Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, October 27, 2002

Labor, consumer advocate tries to connect with business

 •  The Lingle record: Taxes, spending, growth advanced on her watch

In more than 20 years in public office, Mazie Hirono, a Democrat, and Linda Lingle, a Republican, have established themselves as intelligent, driven and pragmatic politicians. They have also established clear records that reveal their contrasting approaches to leadership and problem-solving. Advertiser Capitol Bureau Chief Kevin Dayton, who has covered both candidates for more than four years, reviewed the records of their time in office and wrote these reports, which offer insight into what they value, how they lead and whether their public statements match the record of their actions.

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Capitol Bureau Chief

In its simplest terms, the Republicans' case against Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono is that she held a position of power for the past eight years, and did little or nothing to make things better.

"The times now call for unions, business, government to work together," Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono said.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

As Gov. Ben Cayetano's administration draws to a close, the public is worried about the economy and dissatisfied with the public schools. The Republicans want the voters to hold Hirono accountable for those problems, and they have tried to identify Hirono with the "old guard" Democrats supported by organized labor. The GOP argues it is time to give someone else a chance to run things.

Hirono counters that she has expanded the role of the lieutenant governor's office, playing important roles in civil-service reform and reform of the workers' compensation system, and using her position to boost the tourism and technology industries.

All the same, she said, there are limits to what can be accomplished from the lieutenant governor's office, which has virtually no official responsibilities apart from overseeing the process of approving legal name changes.

"All of a sudden it's the Cayetano-Hirono administration," Hirono said. "You could call it that if I had half of the appointments, if I had half of the decision-making power, if I could veto bills, but that's not how it works.

"The role of the lieutenant governor is really to support the governor and to be part of the team. And, yes, I had disagreements with the governor, but my value is not about putting the governor down. I know how tough the job is."

She pointed to her record of clashing with powerful Democrats as proof that she is no "old boy," and instead charts her own independent course. And she said her record demonstrates an ability to bring about "responsible change."

In fact, Hirono's record suggests she has attempted to gradually remake herself and her public image over the past eight years, shelving some old issues and taking up new ones as she shifted from the political left to the center, where most Hawai'i voters seem comfortable today.

Calming concerns of business

Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono announced her candidacy for governor of Hawai'i at a news conference inside the governor's office with husband Leighton Oshima looking on.

Advertiser library photo • May 30, 2002

Hirono, 54, began her political apprenticeship attending anti-war protests in the Vietnam era, working as a campaign volunteer and joining the Young Democrats before winning election in the strongly Democratic and largely Japanese-American neighborhoods of McCully and Mo'ili'ili.

She developed close bonds with the labor movement and was not generally viewed as a friend of the business community. Her first job as an attorney was in the antitrust division of the state attorney general's office, and when Hirono rose through the political ranks to become the chairman of the House Consumer Protection committee, business lobbyists worried their concerns would be ignored.

Observers said Hirono was largely able to calm the concerns of the business community as consumer protection chairman, listening to them even if she did not always give them what they wanted.

Bette Tatum, a longtime small-business lobbyist and state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, said the problem was never getting access to Hirono or other lawmakers. Instead, she said, the problem was, and is: "If it's a choice between public sector union issue versus small business, the way it is today, small business is not going to win."

After winning election as lieutenant governor in 1994, Hirono invested more energy in working with the business community, taking on projects such as chairing the governor's committee to increase airline service to Hawai'i, and leading the largely disappointing Slice Waste and Tape (SWAT) effort.

Hirono said her newfound interest in the problems of running a business in Hawai'i was not an effort to remake her image, but instead grew out of her position as lieutenant governor, which naturally shifted her focus to broader issues of concern to the business community.

But Hirono has clearly retained much of her old faith in government's ability to intervene effectively in markets, and this year she was a strong supporter of new laws to cap gas prices and regulate health insurance rates, which the Republicans see as all the evidence they need to prove that Hirono is anti-business.

Heading into the final week of the election, she is also drawing great strength from organized labor, while many small and large businesses have gravitated to Hirono's opponent, Republican Linda Lingle.

It has been so for much of her career. Harry Mattson, a longtime Democratic Party activist, first recalls meeting Hirono while both were in the Young Democrats in the early 1970s. In those days, Mattson recalled, Hirono and her closest colleagues were closely allied with labor, and closely identified with left-leaning politics.

"In my day, labor and the Democrats were the same thing," Mattson said. "What we knew was that Democrats were successful because we got labor support, and labor understood that they were successful because they got Democratic support.

"There was a time that that was actually understood a lot better than now. Big labor is a hugely important component of Democratic success in much the same way that big business is a real component of Republican success."

Hirono's endorsements this year reflect those ties, with most big unions backing her while many business associations support Lingle. Notable exceptions are the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers and Unity House, which supported Lingle.

Some have pointed to Hirono's close association with the unions as proof that little will change if she is elected because the existing Democrat-union power axis will be intact. Hirono denies this, arguing that unions aren't holding Hawai'i back.

