The September 11th attacks
Safety alerts by mayor called campaign ads
By Johnny Brannon
Advertiser Staff Writer
New York was hungry for strong, focused leadership after terrorist attacks rocked the city Sept. 11, and controversial Mayor Rudolph Giuliani waded into the fray unruffled. His steady hand and high visibility reassured a shaken population that life would go on and his popularity soared.
Mayor Jeremy Harris has appeared in public-service spots recently to inform residents about dengue fever, anthrax and post September 11th security measures. Some observers say he is straddling a fine line between public service and self-promotion.
Since then Hawai'i has been stunned by rising unemployment, a dengue fever outbreak and anxiety over the spectre of bioterrorism. The mayor has been front and center on television and in press conferences, leading some to question whether his motivations might extend beyond public safety.
"It reinforces the sense that he's a man of action," said University of Hawai'i political science professor Ira Rohter. "Harris doesn't wait around for things to happen to the point where many of us say, 'Oh God, here's Jeremy again, posturing.' "
Political analysts say the hands-on approach is classic Jeremy Harris, and could strongly boost his chances of winning election to governor next year.
The mayor even starred in a half-hour television program produced by the city and aired for a fee on two stations, showcasing recent progress Honolulu has made to prepare for emergencies. Although the program provides important information, Rohter said, it straddles a fine line between public service and self-promotion.
"Is it campaigning? Is it Jeremy touting himself? Is it providing legitimate information? The answer is yes to all those questions," Rohter said. "Harris already has the image of being an activist, and what he's done is consistent with that."
Harris has a strong record of moving quickly to cut through bureaucracy, and he's likely to seize opportunities to demonstrate that ability as the governor's race heats up, Rohter said.
"The guy's done a lot, frankly. You certainly can't say he sits around his office watching TV and sucking his thumb."
Harris' strongest opponent in the governor's contest, Hawai'i Republican Party chairwoman Linda Lingle, is not in a position to display similar leadership or spotlight recent accomplishments, Rohter said. The former Maui mayor does not hold public office.
"She's not driving a car, so she's sort of stuck back there," he said. "That's why incumbents are difficult to dislodge: They're getting the free publicity all the time. The reality is that Harris can get up on TV and say, 'This is what we're doing.'"
Larry Meacham, executive director of Hawai'i Common Cause, said that although there's a legitimate need for leaders to disseminate information during difficult times, ulterior motives could come into play.
"Certainly there's a problem when people are panicking and want to know what to do but the mayor misses no opportunity to get publicity, no matter what it is, and obviously that helps him in future election campaigns," Meacham said. "There's a fine line there, and hopefully he hasn't crossed it."
Lingle believes the TV program raises questions, saying Harris has often used his position to gain political mileage toward a quest for the capitol.
"Clearly, there's always an advantage to incumbency," she said. "But he's shown a pattern. He has consistently abused his incumbency to spend tax dollars on his campaign. I think he's gone over the line long before this."
To be sure, Harris has not mentioned his bid for governor in the city-financed TV appearances, which would be an obvious breach of ethics. And TV stations agreed to broadcast shorter messages, at no charge, in which the mayor and Police Chief Lee Donohue explain how to handle suspicious mail.
The state Department of Public Health has produced similar TV messages about dengue fever, which star mosquitoes but no recognizable public officials.
Lingle gave as other examples of misdirected resources Harris' targeted invitations to public project celebrations, such as the first anniversary of the Kapi'olani Park bandstand and completion of the Waipi'o soccer complex. And a city-financed TV program to promote Harris' "Vision Teams" groups of volunteers that help define city spending priorities was "clearly an abuse of tax money," Lingle said. It cost the city more than $21,000 to air that program several times in August.
Harris said the city spent about $13,000 to air the program on Honolulu's preparedness, but final production cost was not available, he said.
The Republican Party wants Harris' media efforts scrutinized, and has requested that City Hall provide complete information about contracts and vendors involved, Lingle said.
Harris criticized the challenge, saying his duty as mayor is to reassure the public.
"At a time when our country is at war and citizens across our nation including those in Honolulu are on high alert for potential attacks by terrorists, I find it irresponsible for some to politicize our public safety efforts," Harris said.
"As mayor of Honolulu, I am responsible for police, fire, emergency services and civil defense on this island. Public safety is my top priority. I'm taking every action necessary to protect O'ahu's residents and visitors, and I intend to continue to do so."
State Rep. Ed Case, a Democratic challenger for governor, also voiced concern about Harris' high visibility in recent weeks.
"I think it's an appropriate function of government to protect citizens and keep them informed of efforts on their behalf," Case said.
"I think with any other person in a position of government responsibility, I wouldn't give it a second thought. But I think everybody knows the entire resources of city government are devoted to and have been devoted for some time to helping Harris achieve the next level of government office that he seeks."
Like Lingle, Case acknowledges that Harris has a duty to provide leadership and information about the city's response to crisis.
"But I don't think there's any doubt that his motives in being so visible go well beyond his legitimate responsibilities as mayor," Case said. "City resources, top to bottom and side to side, are devoted to advancing his political ambition."
Harris notes that constituents have applauded his moves.
"Each day as I meet with citizens across O'ahu, they are appreciative of our efforts," he said. "Our people understand the peril that we face, and they are reassured when they learn that our city is prepared. That's the mayor's job. I can't understand why the value of that message is lost on Linda Lingle and Ed Case."
Reach Johnny Brannon at email@example.com or 535-2431.