George Cooper On The Writing Of ‘Land And Power In Hawaii’ - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

George Cooper

George Cooper is a lawyer who works in Cambodia for the World Bank, for the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization Inclusive Development International and for the Cambodian NGO Equitable Cambodia. His work for the World Bank involves projects that assist the Cambodian land ministry to issue collective titles to Indigenous Peoples’ villages.

Editor’s note: Few works have had a more lasting impact in the islands than “Land and Power in Hawaii: The Democratic Years.” First published in 1985, it describes “a pervasive way of conducting private and public affairs,” as the University of Hawaii Press explains on its website promoting the book. “State and local office holders throughout Hawaii took their personal financial interests into account” in their actions as public officials.

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Jonathan Likeke Scheuer, who recently finished eight years on the Land Use Commission, the last four as chair, told Civil Beat, “For me it is not just that the phrase ‘land and power’ has entered people’s consciousness. It’s how that phrase has impacted our framing of politics and land regulation in Hawaii. I believe for those who continue to profit by developing land, in part succeeding based on their personal relationships, that public consciousness has resulted in some limits.”

Scheuer, who also served 11 years on the board of the Hawaii Land Trust, added, “For many of us in my generation — or at least myself — it’s also been inspirational. ‘Land and Power’ has been a guide post for how to develop ourselves, personally and professionally, to be able to push back against that old regime and try to work for a better relationship between our people and the islands.”

George Cooper, who wrote “Land and Power” with Gavan Daws, today lives in Cambodia where he works with human rights organizations focused on protecting the rights of the poor to land and natural resources. Here is what Cooper has to say about “Land and Power” today.

‘A Personal Story’

The book is based on what I researched, mainly from the public record, and what Gavan Daws shaped into a book. The draft research turned up information about systemic corruption in Hawaii politics and government that is still with Hawaii. Before co-authoring “Land and Power,” Gavan wrote, among other books, “Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands” (1968).

This essay is a personal story about how “Land and Power” was written and what it led me to in later life, all the way until now.

Land and Power cover JPEG

I am a lawyer, still registered as such in Hawaii though on inactive status because in 1996 I left Hawaii and eventually settled in Cambodia. While studying at the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaii Manoa, I put all possible required hours into directed studies that I designed based on interests I had developed before law school, as a lecturer in Survival Plus (a UH Manoa environmental program), as a radio news announcer for KIVM on Kauai, and as a stringer for The Garden Island. I was also a community organizer on Kauai.

These studies resulted first in a paper inspired by Tom Coffman — then an investigative writer for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin — on campaign contributions by architects and engineers, and then a follow-up paper on U.S. Attorney Harold M. Fong’s torpedoing of a criminal case that the state filed against Honolulu Mayor Frank F. Fasi, by indicting the state’s chief witness, Hal Hansen, over the controversial development project called Kukui Plaza.

A then-former professor of mine — Daniel Lerner, Ford Professor of Sociology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology — wrote a note to the head of UH Press, Iris Wiley, endorsing the idea that UH Press should publish a full history by me. I never followed up on writing a book, though.

Tom Coffman and I met because I saw one of his articles about architects and engineers, and immediately I was transfixed by the idea that someone who was not a professional criminal investigator or lawyer could figure out what he did, and that a newspaper as prestigious as I considered the Star-Bulletin to be at the time would publish it. I really wanted to learn how to do what Tom did. He is the author of “Catch a Wave: A Study of the Early Statehood Politics of Hawaii” (1973).

excerpt from Land and Power in Hawaii -- list of names and acres
An excerpt from “Land and Power in Hawaii” listing the names of powerful Hawaii lawmakers and officials, years and land acreage records. The book carefully documents how state and local office holders took “personal financial interests into account in their actions as public officials,” according to publisher UH Press. 

In 1975 I called Tom from the law school’s student lounge and a few days later we met in the courtyard of the Capitol building. He suggested I join him for a meeting with Lt. Gov. Jean King that he was already late for. The meeting lasted only a few minutes. It was about campaign contributions by architects and engineers.

