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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 22, 2001

Island Politics
Long era of public duty by Heens comes to end

By Bob Dye
Kailua-based historian and writer

For three-quarters of a century one Heen or another was in public office in Hawai'i.

But an era of public service by this famous Hawaiian family came to a close last week when Walter Meheula Heen stepped down as chairman of the state's majority political party.

Grandson of a Chinese mess boy on an American naval vessel who jumped ship here and married a Hawaiian woman, Walter Heen has enjoyed political support from the small Chinese and larger Hawaiian community. Folks with long memories know that the Democratic Party was made politically viable by the hard work of his father and uncle, along with others — most notably, of course, Mayor Johnny Wilson and David Trask Sr.

The Heen name burst rather grandly onto the political scene in 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson appointed William "Billy" Heen to a Circuit Court judgeship. On Hawai'i plantations managers and workers were stunned, but for different reasons. In Washington, Southern senators objected on racial grounds to the appointment of a Chinese Hawaiian. But the president hung tough, and the brilliant young attorney won confirmation.

So impressive was he as a jurist that he was asked to run for O'ahu city and county attorney. Supported by prominent Republicans as well as his own party faithful, Heen won by a landslide. He continued to be re-elected until he resigned that office on July 7, 1925.

National Stage

Billy Heen first took to the national political stage at Houston in 1928, when he seconded the presidential nomination of Alfred E. Smith, the Irish Catholic former four-time governor of New York. Heen admired Smith, who had risen from obscurity to political eminence, a journey on which Heen was now embarked.

Smith was nominated by his eloquent friend Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who dubbed him the "happy warrior." Although it was a hard act to follow, Heen's speech was well received.

Smith lost the election, but Heen gained prestige in the national party. In 1929, he was elected to the Territorial Senate. Four years later, as prominent Hawai'i Democrats, Ernest and William Heen were invited to attend Roosevelt's presidential inauguration.

In 1933, Ernest Heen, Walter's father, was elected city clerk, and served in that post until 1944, when he resigned to run for the Territorial Senate. He won.

Four years later Ernest returned to Honolulu Hale as a supervisor. He led the ticket, and for the first time in a quarter-century, the Democratic mayor had a Democratic board. Ernest Heen resigned on Oct. 31, 1950, to challenge Mayor Johnny Wilson, who was 79. Heen lost in the primary.

In 1954, Billy went to Washington to lobby for statehood. He served as vice chairman of the Hawai'i Statehood Commission.

Surprise Choice

A year later, he was elected president of the Senate. Considered to be a conservative, he surprised everyone by hiring firebrand liberal Tom Gill as Senate counsel.

In 1958, Billy Heen, "the once towering figure in Island politics," chose not to run for re-election to the Senate. But he continued to work for the betterment of Hawaiian people. As the main speaker at a territorywide convention of Hawaiian Civic Clubs, in April 1959, he said: "For us it is not a matter of outstripping or outsmarting the others. It is a matter of keeping abreast of the times with them. After all, we are all American citizens."

After graduating from the University of Hawai'i with a degree in economics, Walter attended prestigious Georgetown University Law School. Walter Heen began his political career in 1958, as a member of the Territorial House of Representatives, serving until 1964. Then he moved up to the Senate. In 1968, following in his father's footsteps, he was elected a Honolulu city councilman.

Ernest "Juggie" Heen, Walter's younger brother, was elected state representative in 1962, representing Windward O'ahu.

That multi-member district was all-Hawaiian — D.G. "Andy" Anderson, Jimmy Clark, Hiram Kamaka and Juggie. He served two terms, and was elected to another term in 1968.

I first knew Walter in 1969, after he was seated as a councilman-at-large. In those days three members represented the entire county and the others individual districts. Councilmen-at-large had great prestige and political clout, rivaling that of the mayor.

"The decline in the quality of the councils, since we went to representation by district only, is due to that change," he says. Councilmen-at-large were mandated to keep the city administration on its toes, by asking tough questions."

I remember, as a member of the Fasi administration, how direct and well-informed those questions were.

Fasi, himself a former city councilman, agrees. "That was a good council. Walter Heen was a good chairman. He's absolutely right about the need for tension between the mayor and council ... too bad that's lacking today."

For a time, early on in '72, Heen was considered the great hope to defeat Fasi in the Democratic primary, thereby derailing that feisty politician before he got up steam for a gubernatorial primary bid to oust Jack Burns in '74.

Careful Decision

Remembering that his father challenged a mayoral incumbent, Johnny Wilson, in 1950, and got trounced in the primary, 15,608 to 9,867, Walter carefully read the polls. Instead, he opted to accept appointment to the district court. Fasi was re-elected mayor by a healthy majority.

Walter Heen was named to the Circuit Court in 1972, where he served for six years. In 1978, he was appointed U.S. attorney. In 1981, he returned to the bench as judge of the U.S. District Court, and later served as associate judge of the state Intermediate Court of Appeals, where he wrote several important opinions on Hawaiian issues. He retired from the bench in 1994.

"Walter Heen should have been chief justice of the state Supreme Court," says Councilman John Henry Felix, a Republican. "He is an organizer, a leader, a man of great integrity. He has an independent spirit. Maybe that's why he wasn't chosen."

Clearly, Heen is disappointed that he was not appointed to the state Supreme Court. There he could have done even more to clarify, interpret and resolve those issues of special concern to Hawaiians. He did sit as a substitute justice, however, dissenting on the controversial same-sex marriage case.

Estate Critic

His family long had been critics of the Bishop Estate, and it was out of a sense of duty to the Hawaiian community, and to the Democratic Party, that Walter Heen helped to expose mismanagement of the estate. With four other prominent community leaders, Heen wrote the "Broken Trust" essay, which helped ignite an investigation that brought about the removal and resignations of the sitting trustees in 1999.

Heen's dedication to Hawaiian issues has been lifelong. He has served as a director of the Native Hawaiian Bar Association, member of the Public Access Shoreline Study Group, and a member of the Mauna Kea Management Board, which oversees development of the astronomical facilities at mountain's summit. For Hawaiian community work, he was given the Lei Hulu Mamo Award in 1992.

Two years ago Walter Heen was elected to the chairmanship of the state Democratic Party, defeating Tom Gill, the man whose political career was boosted by Walter's uncle William. "During Burns' years, I kind of sided with Tom Gill," he says.

Because Walter Heen was tutored by those "first Democrats," he became the very best of Democrats.