Iwase says he entered governor's race to win
By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau
By Kevin Dayton
It is revealing that Randy Iwase, the best-known Democrat in the race for governor, feels the need to say that he is no "stalking horse" candidate who is running for some unseen political purpose. Iwase says he intends to win this race.
In years past, the strongest Democrat would be the presumed front-runner in almost any statewide race. But this year, Iwase must patiently explain he is a viable candidate, not some crash dummy prop-ped up by the Democrats to absorb the full force of Republican incumbent Gov. Linda Lingle's campaign.
Iwase emerged as the best-known Democratic candidate in the race after an awkward political dance in the months leading up to the July filing deadline. Names of prominent Democrats and business and civic leaders were floated one after another as possible opponents for Lingle, but each declined.
Iwase, who represented O'ahu communities on the City Council and in the state Senate for a dozen years, said he was unhappy with Lingle and had hoped one of those other potential candidates would run.
"I waited and waited and waited, and nothing happened, and I felt that rather than just sit on the sidelines and complain, I would take the plunge and make the commitment to serve our community again in an elected capacity," Iwase said.
Despite his political experience, Iwase is not well known, in part because he hasn't held elected office in six years. A poll by The Advertiser in June found 63 percent of the voters didn't know enough about Iwase to say whether they liked him.
Relatively unknown candidates can rise to prominence during a campaign, but that usually requires money, and Iwase doesn't have much. According to his most recent campaign filing report, he had less than $17,000 on hand.
By comparison, Lingle had $3.3 million on hand at the end of June to finance her re-election bid, and The Advertiser's June poll had Lingle leading Iwase by nearly 47 percentage points. And before Iwase can even face Lingle, he must prevail in a primary contest with Democrats William Aila Jr. and Van Tanabe.
Iwase predicted that the thousands of Democrats who stayed home in 2002 will turn out to vote this year and push him to a win because they now understand that Lingle's speeches about reform in the last campaign were empty rhetoric.
To dramatize his commitment to the race, Iwase resigned from his job as chairman of the state Labor and Industrial Relations Appeals panel this year.
"I would not have resigned my position ... just because I thought I was going to be a sacrificial lamb. I'm not that. We can win this race, and we intend to," Iwase said. "We intend to campaign aggressively and to point out the chasm that exists between the talk of Linda Lingle and the walk of Linda Lingle."
Iwase said his upbringing "taught me that you can be down and out, but if you have an extended family that gives you the support base that you need and the love that you need, you can get things done."
Iwase said that philosophy eventually extended into his politics and guided him into public service because he believes that "if you help people who are down and out, they can achieve a better life."
Iwase's parents divorced when he was a young child, and Iwase and his sister, Larrene, were sent to Hilo to live with their mother's aunt and uncle for a time. They returned to Honolulu to live with their mother, a total of 10 family members living in their maternal grandparents' home on Ala Moana Boulevard.
Iwase's mother was remarried to musician Bruce Hamada, and they had three children together in addition to her two children from her first marriage. The family lived in the Kapahulu area, and Iwase attended Kaimuki High School.
At the University of Hawai'i, "I did my '60s thing," Iwase said. "I dropped out of school, I wanted freedom, grew my hair long, and then came to the realization that I still had to make a living."
With the encouragement of his mother and stepfather, Iwase returned to school at the University of Florida and later graduated from the University of San Francisco law school.
Iwase immediately returned to Hawai'i and landed a job with the state attorney general's office, and has been in government ever since.
He worked as a "foot soldier" in some gubernatorial and state House campaigns, and entered elective politics himself in 1985 when a recall election was held for three Honolulu City Council members who had switched from the Democratic to the Republican parties.
Democratic Party officials held a forum at Leilehua High School to screen nearly a dozen people who wanted to run to replace the three, and Iwase asked for the party's support. After questioning Iwase, party officials agreed to endorse him, and he won the seat representing Mililani, Wahiawa and the North Shore.
After about two years on the council, Iwase ran for mayor, lost, and was appointed by Gov. John Waihee as director of the Aloha Tower Redevelopment Corp.
In 1990 Iwase ran for the state Senate, where he won the seat that he held for a decade. He resigned that seat mid-term in 2000 to accept a $77,700-a-year appointment by Gov. Ben Cayetano that made Iwase chairman of the Labor and Industrial Relations Appeals Board.
That appointment stirred controversy among Iwase's colleagues in the state Senate, who questioned his qualifications for a panel that hears disputes over worker's compensation cases. Iwase did not have expertise in worker's comp, but his supporters countered that he would quickly learn the complexities of the work, and he easily won confirmation.
Iwase said he thought he was leaving elected office for good, and acknowledged he was frustrated. He was part of a dissident Senate faction and wasn't sure how much more he could accomplish in the Legislature.
"To me, there was a growing sense of disillusionment among the voters, particularly the working people, that government was not responsive, that government was making life harder for them financially, and they wanted us to listen and be responsive to their concerns," Iwase recalled.
Looking back over the dozen years he spent on the City Council and in the state Senate, Iwase points to the 1998 income-tax cut as one of his key accomplishments.
Iwase was a leader in a bipartisan coalition that successfully promoted the proposed income- tax cut, and successfully blocked a companion proposal to increase the state's general excise tax.
He also cites the Central O'ahu Regional Park as one of his key accomplishments. When Iwase was on the council, he fought a plan by former Honolulu Mayor Frank Fast to develop housing on the site, and while in the Senate, Iwase lobbied for planning money for a park on the site.
Former Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris picked up on the plan, and the 270-acre park opened "in the middle of a sea of houses," Iwase said. "It will be there for generations and generations, so I'm very proud of that."
Iwase also has pressed to direct growth to 'Ewa, including advocating for the University of Hawai'i at West O'ahu. He said he plans to pursue funding for a new campus.
"It is something I will continue to fight for. UH-West O'ahu is important in a number of ways, one of which is having that college on the Leeward Coast providing outreach service to communities out there, providing an incentive for students on the Leeward Coast to aspire to go to university to get a college degree and a better life," he said.
Iwase is unpopular with some members of the environmental movement, and the Sierra Club Hawai'i chapter has endorsed his opponent, William Aila Jr.
Among other complaints, critics point out that although Iwase supports development of renewable and alternative energy today, in his last year in the Senate, he repeatedly voted against a bill to pressure Hawai'i's electric utilities to develop alternative renewable-energy sources.
They also cite Iwase's key City Council vote in favor of a special management area permit for an upscale housing project near O'ahu's Sandy Beach. The effort to block that project grew into the "Save Sandy Beach" initiative effort, and the development was never built.
Iwase contends his critics focus on elements of his voting record that they don't like and ignore his pro-environmental efforts, such as his work to create the Central O'ahu Regional Park. Iwase contends he is "pro-Hawai'i" rather than "pro-business."
"We have to be cognizant of the need to expand and grow our economy, and no government is there to kill all business in Hawai'i or to kill all labor unions in Hawai'i. We try to balance it. That's what I tried to do throughout my political career," he said. "I do what I think is right and what is needed to grow our economy in a manner that is fair and to provide jobs for our people."
Reach Kevin Dayton at email@example.com.