Kekoa David Kaapu, politician, advocate, dead at 66
By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Capitol Bureau
Great things were expected of Kekoa David Kaapu, a protege of both the late Gov. John Burns and former Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi.
Kaapu died of unknown causes at his Mo'ili'ili apartment on Wednesday at age 66.
Kaapu never reached the lofty political heights predicted for him. But he left behind a loyal following of supporters who admired him for his patriotism and unwavering convictions, his endless string of fights on behalf of underdog causes and his stubborn belief that good could come from an act as simple as handing out a plumeria to a stranger.
As recently as Tuesday, Kaapu was in the news, filing a lawsuit seeking to block a new bus fare system planned by the city on the grounds that it was done improperly and without proper input from the public.
"He was just interested in public issues," said Jim Hall, a longtime friend who helped Kaapu with the bus lawsuit. "But he wasn't the type to go organize a campaign committee or fund-raiser. He'd just get petitions. He'd hang around the university or the community and say, 'Hey, this is important.' "
Other movements he was involved in included the successful effort to save the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and the failed attempt to get then-Councilman Andy Mirikitani recalled. He also questioned the policies of Bishop Estate, which operated Kamehameha Schools, his alma mater.
He was born Feb. 2, 1937, in Honolulu. As a youth, he spent weekends earning spending money by sewing and selling coconut hats to tourists in Punalu'u. He attended Harvard University through a Navy ROTC scholarship and later was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, serving as an aviator and an intelligence officer.
In 1962, at 25, he ran unsuccessfully for the state House of Representatives but caught the eye of Burns, who tapped him to be an administrative assistant at $8,000 a year.
Two years later, the Democrat won a seat on the City Council. When then-Mayor Neal Blaisdell chose not to run for re-election in 1968, Kaapu left the Council to challenge for the city's top post only to lose to Fasi, his former Council colleague.
Kaapu supported Fasi in the general election. And when Fasi became mayor, he appointed Kaapu as a deputy managing director and urban renewal coordinator for the city.
Kaapu, however, resigned from the administration in 1971 to run against Fasi. The parting left a deep rift between Kaapu and Fasi, who was accused of planting a spy in Kaapu's housing agency office.
Kaapu returned to the Council in 1975 and became the head of a subcommittee charged with investigating alleged impropriety involving the city's Kukui Plaza project. When he announced in summer 1976 that he would be running for mayor and switching parties to become a Republican, he was ousted from the chairmanship of the Kukui committee as well as his post as vice chairman of the Council.
"He was a conscientious public servant," Fasi said. "Sometimes we didn't agree, though. I'm sorry to see he's gone. He did what he had to do. He was a likeable person, and he had a good sense of humor also. We lost someone who helped build the present state of Hawai'i."
Kaapu's political career went into a steady decline after leaving the Council in 1979 despite his being a perennial candidate for a variety of different seats.
"He was just a little anxious," said Lota, the former city clerk. "But he was that kind of boy, though. He wanted to move ahead as fast as he could."
Ever the optimist, Kaapu said in 1971: "Success in elective politics is not beyond reach even when facing a million dollar war chest and a formidable political machine. In our democratic system, the individual voter still decides the outcome of elections no matter how much is spent to influence his thinking and to manipulate his actions. The voter is always capable of making up his own mind after considering the issues if they can be properly presented."
Through the defeats, Kaapu maintained a sense of civility. He would show up at the campaign headquarters of those who vanquished him and offer his support. Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, who beat Kaapu in 2001 for the Council seat she now holds, described him yesterday as "a sweet, kind man" and "a gentleman."
In later years, Kaapu was often seen wearing a Harvard T-shirt, shorts, sneakers without socks and a flower in his ear. He earned a reputation for handing plumeria blossoms to strangers he would bump into at the supermarket, on TheBus, or on the sidewalks.
Ron Lockwood, chairman of the McCully-Mo'ili'ili Neighborhood Board, said whenever his wife returned from shopping around the neighborhood wearing a flower in her ear, "I knew exactly who she had bumped into. He was just one of those pleasures in life that are now gone."
Reach Gordon Y.K. Pang at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 525-8070.