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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, November 13, 2005

COMMENTARY
Stewards of Pacific Century

By John Griffin

Some might be tempted to label it "Mufi's Mafia." But the Pacific Century Fellowships program is more distinctive and important for Hawai'i than just some catchy alliteration.

Yes, now-Mayor Mufi Hannemann did launch these one-year community-oriented fellowships in the mid-1990s while he was a Honolulu city councilman who aspired to higher office.

And today, counting a new class of diverse fellows just starting, the alumni total more than 200 of Hawai'i's best and brightest mid-career people. Five of them are now serving in Hannemann's Cabinet. Trudi Saito, his longtime partner in running the fellowship program, is assistant managing director at Honolulu Hale.

Still, all of the former fellows and others whom I talked with praised Mufi both for launching a nonpartisan program that enriches the community and for avoiding making it a platform for his political ambitions.

Hannemann says his inspiration for the Pacific Century Fellowships was his time in Washington in 1983-84 as a White House Fellow assigned to work for George Bush the First, who was then vice president in the Reagan administration. Besides regular White House duties, the fellows met with top leaders in the Capitol, in American cities and on a trip abroad.

Pacific Century Fellows keep their regular day jobs in Hawai'i, but also begin their year at a November rural-hotel weekend retreat and come together each month for a daylong program that explores aspects of the islands.

Those special "days" bused field trips for adults, as one participant called them include serious talks with Hawai'i leaders in business, government, criminal justice, education, agriculture, the military and nonprofits.

They also might go on night patrols with the police, talk with the homeless and their advocates, or ride a nuclear submarine. Governors often have the fellows to dinner. Every year they visit a Neighbor Island.

Besides interaction and enrichment among the fellows, the emphasis is most often on enhancing their sense of community service and giving back.

Anyone can apply. The "tuition," which goes to running the program, is now $2,000 to be paid by the individuals selected, their employers or a special scholarship fund in needy cases.

The total annual budget is about $50,000.

Fellows, who usually range in age from their late 20s to early 40s, are selected in a daylong process by an independent 18-member volunteer committee that requires unanimous approval in each case. The "classes" of fellows have ranged from 19 to the current 32; there are three times as many applicants as those selected.

Besides looking at leadership potential, the judges work at getting diversity in the classes. The new, eighth class of men and women, for example, includes university officials; a TV executive; a city prosecutor; a couple of architects; two military people; young officials from nonprofits; a labor leader; a mid-level banker; a top manager from Maui County, a state legislator and other government officials; various business people; and several private attorneys.

The all-islands alumni are equally diverse, as can be seen on the Web site www.pacific centuryfellows.org.

The relatively few media people have included Advertiser columnist Lee Cataluna (in the first class, 1997). Legislators have been well represented, including state House Vice Speaker Mark Takai, Honolulu City Council Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz and state Sen. Kalani English.

Among Republican alums is Sam Aiona, current chairman of the Hawai'i GOP.

Testimonials for the program abound. Most praise two aspects. One is the rich diversity of classmates and programs they go through together, showing different sides of Hawai'i. The second is the relationships among fellows during the year and lingering ties and friendships formed.

"For all of us, it has been a networking bonanza," said one former fellow.

Has all this helped Mufi politically?

Obviously, it hasn't hurt, say some former fellows. Yet all whom I asked said the program was carefully nonpartisan, even as it encourages civic engagement.

"I would be the first to smell politics, and I haven't," said one legislator.

"The fellows are very diverse and independent. And there are easier ways to win political support," said another.

Hannemann smiles when he says it's likely that some former fellows voted for his opponents in his two runs for mayor. He stresses that he stays out of the selection process and doesn't express political opinions unless fellows ask.

He's proudest about how the program has evolved with former fellows spreading the word and launching a Junior Pacific Fellows program first at Wai'anae High School and then at Farrington. There's also a modest scholarship program for students and teachers under the charitable nonprofit umbrella group set up in 1995, The Fund for the Pacific Century.

"I would love to do more, if we had time," Mufi says. "I would like to take the fellows to Asia. I'd also like to see separate fellowship programs on Maui and the Big Island, and even in Pacific places like Samoa and Micronesia."

So, no, this does not seem so much like a political mafia in the making. It looks more like a good idea launched by a guy with both ambition Washington Place or Washington, D.C.? and a vision about what Hawai'i should be.