"Actually, what's stopping change is not the unions," she said. "It's very easy to demonize a group like the unions, but what's really needed is to bring people together so we can work things out. Any kind of a change that cuts out groups of people such as the business community or the unions I think is doomed to failure. The times now call for unions, business, government to work together."

She also pointed to accomplishments of the Cayetano administration as proof that things have been changing.

"Well, guess who put in place the biggest income tax cut in the history of the state? Who pushed for the kinds of programs, who put more Hawaiians on Hawaiian Home Lands? These are big changes," she said.

Government intervention

Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono celebrated with Gov. Ben Cayetano and his wife, Vicky, after their narrow victory in the 1998 gubernatorial race. The pair defeated Republican challengers Linda Lingle and Stan Koki.

Advertiser library photo • Nov. 3, 1998

Hirono's early legislative record vividly illustrates her thinking from the years when she first entered office. Despite her efforts to deliver a business-friendly campaign message today, her record in the Legislature shows she often saw a need for government to intervene to control prices or regulate business practices in the name of protecting consumers. She advocated benefits for workers that clearly increased costs to employers.

On neighborhood issues dear to her political base in McCully and Mo'ili'ili, Hirono pressed for strict government controls to limit high-rise development in areas already zoned for high-rise projects, and campaigned on proposals to require that developers build more affordable housing.

When property values leaped in the late 1980s and made homeownership impossible for many, Hirono proposed controls on foreign ownership of residential property. In 1992, she proposed an anti-speculation tax of 80 percent on the profits of people who bought residential property and resold within two years.

Hirono helped form the first bipartisan women's caucus in the House to advance an agenda that included unpaid family leave, larger childcare tax credits and tax credits for employers that offered childcare for workers.

She also introduced a measure in 1983 to ban housing discrimination against people with children. Kate Stanley, a Hirono supporter and campaign worker who served in the House with her, said that bill was particularly important to single mothers, and was prompted by landlords who advertised that they would not accept tenants with children.

The bill eventually passed, but Stanley recalled Hirono and other lawmakers had a difficult time convincing their colleagues that landlords should be required to accept children.

Hirono also co-sponsored a 1986 proposal to require employers to make "reasonable accommodations" for their nonsmoking employees who did not want to inhale secondhand smoke.

She also moved a bill through the Legislature to require that mandatory employee health coverage provided by employers include coverage for mammograms, and proposed a measure to require that developers hold lotteries for people vying for a chance to buy condominiums in new projects.

When International Fitness Club was accused of selling new memberships the day before it closed, Hirono introduced a bill to limit the up-front fees that fitness clubs could charge their members.

Stanley, a former state representative who also served as Gov. John Waihee's legislative coordinator, said small business and retailing lobbyists were alarmed when Hirono was named the new consumer protection committee chairman. That is one of the top leadership slots in the Legislature, with the chairman responsible for overseeing business regulations, insurance matters and consumer issues.

Stanley said the business lobbyists "were very worried because they thought of her as so liberal that she would not listen to a wide spectrum of views, and I told them that was not my experience."

Tatum, the small-business advocate, said 96 percent of the Hawai'i members of the National Federation of Independent Business voted to endorse Lingle.

"They don't ever say anything personally against Mazie," Tatum said. "It's not anything like that, but after Hawai'i's business climate being dead last in the 50 states, small businesses are fed up."

Support for leasehold reform

A novice judokan, Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono showed off a few moves during a tournament this year at Waipahu High School.

Lieutenant governor's office photo • Jan. 1, 2002

One of the issues that first focused public attention on Hirono was her early and outspoken support for mandatory condominium leasehold conversion, a stance that played well among condominium dwellers in the urban neighborhoods she represented. She also worked to pass lease rent caps to limit the rent hike that landowners could impose when ground lease rents were renegotiated.

Hirono's leasehold positions did not always sit well with the House leadership, however, and she ran afoul of some powerful players, such as former House speaker and Bishop Estate trustee Henry Peters.

In 1985, Hirono protested that Peters had become too powerful as both speaker and a newly appointed estate trustee, and Hirono was promptly ousted from control of the House Housing Committee.

Peters, who has left politics and was ousted as a Bishop Estate trustee after an investigation by Gov. Ben Cayetano's administration, said Hirono had "a socialistic perspective on things." Peters said he won't vote for her.

"I think Mazie is a politician, and so whatever benefits her politically she will obviously try to do, and that's unfortunate because what's right for the state of Hawai'i and for our people quite often may not necessarily fit politically, but if it requires you to stand alone, then you should be standing alone," Peters said. "I don't see her doing that. I see a continuance of the present administration."

Hirono pressed the leasehold reform issue for more than a decade, but the state Legislature never actually passed a law to require that the owners of land under condominium complexes sell that land to the condo owners.

However, the Honolulu City Council adopted an ordinance that did so in 1991.

