Wednesday, January 17, 2001
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Posted on: Wednesday, January 17, 2001

Two Harris picks may be useful for 2002 race

By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser City Hall Writer

The latest round of appointments by Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris indicate he is firming up support among some key Democrats as he looks to run for governor in 2002.

Harris and Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono, both Democrats, plan to run for the state’s top political job. Hirono hopes to step up from the No. 2 job in the same way Gov. Ben Cayetano, John Waihee and George Ariyoshi did.

Both Harris and Hirono are wooing supporters. Party faithful, especially those with experience and campaign skills, are critical to a winning effort.

Harris raised eyebrows among political insiders this month when he appointed two deputy directors with politically desirable connections.

He selected John Sabas, now assistant to the director of the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, to be deputy director of the Department of Community Service. Sabas has 25 years of government experience and is married to Jennifer Goto Sabas, who serves as the Hawaii-based chief of staff to senior U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye.

Harris also appointed Patricia Nekoba, who was principal of Hilo’s Waiakea High School, to be deputy director of the Department of Customer Services. She is married to longtime Democrat Lloyd Nekoba, who has been a top aide to Cayetano and a key member of his campaign.

Both Sabas and Nekoba have credentials that would make them valuable even without their spouses’ connections. And they have Neighbor Island ties that Harris would be looking for in a statewide race.

Offering good pay

While appointing Sabas and Nekoba does not necessarily commit the spouses or spouses’ employers to helping Harris, it increases the likelihood that they will help Harris and not assist another candidate.

With deputy directors making just more than $81,000 a year, Harris is in a position to offer well-paying jobs to people who have various strengths.

Hirono is also lining up people, but doesn’t have the luxury of so many patronage positions to offer to supporters.

State Democratic Party Chairman Walter Heen says it’s too early to say which of the Democrats gubernatorial hopefuls will gain the majority of the support of elected leaders in the next governor’s race.

But he admits he would prefer to only have one promising Democrat running in the primary.

Republican Party Chairwoman Linda Lingle plans to run for governor and she is able to appeal to voters looking to change the political status quo. In the last election, she proved a winner by helping Republicans to secure three seats in the state Senate and 19 seats in the state House, more than they have had in years.

"We don’t want to get ourselves all bloodied up," Heen said. "Whoever takes on Wonder Woman’ must be at full strength."

Political insiders are saying Harris is smart to line up people, especially reaching out to those who know the Neighbor Islands, since most of his strength is on Oahu.

Hirono did just hire former state lawmaker Kate Stanley, who left a job as deputy director of the state Department of Human Services to begin work today as an aide in the lieutenant governor’s office.

Hirono appears likely to pick up some union support. She recently clashed with Cayetano in saying she believed that the arbitration award granting raises to members of the Hawaii Government Employees Association has legal basis.

Cayetano did discuss with attorney Bob Toyofuku, a key Hirono supporter, the possibility that the governor could appoint Hirono to a seat on the Hawaii Supreme Court.

Inouye has not declared preference

But Toyofuku said the discussion of a Supreme Court appointment came up some time before Justice Robert Klein announced he was resigning and creating the opening on the high court last January.

Inouye has not declared a preference in the governor’s race, nor is he likely to take a side in a contested primary. But he did send out support letters for Harris in the last election.

Cayetano and several of his aides supported Harris in the last election, after Harris passed on challenging him in 1998 and remained as mayor. Some say that means that Cayetano has repaid the political favor, even without campaigning for Harris in 2002.

Cayetano has carefully praised both Hirono and Harris, saying that either one would beat Lingle, but adding that Hirono’s race would be tougher.

Hirono’s calm demeanor leaves some thinking she’s boring or lacks passion. And going from state lawmaker to lieutenant governor, she hasn’t gained the statewide exposure as manager and chief executive of a county that both Harris and Lingle have, some say.

Cayetano distinguished himself from the No. 2 position when he championed the state-sponsored

A-plus after-school program for public school students.

Hirono’s main claim to fame as second in command has been to work on easing restrictions against visa waivers for visitors from certain countries. And she has worked on eliminating obsolete government rules and regulations through the "Slice Waste and Tape" program known as SWAT.

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