Lee Cataluna: The Senate President Is Serving Comfort Food With Political Instincts - Honolulu Civil Beat

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Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org

In a modest home in Lihue’s Isenberg tract, Ron Kouchi used to host the kind of garage parties where everybody brought something to throw on the grill or an appropriate side dish.

The women in attendance would tell Kouchi’s two young sons, “You’re not walking past me without a hug, are you?” The gathering of people sitting on folding chairs was incredibly diverse, and talk could flow freely in a safe space where newcomers were welcomed into the circle by party regulars.

Because of pandemic restrictions on gatherings and because the Kouchi family moved to a newer house with a not-made-for-parties garage, “those garage parties don’t exist anymore,” as Kouchi put it. The spirit of those gatherings, however, is still part of how Kouchi gets things done.

Kouchi, 64, is a veteran politician who knows how to line up votes and broker deals in his chamber. As Senate president, Kouchi wields an enormous amount of power in the Capitol, but said in his opening day remarks last month that his job is to help the rest of the senators achieve their goals. He’s the opposite of a performative politician quick to call a press conference or tweet out sassy quotes. His flex is behind the scenes. His work happens in conversations, not in pronouncements.

Senate President Ron Kouchi gives Governor David Ige knuckles after a press conference announcing that travelers that have a negative COVID-19 pre-test, would not be subjected to the quarantine. June 24, 2020
Senate President Ron Kouchi, seen here giving Gov. David Ige knuckles after a press conference in 2020, operates more via conversation than grand pronouncements. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

This is not an analysis of how he operates as a politician, but more about who he is and the background he brings to a position of power in Hawaii.

Kouchi grew up on Kauai, playing sports from sun-up to sun-down.

“As a kid I was a sports fan,” Kouchi said. “I would read the box scores in the newspaper every day.”

In the days before ESPN or the internet, Kouchi learned to hold all those figures in his head and try to figure out what the Sunday batting average would be. That helped him build the memory skills that he is known for, sometimes feared for, at the Legislature.

Another way he learned to remember facts and make connections was by reading biographies of famous Americans – presidents, generals, scientists and inventors. His elementary school teacher, Mrs. Gladys Okada, kept a set of 40 biographies in her classroom. Kouchi read every one.

“If you care about doing the work, put ego on the side and serve.” — Ron Kouchi

There was a time he wanted to be a teacher.

As a student athlete at Waimea High School, Kouchi was greatly influenced by coach Walter Souza, a local legend on the island with a baseball tournament named in his honor. Souza coached Kouchi in baseball and volleyball, and also taught U.S. history. Kouchi wanted to do the same.

Kouchi remembers Souza lecturing about President James Polk, who laid out a four-point plan for his time in office, achieved those goals and kept his promise to serve only one term. The lesson Kouchi got from this was to clearly articulate goals, stick to the plan, and work to achieve those aims.

“If you care about doing the work, put ego on the side and serve,” Kouchi said.

Senate President Ron Kouchi with left Speaker Scott Saiki during committee meeting. 24 april 2018
House Speaker Scott Saiki, left, and Senate President Ron Kouchi have led their respective chambers for the past several years. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

In recent years, while reading reports about ALICE families (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed), Kouchi realized that term described his childhood. His parents divorced when he was in high school, and his mother made do with what they had, though his father stayed involved in his life with “tough love” and made it clear he and his two younger siblings were going to college.

Kouchi graduated from high school in 1975. He applied only to University of Hawaii Manoa, University of Hawaii Hilo and Drake University because he didn’t have enough money for application fees for more than three schools. Drake offered a financial package, so he left for Iowa, coming home for Christmas and summer breaks only when he could earn enough money to buy a plane ticket.

His father steered him away from teaching and toward politics, signing him up to work on Kauai Mayor Eduardo Malapit’s campaign. It became clear that young Kouchi had a knack for organizing events and rounding up volunteers.

In 1983, he was just 24 years old when he first ran for office, winning a seat on the Kauai County Council. Kouchi served a total of 22 years on the council and was chair for 12. Kouchi points out that his constituents as a council member are the same people he currently represents in Senate District 8, which covers the entire island of Kauai and Niihau.

