Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
If you were to come up with a politically perfect life history, based on humble beginnings, hard work and just the smallest amount of celebrity sizzle, the life story of Maui’s Mike Victorino would be an excellent candidate.
The 68-year-old mayor is finishing the first half of his first term, after serving on the Maui County Council for a decade. He’s a plainspoken leader who calls COVID-19 quarantine lawbreakers “knuckleheads.” His speech is refreshingly laced with local-style pidgin, and he is able to get straight to the point.
When discussing the daily challenge of the virus raging across the state, Victorino admits it is a tough problem. “There is a fatigue, I admit it,”
Victorino said of his constituents living on the three islands — Maui, Moloka‘i and Läna‘i — that make up Maui County.
In a phone interview from Maui, Victorino says, “I don’t blame them; they are tired of being told they can’t do this, they can’t do that. This started in March. And now it’s September. We are still battling it. We haven’t opened our economy and many people are very frustrated and others say keep everything closed. I am really caught in the middle. But, I make my decisions on sound medical advice and what is going on around me.”
Freelance content creator and former Maui-based journalist, Ilima Loomis, who covered Victorino’s mayoral campaign, said the county leader is strong in keeping and extending his business and community ties. “He seems to have done a good job in appointing competent people and then managing them effectively,” says Loomis. “As a journalist, I found him easy to get along with and helpful and open. No one would accuse him of being the most progressive, but he certainly is not the least progressive, either. He knows how to strike a balance.”
Victorino’s career history includes working summers on Läna‘i as a pineapple worker, attending Hawaii Community College and Hilo College [University of Hawai‘i at Hilo] as a student while working as a stock clerk for Zales Jewelry in Hilo. According to the biography on his campaign website (victorinoformayor.com), “Following high school graduation, he [Victorino] studied business management at Hawai‘i Community College and Hilo College [UHH]. After three years of study, he was hired to open Zales at the Queen Kaʻahumanu Shopping Center [on Maui]. When his contract expired, he went through the McDonald’s Management Training Program, AKA Hamburger U, known globally for excellence in teaching executive-management skills.
“Mike then entered the insurance business as an agent for Combined Insurance, working his way up to County Manager. [He worked] for a couple
of other insurance companies; he settled in with First Insurance Company of Hawaiʻi. When Hurricane Iniki hit Kaua‘i, it changed the company because it eliminated the marketing division. He moved to Bishop Insurance as a manager. After Bishop was acquired by American Savings and HECO in 2001, he joined Mutual Underwriters …”
Victorino met his wife Joycelyn Nakahashi while they were both working at McDonald’s. They have two sons, including Major League Baseball star Shane Victorino, a member of two World Series championship teams.
Victorino remembers that when son Shane was young, he had wanted a $40 baseball glove. At the time, cash was tight, but Victorino bought it anyway. “You could say that getting that glove changed Shane’s life,” Victorino says. And when he ran for mayor in 2018, Shane Victorino was able to donate $10,000 to his father’s successful campaign.
Last year Victorino dealt with a summer of wildfires that caused multiple community evacuations and highway closures. “I became the fire king of this state. We had a record number of fires. Almost 26,000 acres were burned. It was difficult at times, but we never lost any lives and [experienced] no major structural damage in all those fires,” Victorino said. Then this year the pandemic struck Maui, severely affecting Maui Memorial Medical Center with 52 people — 38 healthcare workers and 14 patients —struck with COVID-19.
“Maui may have been the first, [but] now people are calling and asking what did you guys do. Now we have it under control, but all you need is one super spreader,” Victorino warns.
When asked what he thought of how Gov. David Ige has fared in handling the pandemic, Victorino declined to comment. “I really don’t throw my fellow leaders under the bus, I respect them and understand them. I had to make decisions that ruined lives, that hurt our families. I shut it down and pulled the rug out. It bothers me. But decisions had to be made,” said Victorino.
Besides dealing with the unrelenting natural disasters of disease, hurricanes and fires, Victorino, like other political leaders, must come up with answers to the question of what will happen to Hawai‘i’s economy, now limping along with unemployment at almost 14%.
“We have to embrace new ways of dealing with the problems,” states Victorino. “Maybe it is tech parks or agriculture, diversified ag, like maybe hemp or cannabis, but don’t forget the number one industry is hospitality. It is going to take a minimum of two to five years just to get it back to where we started.” And along the way, Victorino reminds all that local culture must be preserved, for Hawai‘i and especially Maui.
“Today we have a diverse and complex lifestyle. Everything is expedient. I have tried to keep local values alive, our culture alive. It is really difficult — the new people coming in have no clue, and some of them don’t want it. Could be like they have in California or New York. I won’t say anymore; you know what I mean.”
With an animated, akamai local leader like Victorino in charge, Maui does appear to be on a steady and positive path.
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.