Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Helene Hale's legacy: a good pain in 'okole

By David Shapiro

Rep. Helene Hale

spacer spacer

When I spoke to church leaders last year on religion and politics, I was flattered that the venerable Rep. Helene Hale, D-Puna, found it worth her while to get up early on a Saturday morning to hear what I had to say.

Talking to her afterward, I found that she'd lost none of her passion for equality and tolerance that has marked a political career spanning more than half a century.

I felt like a circle had closed; Hale was the first politician I ever talked to in 1964 when she was Big Island county chairwoman the equivalent of mayor at the time and I was a Hilo High student who needed advice on a civics project.

Hale, now 88, is one of seven legislators leaving office this year.

While the other six are moving on to new opportunities in politics or the private sector, Hale's retirement signals the end of a remarkable career that deserves appreciation.

She was born in Minneapolis and worked as a teacher before coming to Hawai'i in 1947.

Hale was elected to the Big Island Board of Supervisors after the political revolution that swept Democrats to power in 1954 and served 10 years including a term as chairwoman from 1963 to 1965.

She was the first African-American elected to office in Hawai'i and the first woman to hold an executive position in local government since Queen Liliu'okalani.

Hale helped lead the Big Island through the transition to statehood and was one of the founders of Hilo's Merrie Monarch Festival.

Hale took a hiatus from politics to attend to business interests, including a real estate agency, a bookstore and a Kona coffee farm, then returned to public life with her election to the 1978 Constitutional Convention.

She served 10 years on the Hawai'i County Council between 1980 and 1994, then took another break before winning election to the state House of Representatives in 2000 at the age of 82.

Displaying her trademark sense of humor, her campaign slogan in the green-conscious Puna District was "Recycle Helene Hale."

As chairwoman of the House Committee on International Affairs, she championed a more global role for Hawai'i and proposed a state agency to identify opportunities stemming from our unique place in the world.

She's been vocal on senior issues, backing a death-with-dignity law and opposing measures to exclude those over 70 from jury duty and increase driver testing for seniors over 75.

Hale was a key advocate of 2003 House resolutions that expressed reservations about going to war in Iraq without U.N. backing and invoked Hawai'i's aloha spirit in urging negotiations over force.

Hale was ridiculed by Republicans and others for offering "aloha to Saddam," but three years later after nearly 2,500 U.S. deaths with no end in sight her fears don't seem so ridiculous.

In 2004, Hale experienced the devastating loss of her son Jasper, who suffered from schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Typically, she made it mean something by campaigning for improved mental-health care especially for those left on the streets because treatment and medication are not available, or they won't accept it.

Hale was slowed by a stroke last year, but wasn't ready to retire until she found a successor she believed could keep her seat in Democratic hands.

In 2001, it was revealed that a political operative for the ousted former trustees of Kamehameha Schools/Bishop Estate had described Hale as "a pain in the 'okole" and "maybe even pupule."

I hope she took it as a badge of honor.

Helene Hale's enduring legacy is that she's always been a pain in the right 'okole.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net.