’re not.”
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About the Author
A Kailua girl, Kirstin Downey is a special correspondent for Civil Beat. A longtime reporter for The Washington Post, she is the author of "The Woman Behind the New Deal," "Isabella the Warrior Queen" and an upcoming biography of King Kaumualii of Kauai. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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