Veteran Wahiawa Lawmaker Joins Hawai‘i Labor Relations Board

Richard Borreca
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Born in 1959, the year Hawai‘i became a state seems just the sort of perfect Hawai‘i political note for Marcus Oshiro, who recently ended his 23-year tenure as a member of the state House of Representatives.

In late August, Gov. David Ige appointed the Wahiawä sansei as the new chairman of the Hawai‘i Labor Relations Board. His appointment was confirmed by the state Senate a month later when the Legislature convened in special session to pass a rail funding measure. Oshiro, a former House Labor Committee chairman, will serve out the remainder of HLRB chair Kerry Komatsubara’s term and then serve his own six-year term, set to end June 30, 2024.

During his time in the Legislature, Oshiro, a Leilehua High School graduate who earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa and his law degree from Willamette University, was a political power in his own right. That makes sense, as he comes from a local Wahiawä family that was a bedrock of the Hawai‘i Democratic Party, headed by his late father, Robert “Bob” Oshiro. The elder Oshiro was nicknamed the “Wizard of Wahiawä,” for his ability to galvanize a political campaign and produce winners.

The state that Marcus Oshiro was born into 58 years ago was partially shaped by the elder
Oshiro, who was an attorney, state legislator, Democratic Party leader and chairman of the Queen Emma Foundation and Queen’s Health Services.

When the senior Oshiro died in 2008, U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye said Oshiro had “. . . contributed much to the social, economic and political advances that transformed Hawai‘i into a more equal and just society.”

Forming, designing, building and running Hawai‘i was the heady early history of modern Democratic Hawai‘i, but the state was on the verge of serious change when Marcus Oshiro arrived at the Legislature, representing his father’s old Wahiawä House district.

“I think Bob did a good job with Marcus. He has strong Hawai‘i plantation life values,” said former House Speaker Calvin Say.

By 2007, when Oshiro was named House Finance Committee chairman, Hawai‘i was enjoying a strong economy.

“We had a good year in 2007. I inherited a surplus that I think was $743 million. We could actually help some of the nonprofits (community service charities) and restore their funding. I wanted to re-establish the food tax credit,” Oshiro recalled recently while clearing out his State Capitol office.

“In 2008, all hell breaks loose and we go into what is called ‘the Great Recession.’ It was like Father Christmas one year and Mr. Scrooge the next. Everyone was upset,” Oshiro said.

Say said that as Finance Committee chairman, it was Oshiro’s job to write the first version of a state budget that would involve cutting jobs, taking away grants and slicing services, all in the name of keeping the state budget balanced.

“He knew what we had to do. We had to do some major take backs and exemptions. There was a big push to increase the general excise tax, but Marcus agreed with House leadership to use take backs, but no tax increase. It was very, very difficult,” Say said in an interview.

Following year after year of billion-dollar state deficits, Oshiro said he was forced to recommend personal income tax increases and hotel room tax increases.

“That was just to balance the state budget, not to increase expenditures,” Oshiro said.

“I told people we would go through every single revolving fund, every special use fund — we looked at taking every possible penny from every possible piggy bank out there.”

Oshiro lost his leadership position on the powerful Finance Committee in 2012 when the House leadership reorganized and Maui Rep. Joe Souki was named Speaker and Rep. Sylvia Luke became Finance Committee chairwoman.

For the first time in his political life, Oshiro went from decision-making insider to dissident. Although calling the shots makes for an easier political life, Oshiro made an impact, even on the outside.

His concern about the state’s finances is still obvious.

Oshiro said state finances are wandering away from helping the poor, pointing to $7.5 million in tax credits given to Pacific Shipyards International and its affiliated company, Navatek Ltd., during the 2014 session.

“I remember in 2014, we had a dozen or so bills for tax credits that would help seniors, families, young children. It was disappointing to me they all failed. The only tax bill that moved out was a tax credit for a for-profit corporation. Giving the money to Navatek, it reflects where you are as a Democrat,” Oshiro said.

Perhaps most newsworthy was Oshiro’s strong opposition to the same-sex marriage bill that was rushed through a special session of the state Legislature in 2013. A strong progressive, Oshiro shocked fellow Democrats with his disagreement with the bill allowing gays to marry.

Some critics said Oshiro’s position was based on his religious opposition to same-sex marriage.

One Democratic Party leader and strong supporter of gay rights recalled that Oshiro was seen as part of the protest movement against gay rights because of his 2013 dissent.

“He had a bullhorn and was leading the chants against the bill. The last few years, I don’t think he was very well-liked,” said the party insider, who asked to remain anonymous.

Oshiro, however, says his concern was based on a legal reading of the bill.

“My belief is that Hawai‘i could have drafted a measure that addressed the concerns with the Supreme Court, the right of all people to marry regardless of their sex, with the right of all people to practice their religious beliefs or not practice beliefs and maintain their freedom,” Oshiro said.

Asked if he supports gay marriage, Oshiro was a bit more obscure, saying, “It is the law of the land, so I have a duty to uphold it. So whether I believe in it or not, that is the oath I am bound to.

“If I sound unsettled, I guess I am. I’m waiting to see how these policies roll out.”

The debate, Oshiro notes, was bitter enough that even now, he is still working to repair relationships with supporters.

“I have some dear friends of mine who are gay and they were understandably upset, but I think today we have reconciled to each other and resumed our friendship. It has taken time.”

As he takes on his new job, Oshiro says his greatest concern is in seeing the state develop a program that is providing housing for those without.

“No one is going to hope for or petition to have a homeless shelter in their backyard, but whether you are a bean-counter or Mother Teresa, it just makes sense [that] we do something. We can do better. For the last three years, we have carried a billion-dollar surplus — you can use it.”

In a final note, lobbyist, former labor leader and political consultant John Radcliffe adds that Oshiro has been a singularly important leader in the Legislature.

“Marcus is a fierce advocate for and against those things he felt strongly about. His saving grace is that he can understand and hold various views in his head at once — a good thing for a policy maker to be able to do,” Radcliffe said.

Richard Borreca is a veteran Honolulu journalist. He has worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, KHVH News Radio, KHON-TV, Honolulu Magazine and The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, for whom he now writes a Sunday column.


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