He didn’t grow up going to church with his family, but a moment two decades ago brought him to his faith.

“It was humbling to realize you need help and that you probably make better decisions if you reach out and ask for it.” — Ron Kouchi

In the week after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Kauai’s leaders tried to figure out how to get visitors off the island while airline travel was restricted. There was still so much that wasn’t known about the scope of the attacks and whether there was more to come. Kauai, like small towns across the country, was evaluating the vulnerabilities of the island’s water system and its military base.

After a week of having to consider nightmare scenarios, Kouchi and his wife, Joy, attended an event at their sons’ school. It was supposed to be a barbecue, but instead, the students turned the evening into a tribute to those who lost their lives so far away from their island. There in the school cafeteria, they played a song – a reggae version of  “Every Breath You Take,” interspersed with clips of news coverage of the attacks. The effect was somehow too much to bear.

“There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide,” Kouchi said. “I stood there with tears coming down, just uncontrollable. There wasn’t even time to joke about dust getting in my eyes … I didn’t realize I was holding this all in.”

Then came the moment that hit hardest of all. His two sons, Dan and Egan, turned to him and wanted to know why this horrible thing had happened. “That was the first time as a parent that I had no answer,” Kouchi said. “As a parent, that is so devastating.”

That moment led the family to Kapaa Missionary Church, where they sought answers and found solace.

“It was humbling to realize you need help and that you probably make better decisions if you reach out and ask for it,” Kouchi said.

Senate President Ron Kouchi reads notes on last day of session. 4 may 2017
Senate President Ron Kouchi found his faith after the 9/11 attacks. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

One of his priorities this session is, again, Hawaii’s public schools and how students have fared during the third school year affected by the pandemic.

In his opening day remarks, Kouchi said, “the thing that keeps me up at night is the educational or learning loss that will have a generational impact, potentially, on these young people who will not be able to achieve the goals that they had dreamed about because their educational opportunity did not allow them to succeed. They will see a lost income over their whole working career.”

He has served as a conduit between philanthropic donors and Kauai schools, gathering data on what schools needed and connecting funders with impactful ways to help. He helped get internet devices and hot spots for students on Kauai so they could continue class when schools shut down in 2020. He’s pushing early college classes for high school students, universal Pre-K, and hands-on vocational programs in Kauai’s high schools.

This year, he was impressed by the Yee sisters leading the Ma‘i Movement, which aims to provide feminine hygiene products to schools. Of 350 girls surveyed, half said they had missed school because they didn’t have menstrual products.

“If we work so hard to get the devices, if we work so hard to get the connectivity, and we work so hard to train and compensate the teachers fairly, it’s all lost if they’re not going to school,” Kouchi said.

Around the Capitol, Kouchi is known as having sharp political instincts, loyalty to friends, and an office that always has food.

“My staff and I rarely leave the office,” Kouchi said. “Ninety-five percent of the time, we eat lunch in the office.”

Kouchi cooks comfort food – chili, pot roast with potatoes and brown gravy, Japanese curry with vegetables, baked spaghetti.

“I don’t want to give the impression that I’m a great cook,” Kouchi said. “These are just easy things.”

He finds his colleagues in the Legislature are better listeners when they’re not hungry, so when they come by to talk, they’re offered a plate. Like those old garage parties, talk flows more freely over food.

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About the Author

Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org

Latest Comments (0)

And so what does this say about how Ron serves the people or thier wants and needs? I'm not impressed with anyone in the legislature, particularly in the last 2 years of continuing covid edits, mandates and restrictive state services, without an ounce of tax savings as a result. We continued to get taxed more, receive less and remain under represented. Rather than work on lowering the cost of living Ron and his colleagues focus on raising the minimum wage, which even if increased will do little for those relying on an entry level job to make a living. It's high time for a change in our "closed" state capitol and why not start at the top, where the buck stops.

wailani1961 · 1 year ago

Lee: How about a follow-up article, "Kouchi for governor."

CPete · 1 year ago

I recently have dived into reading biographies - a great way to learn history and leadership lessons. This guy sounds like the leader we need at all levels. Good Job brother!!!!

pcbroda · 1 year ago

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