I vaguely recall that I was disappointed that nothing decisive happened in the meeting. Basically, what I thought of the whole experience of cold calling someone justifiably famous who immediately set me on a course I had no idea I could go on was that — as the saying goes — all this was due to my having placed a call to God and against all odds he took the call.

Crime And Corruption From DC To Hawaii

I started doing research on a paper on architects and engineers for a criminal law class in which students had to pick their own subjects for their papers. Side by side with the research I started reading, during study hours at the law school, books about the Watergate scandal plus a book about Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, who resigned from office in 1973 upon pleading guilty to cheating on his federal income taxes. I remember fellow students sometimes looking at me strangely for reading all those books at my carrel in the students’ study area while neglecting my law studies.

I also wrote a letter to one of the then most famous U.S. attorneys and district court judges in the country, Herbert Jay Stern, in New Jersey. He was famous for prosecuting corruption and organized crime cases. From 1971 to 1973 he served as the United States attorney for the District of New Jersey. He personally conducted or supervised several major corruption and organized crime trials in New Jersey, including the mayors of Newark and Atlantic City, two state treasurers and secretaries of state of New Jersey, as well as U.S. Congressman Cornelius E. Gallagher.

I wrote to him about a federal policy suggesting — but not mandating — that U.S. attorneys not do what Harold Fong did, by indicting a key witness in a case in state court. He wrote back endorsing the policy, and I wrote him again refining my questions and he replied again. His letters were exhibit “A” in my case against Fong.

While in law school I sent my water rights history to Gavan Daws, whom I hardly knew. I wondered what he would think. We met at Kuhio Grill, a favorite hangout for UH students and professors. I told him that Professor Lerner had sent that note to Iris Wiley, and he said I should finish the book.

In 1980 Gavan asked me to write a book with him about Interstate H-3. I said I would, but I could not start until after I came back from a one-year, around-the-world trip I was about to go on. He agreed. I came back in mid-1981 and started.

Governor George Ariyoshi greets service men and women at the end of the inauguration ceremonies as he leaves the rotunda area of the Capitol. 1 dec 2014. photo Cory LUm
George Ariyoshi was governor of Hawaii from 1973 to 1986. He was the lawyer for the Royal Gardens subdivision on the Big Island around 1960, writing its general partnership registration statement in return for getting a limited partner share — even though the land was known to be vulnerable to lava flows. The photo from the Hawaii State Archives/Honolulu Star-Advertiser Collection shows the governor in 1977. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2014

An order had been given in 1960 to start H-3 but, because of massive protest, construction did not start until the late 1980s, meaning there was nothing to write about concerning H-3 at the time I was starting except that it was being protested. Also, I felt that H-3 was too limited a subject and I wanted to do something more substantial, but I did not know what. Meanwhile I started reading with great interest what Jim Dooley was writing in The Honolulu Advertiser about huis (partnerships) as a vehicle for investing in land and development by all kinds of Hawaii residents — including politicians, criminals, judges, labor leaders and old money people — the people at the time who were at the top of the power structure.

Jim’s work inspired me to look at all partnership papers (initial filings and annual reports) filed with the territory and subsequent state governments from 1954 to 1981. The year 1981 was when I did this piece of research. I ended up looking at about 57,000 separate documents. I was looking for what Jim wrote was there about politicians, etc.

what the Royal Garden subdivision looked like on February 19, 1977
What the Royal Garden subdivision looked like on Feb. 19, 1977. U.S. Geological Survey

To spot them in the microfiche in the Hawaii Archives, and clippings in the joint archives of the Star-Bulletin and Advertiser — where head librarian Bea Kaya took an interest in my work and was extremely helpful — I relied mainly on what was in my head from news work.

Part of my job as a radio news announcer was to broadcast all the news, including the Hawaii news, and that more than anything else embedded in my mind who was who in the power structure. I also consulted the encyclopedia “Men and Women of Hawaii.” The result was a table of all names I recognized grouped by occupation.

I thought the book Gavan and I were writing would be boring, because I gathered a lot of data.

The table floored me. I can say without a doubt that looking at it changed my life. It is where “Land and Power” came from. Tom agreed, which helped me have the nerve to tell Gavan we had to change the focus of the book to what it became. In my telling Gavan this I thought it was obvious what the book would be about, and it did not occur to me that an outline might be necessary. Gavan, in a monument to his tolerance of and generosity toward me, said “fine.” By then we were friends, and we will always be.

