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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, December 11, 2002

In Awana, Democrats' loss is Lingle's gain

By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Capitol Bureau

Bob Awana was a conflicted man in 1997 when Republican Maui Mayor Linda Lingle asked the lifelong Democrat to run her gubernatorial campaign.

Bob Awana and Linda Lingle built on the experience of her failed 1998 gubernatorial bid to win this year.

Advertiser library photo • Sept. 19, 1998

Five years later, in his first week as Lingle's chief of staff in the first state Republican administration in 40 years, that conflict remains, he said.

"In my heart I'm a Democrat, in my head, I'm a Republican," he said. "I am a passionate person for the people. I fight for the underdog. I'm concerned about people who are less advantaged."

But to those who know him, Awana, who has worked with a Democratic Honolulu mayor in the early 1980s and later Republican candidates, is tailor-made for his key role in Lingle's administration as her chief of staff.

Andy Chang, city managing director during Democrat Eileen Anderson's mayoral term in 1980 to 1984 when Awana served as her chief of staff, described Awana as extremely affable, intelligent and loyal.

"I think he's going to do well with his job, particularly in his relationships with Cabinet officers," said Chang, now vice president of government relations with Hawaiian Electric Industries.

Awana, he said, has a knack for taking the time to understand the duties and roles of department heads and others in government.

"That bodes him well in carrying out his duties," Chang said. "He will be an effective liaison."

Bob Awana

Position: Chief of staff to Gov. Linda Lingle

Age: 56

Hometown: Nanakuli

Education: St. Louis School, 1964 graduate

Previous jobs: Chief of staff to former Honolulu Mayor Eileen Anderson; government affairs director, Waste Management Inc.; senior principal for the accounting and consulting firm of Pannell Kerr Forster; regional vice president, Village Resorts Inc.; assistant vice president, Bank of Honolulu; marketing director, Sea Life Park; insurance salesman, First Insurance Co.

Family: Wife, Lee; two sons, Bob Awana Jr. and Russ, both Hawai'i residents, three grandsons.

Hobbies: Golfing, spending time with grandchildren.

Stan Koki, who lost a bid for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor in 1994 when Awana managed Koki's campaign, recalls Awana as an astute strategist.

"Doing things right — fairly and ethically — is high on his priority list," Koki said. "He doesn't want to play games. He's very, very up front with you, and you don't have to read between the lines."

Awana comes from a proud Democratic family, which believed that the party was "working to get opportunities in the workplace. There were virtually no local persons in management-level positions in any of the big companies at the time, and they wanted the opportunity to excel."

Lingle, he said, helped show him that Republicans could be just as compassionate and also reach those that need help.

"When you get to know her, you'll find that her warmth is beyond what you ever expected and it's genuine," he said.

As for the Democratic Party he left behind, Awana said he is the beneficiary of many of the things for which the party fought.

"But along the way, something went wrong," he said. "They didn't have the goals, they didn't have the cause. It fact, it was totally reversed ... it became the party that awarded the very few."

Among Awana's earliest memories are of his grandparents' beach concession in Nanakuli. "They used to rent out surfboards, and sell hot dogs and hamburgers."

Later, Awana's parents' family moved to several different homes before settling in what he jokingly calls "the least expensive home in Wai'alae-Kahala" in 1956. His first job was his newspaper route.

A 1964 graduate of St. Louis High School, Awana received football scholarship offers from several Mainland institutions. But Awana and his future wife, Lee, had their eldest child during their senior year and the young father set off to make a living to support his new family.

Awana said he thought seriously about becoming a police officer. His father, an insurance adjuster, had other plans and told him to try working for an insurance company for six months first. Despite starting out at $206 a month, the 18-year-old Awana found he liked the business world.

While Awana does not have a college degree, his job résumé is vast and varied. After the insurance industry, he worked as manager of Sea Life Park, a banker with the Bank of Honolulu and then an executive for a small hotel chain known as Village Resorts before Anderson tapped him to enter politics.

Awana, a card-carrying Democrat since age 18, learned how to deal with reporters from political gurus Joe Napolitan and Jack Seigle, who had engineered the campaigns of Democratic stalwarts from the time of the late Gov. John A. Burns.

"I followed everything they said," he said.

It was while he was with the Eileen Anderson administration that Awana first experienced what he felt as roadblocks to a smooth-running government. At one point, he tendered his resignation to the mayor. Awana said his main source of frustration was the power of the government worker unions and the difficulty the mayor had in making decisions they opposed.

"It seemed to me, and this is in 1981, that the mayor couldn't really make those decisive management decisions that has to be made," Awana said. In one case, he said, it took more than a year for the union to allow its workers to use a pressure washer in park restrooms. "Everything had to be approved by the unions. So I thought 'I need to go back to the private sector.' "

Anderson asked him to reconsider and he eventually became chief of staff. He then helped in her unsuccessful re-election campaign in 1984 when former Mayor Frank Fasi returned to power.

During the 1990s, Awana became local government affairs director for Waste Management Inc., a Mainland company that had won a contract from Hawai'i County to run the new Pu'uanahulu Landfill in Kona. It dragged into a years-long court battle with the United Public Workers over the hot-button issue of privatization that was closely watched statewide.

Awana said he first met Lingle in 1997 when she spoke at a function he attended. "I was so moved by her sincerity, and by her vision, and by her speech — so straightforward — that I went up and gave her my business card." Awana said he told her he hoped she would run for governor and offered his family's services for cooking stew and rice.

"A week later she called," he said.

He managed Lingle's 1998 bid for governor when she lost to former Gov. Ben Cayetano by 5,000 votes. But the campaign provided the experience and the foundation for Lingle defeating Democrat Mazie Hirono in November to become Hawai'i's first Republican governor in four decades.

Awana said his role as chief of staff is "to obtain good information from a variety of sources with the absolute best information available so (Lingle) can make good decisions."

He describes himself as a persuasive, authoritative manager.

"I try to persuade people into doing things and why they should do it," he said. "Here's what I want you to do, why it's important to do and how it fits the big picture. I try to motivate them and accept the challenge to do more than they think they can do."

Being the governor's right-hand man has not gone to his head, though.

On the day after Monday's inauguration, Awana stopped in to the snack shop in the State Capitol chamber level to buy a late lunch.

Reaching over the counter to shake the hand of proprietor Dave Cameron, Awana said simply: "Hi, I'm Bob. I'm new here."

Reach Gordon Y.K. Pang at gpang@honoluluadvertiser.com or at 525-8070.