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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, June 4, 2009

Tom Gill, 87, was wild card of politics

By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

New lieutenant governor-elect Tom Gill and re-elected Gov. John Burns arrived to celebrate victory at their campaign headquarters on election night 1966.


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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Tom Gill, in a wheelchair, attended a special session of the state Legislature in March to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a key step toward Hawai'i's statehood.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Tom Gill addressed a labor picnic in 1966, with union leader Arthur Rutledge listening in the foreground.

Advertiser library photo

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1958: Elected to the Hawai'i Territorial Legislature.

1962: Elected to Congress. During his one term, he is credited with helping write and push through key civil rights legislation, including the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

1964: After losing a challenge to Republican U.S. Sen. Hiram Fong, Gill is tapped by Gov. John Burns to run the new Office of Economic Opportunity.

1966: Against Burns' wishes, Gill runs for and wins the lieutenant governor's seat.

1970: Gill runs unsuccessfully to unseat Burns as governor. A 1974 bid against George Ariyoshi also fails.

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Tom Gill, who led the progressive wing of the Hawai'i Democratic Party at the birth of the state, contributed to the shift in Hawai'i's political landscape in the 1960s and later became a thorn in the sides of two governors from his own party, died yesterday. He was 87.

Gill was a U.S. congressman from 1962 to 1964 playing an instrumental role in the landmark 1964 U.S. Civil Rights Act and was Hawai'i's lieutenant governor from 1966 to 1970.

His wife, Lois, and other family members were at his side at Leahi Hospital when, at 10:47 a.m., Gill reached "the peaceful and calm end to one of the most extraordinary public lives in the history of this state," said his oldest son, Tony Gill.

"He wasn't merely a person who spun ideas," historian Tom Coffman said. "That is why he made two very determined campaigns for governor."

Gill tried unsuccessfully to unseat his boss, Gov. John A. Burns, in a 1970 Democratic primary and lost a second bid for the top post in 1974 to Gov. George Ariyoshi.

One the idealist and the other a pragmatist, Gill and Burns are indelibly linked in the annals of Hawai'i politics.

In the 1950s, Gill worked with Burns to help bring about the historic 1954 "Democratic revolution," which shifted the balance of political power in Hawai'i to the union-backed Democratic Party.

The impatient Gill later challenged his former ally Burns and then took on fellow Democrat Ariyoshi, efforts that contributed to the shortening of his own political lifespan, Coffman said.

If Gill had been more concerned about this own political career and bided his time, he could have spent many years in elected office, possibly in Washington, D.C., Coffman said. But that wasn't as important to Gill as doing what he felt was right for the people he served, he said.

Political historians also credit Gill with helping draft and push through significant legislation dealing with, among other things, land reform laws that helped control development and expand housing opportunities for most of Hawai'i's residents. He successfully fought for antitrust statutes that helped break the social and political monopoly held by Hawai'i's "Big Five" major companies.

Above all else, Gill valued fairness, said Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee Walter Heen, who entered the Legislature in 1958, the same year as Gill, and was a lifelong ally. Gill, Heen said, helped push through administrative rules that "require the state government to ensure that everybody who goes before a state agency is treated equally, and everybody knows what the rules are."

During a one-term stint in Congress, Gill helped shape the landmark civil rights bills of the time, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act, said local civil rights leader Marsha Joyner.

The freshman representative was designated floor manager for the Civil Rights Act bill and principal author of the bill's Title IV, which bans organizations or programs that receive federal aid from discriminating on the basis of race.


Gill was born in Hawai'i, the son of an architect and a newspaperwoman. He graduated from Roosevelt High School.

He won a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star as a soldier in the Pacific Theater during World War II.

After the war, he attended the University of California-Berkeley, where he got his law degree from the Boalt Hall School of Law.

With Lois, his new bride, he returned to Hawai'i and began his lifelong career as a labor attorney representing the Teamsters Union and the Hotel Workers Union Local 5.

Current state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, herself a labor attorney, said Gill's work in the labor field was as significant as his role in shaping Hawai'i politics.

"It almost happened around the same time," Hanabusa said. "Tom Gill's handprint was on both of those major events, which I think define Hawai'i and define the creation of our middle class."

Later, Gill's son Tony also took up labor law and today continues the practice his father started under the shingle Gill & Zukeran.

Once back in Honolulu, Tom Gill also began working with the Democratic Party. He helped bring about the 1954 Democratic Revolution that ousted the Republican Party from power after its decades-long domination of the Territorial Legislature. At the time, Gill was O'ahu county chairman and he is credited with helping write most of that year's state party platform that helped draw young Hawai'i residents into the Democratic fold.

It was the beginning of a bittersweet relationship between Burns and Gill sometimes cooperative and sometimes hostile.

And as was often the case, Gill played a key role but in the shadow of Burns. While Burns received most of the credit for the rise of the Democratic Party, Gill laid down much of the groundwork, Coffman said.

Where they differed most was in style, and in how they chose to go about effecting change for the disenfranchised lower and middle classes.

"John Burns wanted to consolidate a new middle ground, organized around liberal principles, while Tom Gill wanted to advance and, in his vision, complete the commitment to the proposition that fair play, equal opportunity and the realization of each person's inherent potentials can only be realized by a vigorous, engaged government," Coffman said in a recent tribute to Gill.

Gill was elected to the Territorial House of Representatives in 1958 and was majority floor leader in the Hawai'i Legislature from 1959 to 1962.

After his brief yet significant two-year term in Congress, Gill challenged Republican U.S. Sen. Hiram Fong in 1964 and lost.

It was Burns, his sometimes rival, who appointed Gill to head the new state Office of Economic Opportunity, a job he held in 1965-66.

But against Burns' wishes, Gill ran for, and then easily won, the lieutenant governor's post in 1966, leading to chilly relations between the two and climaxing with the 1970 gubernatorial fight.

That election was memorialized in the Coffman book "Catch a Wave."


Former governor Ben Cayetano, himself considered a political independent and maverick, said he was a Gill supporter in 1974 because "he was idealistic, principled and very smart."

Cayetano said Gill "got in trouble with the establishment" when he criticized Burns and others for associating too much with pro-development interests at the expense of the environment.

"I think he felt that some of the Democrats had lost their way," Cayetano said. "Because he was so idealistic, he was less compromising."

Gill has often been described as brash, arrogant and impatient, labels even his family and biggest admirers do not deny.

"He tended to be very abrupt in dealing with people and brushed off some ideas rather cursorily," said Heen, his former colleague. "But there was no question that when it came to the welfare of the people, he had the strongest affinity for seeing that their problems were taken care of as much as he could."

Gill's dedication to public service was passed on to his children. Besides Tony Gill carrying on his father's labor law practice, Gary Gill was a city councilman and is now program director for the nonprofit Blue Planet Foundation. Eric Gill is financial secretary and treasurer of UNITE HERE Local 5, the hotel workers' union.

Gill is survived by his wife, Lois; sons Thomas Anthony, Eric, Ivan, Timothy and Gary; daughter Andrea; brother Lorin; 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

A private family service is pending. In lieu of flowers, the public is invited to make donations to the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii.

Advertiser government writer Derrick DePledge contributed to this story.