I thought the book Gavan and I were writing would be boring and almost no one would read it because I gathered a lot of data and then displayed it mainly in long tables. I was then shocked by how big the media and public reaction was.

The Royal Garden subdivision on May 15, 2011, after it had mostly been destroyed by lava.
The Royal Garden subdivision on May 15, 2011, after it had mostly been destroyed by lava. U.S. Geological Survey

Gavan and I published “Land and Power” by Benchmark Books, which we organized. David Rick, who was a close friend of ours, did most of the publishing work. Gavan asked the University of Hawaii Press to publish it, but the UHP director declined without explaining why. A total of 10,000 hardcover copies were printed and rapidly sold.

Gavan then asked UHP again if they would publish our book and this time they agreed. A difference between the hardcover edition that Benchmark Books published, and the softcover edition published by UHP, is that the hardcover edition had no reviews by prominent people, newspapers, etc., whereas the paperback edition by UHP does.

I wrote the first draft of what is now on the back of the paperback edition and what appears there is what I wrote, except for my including in my first draft an excerpt from a handwritten letter to me from an inmate in the Oahu prison, which included approximately these words: “This book just goes to show what I’ve always said, that the real criminals are in office not in prison.” But Gavan and I agreed we could not include such a quote because UHP would never allow it.

Concerned scientists observe an aa flow from Puu Oo as it advanced down a street in Royal Gardens subdivision on July 2, 1983. Photo by J.D. Griggs.
Concerned scientists observe a lava flow from Puu Oo as it advanced down a street in Royal Gardens subdivision on July 2, 1983. Photo by J.D. Griggs. U.S. Geological Survey/1983

In the end, which is to say now, I am so glad we did it. My aim — which I never thought would be realized — was to raise by just one step up only the general conversation in Hawaii about land and power, to acknowledge there was a connection. It seems to have done that: To my amazement the term “land and power” passed into the general vocabulary of Hawaii as a kind of condition that has been forever true in Hawaii, and in the years our book covered, who owned the land and held the power changed but the basic condition had not, and it seems it never will.

One final thing to say about the writing of “Land and Power” is something that occurred to me while we were writing the book — that it was the book I had always wanted to read but since no one had written it, we were. Another is to quote from a book by James Eckhardt entitled “Boom, Bust and Cambodia: The Year of Living Stupidly” (2001). Eckhardt was born in Australia and as a young man came by boat to Singapore. In the book he wonders what he would now tell a young man who was just getting off a boat from Singapore? He wrote, “You lucky guy.”

My Work After ‘Land And Power’

When I first arrived in Hawaii, I was a student at the University of Hawaii Manoa in the Asian Studies program with a scholarship from the East-West Center — I was a grantee. At the time the Kalama Valley land struggle was going on and I was introduced to some of its leaders — Kalani Ohelo and Larry Kamakawiwoʻole — by John Witeck, whom I had known from elementary and high school days in Arlington, Virginia.

I went out to the valley one night to see what was going on and I was told the local people (Kokua Hawaii) had kicked all the haoles (white people) out of the valley that day. That meant all I could do were things like holding signs in public places supporting the struggle, which I did.

As insignificant as holding signs was, it led to my eventually becoming involved in what I realized after I started working in Cambodia is a worldwide problem of mass eviction of poor people by large companies, powerful generals, senior government leaders, etc. That work has been at the core of my life from Kalama Valley until today.

On Kauai I worked with the Niumalu-Nawiliwili Tenants Association. They were being evicted from their homes by their landlord, the Kanoa Estate.

It is striking how during that period no politician of either party was convicted of crimes based on corruption charges.

I worked with the Kilauea Agricultural Association whose half dozen members were being evicted from their farms — two of the farms were quite large — by investors who bought in large parcels the lands of the Kilauea Sugar Plantation. The plantation was owned by C. Brewer and Co., one of “The Big Five” companies of the Republican era in Hawaii’s history.

