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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, November 11, 2001

Mayor's message hard to miss on local television

The many faces of Jeremy Harris
Mayor Jeremy Harris' use of television has served him well in his political career. The mayor is acknowledged as a skillful TV communicator, making certain that television cameras capture his numerous forays into the public eye while serving as mayor of Honolulu.

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By Bob Dye
Kailua-based writer and historian

He's everywhere! He's everywhere!

At the civil defense bunker in the Municipal Building, he's on alert for terrorist attack. On Bethel Street, he's on alert for anthrax attack. A trained biologist, he's ready to battle death-dealing, dengue-bearing mosquitoes wherever they may breed.

Sometimes he is interviewed on the TV news bare-headed, Clinton-like. Sometimes he wears a hard hat, Giuliani-like.

TV is his medium, and Jeremy Harris is the message.

Back in the Comic Book Age, when I was a boy, a nerdy-looking galoot had to step into a phone booth to emerge as the handsome hero who can single-handedly warn away the evil that lurks about us. But those days are gone, put to rest by Neil Abercrombie's "Super Senator" parody in that forgettable long-ago race against Sen. Dan Inouye.

Harris was born with television. His use of the cool medium is sophisticated. And his performances are never shmaltzy and never shlock. The guy has TV smarts.

My observations:

• Harris presents himself as a caring and kindly teacher. By skillfully blending information with guidance, he manages public affairs on camera. Government by sound bite and public service announcement!

• As a TV icon, Harris doesn't have to suck up to any particular voting bloc. To the chagrin of public workers!

• Harris has yet to present a political platform on which to stand. Instead, citizens get a political stance in favor of their "vision." And when the envisioned community improvement is dedicated, we see him untie the maile lei on TV.

• Those mayoral TV infonouncements, to keep us citizens out of harm's way, might be construed by uncharitable persons to be campaign spots. Political plugola!

Opponents repeatedly chide Harris for using his powerful office to monopolize the 6 o'clock news on each and every channel.

Gubernatorial challenger Ed Case thinks folks "see through" Harris' opportunistic use of the mayor's office. "After 20 years of spin, people want substance," he opines.

"It's blatant, the way Harris manipulates his position as mayor," says Micah Kane, executive director of the GOP. With the city more than $2 billion in debt, the mayor's use of public money for self-promoting sideshows should raise more than eyebrows, he suggests.

"Incumbent mayors and governors have a decided advantage," says Councilman John Henry Felix. "And Harris has taken full advantage of it. At times, he's come close to the edge of the envelope." Felix thinks the overexposure will hurt him.

Mazie Hirono says: "Since the ethics provisions are not clear, every officeholder must use discretion on what is or is not appropriate use of the media, especially where taxpayer money is being spent. The city should disclose how much money is being spent on public service announcements, glossy invites and ads. The public deserves this kind of accountability."

Candidates for governor who occupy low-profile offices — Rep. Ed Case — or no office at all — D.G. "Andy" Anderson and Linda Lingle — have a tough time making the TV news hour. To get on the tube, they're going to have to pay.

The Anderson campaign is already spending big bucks through December to increase his name recognition and approval rating. And that is expensive.

The campaign of Ed Case, the articulate anti-candidate, will be of "the grassroots variety primarily," he says. So far he's relied on personal contact, mouth-to-mouth, e-mail and a Web site. But he does plan to use TV. His name recognition is now about 50 percent, he says. And although he has yet to name a campaign manager, his volunteer advisory committee is hard at work.

Hirono, though photogenic and well-spoken, appears to be more a print person than a TV performer. Cautious, she likes to be certain the words are just right. Expect press releases and brochures from her campaign for mayor.

"Linda Lingle will use extensive TV," says Kane. "It's a statewide race, and she has to use it. It'll be a major campaign expenditure. But the major campaign component will be grassroots. That's what she is best at."

What really infuriates some Harris detractors is that he performs so very well on TV, both live and in produced spots.

How well?

Veteran campaigner Jim Loomis says: "Jeremy communicates well and performs well on TV. He's certainly not intimidated by cameras."

PR guru David Wilson, who handled Harris in the mayor's last campaign, recalls that Harris got personally involved in creating the spots. "He has a good eye, and good ideas. But making a 30-second TV spot is almost an art form — a craft that requires a skillful writer and a sensitive producer. Harris uses TV well, because he can afford to buy the best talent."

So the mayor is a skillful TV communicator. But questions of civic responsibility remain.

Is Harris cynically riding to higher office on the people's dime?

Or is he using well a powerful communications tool to protect the public's state of mind in perilous times?

Mayor Harris says with resolve: "My job is to lead, especially during emergencies. I'm not going to stop doing my job just because political opponents criticize me."

He shrugs. "I'm damned if I do. And damned if I don't."