Remembering a Compassionate Social Activist
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Rev. Bob Nakata was one of Hawai‘i’s most influential and unlikely social activists. Nakata was 80 when he died in July after suffering a stroke two years ago. With two degrees in physics, Nakata seemed destined to a life as a professor, in fact one of his early positions was teaching at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo.
A keen mind, however, was topped by a compassionate heart driven to help the poor and those left behind.
As Nakata explained in an interview with journalist Gary T. Kubota in 2017, the mission was to help. “I’m very deep into this Christianity,” Nakata said. “I saw Jesus as a real revolutionary, and his immediate core of followers as his disciples. Out of them came the whole idea of ‘from each according to ability to each according to their needs.’”
Although Nakata’s career included time spent as the pastor of Kahalu‘u United Methodist Church from 1980 to 1989, and the Hawai‘i House of Representatives from 1983 to 1987 and in the Hawai‘i Senate from 1999 to 2003, Nakata set himself on a larger mission. Political analyst and retired University of Hawai‘i political scientist, Dan Boylan said Nakata’s view of politics and his strong Christian faith combined to make the minister a persuasive lobbyist for causes ranging from homelessness to community planning.
“He led, in large part, by being someone who was not trying to shout you down nor dance around the stage and he wasn’t a doctrinaire Christian. He was someone who made you feel good about politics and what it could accomplish,” Boylan said in an interview.
Journalist Ian Lind pointed to Nakata’s dedication to both proper planning and the state’s overwhelming need for housing. “Bob’s a trailblazer. He lost his seat for reelection to the State Senate because he took a strong stand against the H-3 Freeway coming to the Windward end. He’s been a fighter in and out of the legislature for many years on housing for the less fortunate in Hawai‘i,” Lind said in his blog noting Nakata’s passing.
In repeated efforts, Nakata would link government efforts to foster development with the strong push for affordable housing. When the state Legislature revamped the laws controlling the rental housing trust fund, lawmakers named the new law the “Bob Nakata Act” in honor of his lobbying and support of the state putting $200 million into the Rental Housing Trust Fund.
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser obituary for Nakata took special notice of his dedication to helping the homeless by creating more new affordable homes. The newspaper noted Rev. David Gierlach of St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church on King Street calling Nakata “the father of affordable housing.”
“Bob has been active almost his whole life for issues important to the community,” Gierlach said. “He always cared about people at their core.” It wasn’t always easy to hear what Nakata had to say, according to Gierlach. “You had to lean in to listen because he did speak softly,” he said, but legislators “listened to Bob because he had a lot of credibility with them because of his years of community service. He didn’t have an axe to grind. He did his homework and he understood how things work in our government.”
While serving one term in the senate, Nakata linked up with then state Sen. Colleen Hanabusa. The pair were part of a feisty, five-person Democrat political block in the senate.
News accounts during that time had already given a name to the group. “They challenged Senate leadership just after being sworn in, earning them the nickname “Rat Pack,” the report said. Hanabusa maintains the nickname is derived from “Frank Sinatra/Dean Martin buddy group famous for their camaraderie and banter, as well as the original “Ocean’s Eleven,” according to a Star-Advertiser report.
In an interview, Hanabusa, who went on to serve as a U.S. Congresswoman and is now chairwoman of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board, praised Nakata.
“He was infectious with his causes and so deliberate in movement. He was part of our rat pack in 1999. He was our conscience,” Hanabusa said.
Nakata in later years turned to lobbying to make the case for Honolulu’s long delayed and over budget rail project. As Nakata would explain, it was not so much in support for the transit project, but that the project carried with it multiple subsidies for housing along the rail route. As Nakata said in an article in the New York Times in 2016, rail was the pathway for housing for Honolulu.
“On an island with an acute shortage of housing, the corridor provides a passageway to encourage construction,” the Times wrote.
“Rail is a way to help get to affordable housing,” said Nakata, a housing advocate and onetime pastor. “Rail as transportation is almost secondary.”
As Hanabusa said in an interview, Nakata’s influence extended far beyond just housing. “Bob is recognized as the advocate for the homeless living on streets and at parks and beaches, but it was noted that Bob has fought for a lot of causes that threatened to harm the environment or the people.
“He led the opposition for H-3 to preserve the rural atmosphere of the Windward side and he was the force behind the Kokua Kalihi Valley late-night basketball league to keep kids from engaging in gang activities,” Hanabusa said in praise.
Nakata will be remembered as a community role-model and one of Hawai‘i’s most influential social activists.
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.