And finally, I worked with the ʻOhana o Māhāʻulepū, a group of mainly young people fighting to preserve a relatively undeveloped shoreline near Poipu, on the south coast of Kauai, from high-end development. The ohana succeeded in 1974 in defeating a land use district change by the Land Use Commission from agricultural to urban requested by Leadership Homes. Most of the land at issue before the LUC is still undeveloped.

When I went to law school, I helped the all-Filipino Ota Camp association negotiate the buying of the houses that had been rented to them by the Honolulu city government. The association and city had signed a contract that allowed for this.

After law school I represented the Waiahole Waikane Community Association before the Land Use Commission to oppose the development of a golf course in relatively undeveloped Waikane Valley, and the buying of homes and farms in Waiahole Valley by people in that valley and in Waikane Valley entitled to buy them by a provision in an agreement between the state and the WWCA that ended the attempt by Elizabeth Marks and Joe Pao to evict them. The golf course was stopped by the efforts by many people, least of all by me.

In looking back at the period in which Gavan and I wrote “Land and Power,” it is striking how during that period, to the best of my knowledge, no politician of either party was convicted of crimes based on corruption charges, whereas today such convictions are commonplace.

Charles Djou wrote in Civil Beat in February, “Last week a Honolulu city planning bureaucrat pleaded guilty to accepting bribes to illegally fix issuance of building permits. Yet, amidst the guilty pleas of former state Sen. Kalani English and former state Rep. Ty Cullen, mixed with federal indictments of multiple senior cabinet officials in Kirk Caldwell’s former mayoral administration, another state legislator escaping punishment for drunk driving, plus a former Honolulu police chief now in prison, this major news story was all but lost.”

I am proud that the book remains influential and is read. The University of Hawaii Professional Assembly — the faculty union — currently lists “Land and Power” on its “Suggested Reading List” as its top pick for a book to read about Hawaii. I thought it an impossibility that “Land and Power” would be ranked ahead of a variety of other books, especially on Native Hawaiians and especially Craig Howes’ and Jonathan Kamakawiwo‘ole Osorio’s “The Value of Hawaii: Knowing the Past, Shaping the Future” and Tom’s “A Nation Within.”

Coffman recently told me that “Land and Power” portrayed “not just a political party but an entire large slice of society living off land development and speculation. In its stubborn recitation, its theme stuck in the minds of many. It explains for us why our landscape is so cluttered and poorly planned. The title was both accurate and ingenious. A friend of mine recently wrote to me saying, ‘It’s the only book you can understand merely by reading the title and the index.’”


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About the Author

George Cooper

George Cooper is a lawyer who works in Cambodia for the World Bank, for the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization Inclusive Development International and for the Cambodian NGO Equitable Cambodia. His work for the World Bank involves projects that assist the Cambodian land ministry to issue collective titles to Indigenous Peoples’ villages.


Latest Comments (0)

I'm proud to have worked on that book on the production side. George and Gavin are wonderful people. I'm eternally indebted to them for the opportunity and learned a great deal from working on the book with them.

CaptainMandrake · 2 weeks ago

George, each time I canvass for a community cause or show up at a town hall to voice a concern I think about how you inspired me to get involved and to be aware of what's going on in my back yard. In the early 1970s you came knocking on my door on Niumalu Rd. in Nawiliwili, Kauai to sound the alarm that a developer had plans to rezone the area known as the Alekoko Menehune Fish Pond. The master plan was to turn the area into a development that would have gentrified the neighborhood with a marina and condominiums. We went to the county building and researched how the rezoning would environmentally impact the area and displace many of the residents who had lived there for generations. You called on Patsy Mink to speak to everyone with reassurance that the development would not take place. Years later I worked at a bookstore on Maui when Land and Power was published. We could not keep enough copies in the store. Thank you for your wisdom and for educating the masses.Best wishes,Vicky Stanich

Niumalu · 3 weeks ago

Whenever I am asked what it's like to live in Hawaii, and how this place evolved (or failed to do so), I refer them to 'LAND AND POWER IN HAWAII", and "BROKEN TRUST".I used to include Chris McKinney in my suggested reading about Hawaii, but McKinney turned out to not be a good guy in our community, so I no longer value his work.

Shoeter · 3 weeks ago

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