Hawai‘i’s Senior Statesman Opines on the State of the State

Richard Borreca
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

George R. Ariyoshi, who will turn 92 next month, has served as one of the state’s Democratic leaders for so long that he is one of the signposts for politics and government in Hawai‘i.

Unless the state Constitution is amended to change the current two-term limit for Hawai‘i’s governor, Ariyoshi is likely to be the longest-serving governor in state history, having served three terms, from 1974 to 1986. In October 1973, prior to his election, then-Lt. Gov. Ariyoshi was appointed acting governor when Gov. John A. Burns resigned due to his worsening and terminal cancer condition.

A Nisei, Ariyoshi was part of the returning wave of Hawai‘i AJA veterans who served in World War II — Ariyoshi served in the Military Intelligence Service — and then ran for political office, becoming one of the Democrats who took control of the territorial Legislature in 1954.

Although he did not seek federal elective office after leaving the governorship in 1986, Ariyoshi has remained active, serving on the East-West Center’s board of governors and the Queen’s (Medical Center) International Corporation, among other positions. Ariyoshi also authored two books: “Hawai‘i: The Past Fifty Years, The Next Fifty Years” and “With Obligation to All.”

The former governor still holds a number of strong opinions about what is going right and what is going wrong in Hawai‘i. For example, in the 2014 gubernatorial primary, Ariyoshi broke with local political tradition and did not endorse the incumbent Democrat, Gov. Neil Abercrombie. Instead, Ariyoshi went with the challenger, then-state Sen. David Ige. In 1985, while governor, Ariyoshi appointed Ige to fill a vacancy in the state House, launching the Pearl City Democrat’s political career.

Since then, Ariyoshi has become critical of Ige’s performance and is now supporting U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa in the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Honolulu journalist Richard Borreca recently interviewed Ariyoshi at his downtown office. The questions are summarized to preserve the flow of the more than one-hour-long conversation.

Richard Borreca (RB): Over the years, have you become more liberal or conservative in your thinking?

“I find it hard to say that. I think we have to spend money for the things that are important, but in a way that is responsible.

“I think conservative in terms of that I worked on the state budget and I am the only governor who left a surplus at the end. So in that sense you can say I am conservative, but in a way I didn’t cut services to people.”

RB: You said you didn’t cut budgets, but you did ask fewer state workers to do more work.

“I didn’t have to fire people; I didn’t have to lay off people.

“How are you going to do it if you can’t get people to come together to do it? A leader has to lead.

“They have [to] say what has to be done and what is possible and what other people are doing, so then they can come together. But we no longer have that kind of thinking, and that is what really frustrates me.

“No individual in the community can do any of those things by him or herself. It is not a leader saying, here’s what is going to happen and this is it, bang, bang bang.

“What I am saying is that conversation is so important, that statement by the leader of what they want to do is so important for somebody to talk about what is important and what you have to do and how you are going to get there and how to participate. Then people know what they have to do.”

RB: You have said you don’t think Gov. Ige showed leadership in the native Hawaiian protests regarding construction of the 30-meter telescope on Mauna Kea.

“It is off track because the governor didn’t speak up. He never said he wanted the telescope. He could have held the line. He could have said, ‘I understand what you folks are saying and I’m going to try to accommodate you as best as I can, but I understand that the telescope is very important to Hawai‘i. We want to have the telescope.’

“Instead, he said, ‘You folks talk about this.’ That’s all he said. People love to talk. Leaders can’t afford to do that. So today the telescope hasn’t gone very far. I am very disturbed.”

RB: Overall, how has the Ige administration been doing on some other issues, Kaka‘ako, for instance?

“For me, it is not a personal thing. My concern is not who is going to be governor — my concern is what is going to happen to Hawai‘i. I am very future-oriented in that sense.

“I want to know what is good for Hawai‘i and who is going to do that.

“Take Kaka‘ako, for example. I was involved in getting the Kaka‘ako plans worked out . . . Now I am very concerned that Kaka‘ako is becoming a place where developers look [to see] how they can build the most expensive homes that can be sold so they can make money.

“We don’t have enough people thinking about building for Hawai‘i’s people so people can buy homes they can afford, not 2 or 3 million [dollar homes].

“We have to have affordable, cheap housing.

“Kaka‘ako should be developed for Hawai‘i’s people, not just the very wealthy who can afford to pay millions. That is what I am concerned about, because I see it going in the other direction.”

RB: One issue that I know concerns you, although it probably doesn’t get much coverage, is the state or city practice of going outside of Hawai‘i for top executives. What’s your thinking on that?

It must be an insult to every person who is a teacher or who would have been in the police department that if you can come up the ranks, then the top is always open to someone from outside . . . If you were an educator or you were a police department member, how would you feel if you were told you are not good enough to run the department?

“We were almost going to have a head of police from outside until we found this lady, and I was very happy.

“I think that message is very important about that ceiling that you create. We are saying that among the thousands of people in the department (DOE), there is not one who could run the department and we had to go outside — that bothers me a lot.”

RB: When you were first elected governor, it was said that you would be a bridge between the old and new Hawai‘i, because as the first Japanese American governor in the United States, your election was an important symbol of progress. Is that still an issue?

“Let me tell you, when Jack Burns (Gov. John A. Burns, Ariyoshi’s predecessor) wanted me to run for lieutenant governor and then governor, he said that only a white person has ever been governor of Hawai‘i; only a person born outside of Hawai‘i has been governor of Hawai‘i.

“He told me, ‘You remember the speech I gave about the feeling of inferiority among some of our people, the feeling that if you are from here, you can get up to a certain level and that is it; you can’t go higher?’

“That is what I was talking about the police department and education department, which is happening now.

“He told me, ‘You got to break that, you got [to] say anything is possible in Hawai‘i.’

“I gave up my law practice; it was a tremendous sacrifice to do that to run for lieutenant governor, and then governor.

“For me, it was very important that I [was] offered up the opportunity. Not that I become the first Japanese governor, but I had the opportunity, that I was the first person born in Hawai‘i.

“I could give the message that, ‘Hey, you born in Hawai‘i, you live in Hawai‘i: Don’t stop, or thinking that there is a ceiling in what you do; you can go to the top. Don’t stop.’”

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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