Earlier this month, Hirono publicly urged the City Council to amend the leasehold conversion ordinance, explaining she was concerned the ordinance would essentially strip away the most valuable assets of the Lili'uokalani Trust, which owns the land under the Foster Towers complex. She said she was also concerned that the bill allows tiny numbers of lessee-owners to force a sale, which raises a "fairness question."

Hirono said she was not changing her position on condo leasehold conversion. "At the time that I was pushing for condo conversion, I was prepared to exempt small landowners," she said. "I was prepared to do various things in terms of being fair to both sides."

Hirono also led the 1992 effort to reform the state's no-fault car insurance law, making changes that cut costs for insurers in exchange for what was supposed to be a mandatory 15 percent rate cut.

But only a few insurers actually cut their rates by 15 percent, with the Waihee administration granting exemptions to other companies that allowed them to either reduce rates by less than 15 percent or actually raise rates.

The administration said it would be illegal to impose the forced rate rollback on all companies because the insurers were entitled to a "reasonable rate of return." In 1993, Hirono launched a campaign to try to pressure the Waihee administration to strictly enforce the new law by imposing 15 percent rollbacks, but the effort failed.

Business-friendly agenda

As lieutenant governor, Hirono has tried to take on a more business-friendly agenda, lobbying for reforms in the workers' compensation system that cut costs for employers, and leading the Governor's Task Force on Science and Technology, which searched for ways to boost science and technology enterprises in Hawai'i.

Perhaps her best-known initiative in that vein was the Slice Waste and Tape initiative, a 1999 effort that Hirono said she hoped would "reduce the burden of regulations by 40 percent." She touted the initiative at news conferences and public speaking engagements, but it generated little public interest and was largely dismissed by the business community as posturing.

Hirono has said she believes the initiative was effective. She said when she invited businesses to point out examples of unnecessary or burdensome regulation, few businesses came forward with specifics.

She lobbied to have the federal government relax visa requirements for tourists from South Korea — an effort that has so far been unsuccessful — and played a major role in establishing the Hawaii Employers' Mutual Insurance Co. (HEMIC), a nonprofit insurer established by the state that is the workers' comp insurer of last resort for companies unable to find coverage elsewhere.

Hirono also headed the administration's Pre-Plus initiative, which used state money to build new preschool facilities on public school campuses around the state.

The office of lieutenant governor has traditionally been largely ceremonial, and Hirono's much-overlooked initiatives over the past eight years left her vulnerable to an obvious Republican criticism: Hirono now promises to improve the business climate and the public educational system, but why didn't she do so when she was the second-ranking member of the Cayetano administration?

Hirono said that's just not how the job works.

"Frankly, I did more as lieutenant governor than Ben ever did when he was lieutenant governor, with far less money. In fact, with no money. I think I really pushed the role of lieutenant governor," she said.

Hirono said she did not always agree with Cayetano's decisions, but she rarely split with him publicly. One notable example was last year, when she took a well-publicized walk on the picket lines with striking teachers.

"I'm not going to put somebody else down to bring myself up, that's a value that I have," Hirono said. "This is why I may have differences with Ben, but I never viewed my role as taking potshots at him. There are times when I will disagree in public, but basically I'm a very different person than our governor in the sense of I have a very different style of action-oriented leadership, and that's collaborative. I consider that a strength, not a weakness."

For all of her efforts to appear business friendly as lieutenant governor, this year Hirono has supported new laws to cap gasoline prices, to require drug companies to sell prescription drugs to lower-income people at discounted prices and to regulate health insurance rates.

Each of those positions harken back to what Hirono would call her "pro-consumer" positions during her years at the Legislature, years in which some business leaders viewed her with misgivings or mistrust. Judging from the business organization endorsements of Lingle, it is clear that many of those opinions haven't changed.

"I view government as a tool to effect changes, to support our economy, to support our families," Hirono said. "I view government in a very positive way. I think the Republicans view government as something to sort of have out of the way, and that's missing the boat because government brings a lot of resources to the table that can be put to work to help businesses and our people."

Hirono has never lost an election, but her political instincts did fail her in one colossal miscalculation late last year. She withdrew from the governor's race entirely last November, announcing to an incredulous public and media that she believed she could make her greatest contribution by running for Honolulu mayor.

Few took Hirono's stated reason for leaving the race at face value, and speculation about her "real" reasons centered on two main possibilities.

Some believed Hirono doubted she could win in a Democratic gubernatorial primary against Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris, and therefore withdrew to run a race where she had a better chance. Another possibility was that Hirono withdrew after being asked to leave the race by Democratic Party leaders.

In other words, Hirono was either opportunistic, or she allowed herself to be ordered around. Hirono insists both theories are false.

"It's not because I want the power or I'm a professional politician. People can say whatever they want, but what I am motivated by is I see myself as a person who can help make things better for other people. That is what motivated me, what keeps me going."