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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, February 4, 2010

Fasi leaves a lasting imprint

By Jerry Burris
Advertiser Political Writer

Frank F. Fasi, the flamboyant and combative populist politician who served more years as mayor than anyone else in Honolulu’s history, left a physical and political lasting mark on his adopted city that will be impossible to erase.

His greatest disappointment, undoubtedly, was his failure to move from City Hall to the governor’s office. He ran four times for governor without ever capturing the prize.
Throughout his career, Fasi’s badge of honor and frequent campaign slogan was that he fought for “the little guy” against the forces of power (the mainstream Democrats, the press, Waikiki business interests) whom he charged with holding their own interests above those of the people.
A master of symbolism (the white hat, the pipe, the “shaka” sign), Fasi made himself so well known that anyone discussing politics only had to say “Frank” for everyone to know whom he was talking about.
For all his successes, Fasi’s career was dogged by controversy and acrimonious dispute.
His feud with Honolulu’s two daily newspapers was legendary, leading Fasi at one point to bar print reporters from his City Hall news conferences. A federal judge put a stop to that, but Fasi continued to charge the papers with a failure to report adequately on his actions and those of his administration.
Fasi was also at odds with what might be called the “mainstream” of the Democratic Party, led by the late Gov. John A. Burns and later for 14 years by then-Gov. George Ariyoshi. In three elections (1974, 1978 and 1982), Fasi unsuccessfully challenged Ariyoshi for the governorship.
Those political battles often became bitter and personal, but Fasi contended he liked it that way. He had, he once said, no taste for being an insider.
“I like it when people go after me because they don’t like what I do when I’m doing my job for the people who elected me,” he said.
His enduring frustration was that while he had strong popularity with the general public, he could not make it past a primary where old-time “establishment” Democrats and the unions dominated.
Fasi was also hurt in those statewide races by relatively weak organization on the Neighbor Islands, which are critically important in Democratic primaries.
After two tries as a Democrat, Fasi made additional attempts under his own party designation and finally as a Republican. The results were always the same — failure.
But if Fasi could not get over the bar in statewide races, he stood up well against any and all comers on his home turf. Twice he defeated mayoral candidates who were quietly, and not so quietly, backed by the mainstream Democrats.
The third time, however, Fasi wasn’t watching and the “establishment” candidate, state Budget Director Eileen Anderson, came out of nowhere to beat him in the 1980 mayoral election.
Most people wrote Fasi off as finished forever after that defeat. But to the surprise of many (including himself, he once admitted), he staged a successful comeback in 1984.
Fasi’s legacy runs broad and deep in Honolulu. With the help of bright and committed staffers, he initiated the Satellite City Hall program, the city’s open markets, a widely admired islandwide bus system and more. The massive Municipal Office Building (recently renamed in his honor) and the greening of the City Hall grounds occurred during his tenure.
That expanse of grass around City Hall is a classic example of the way Fasi worked: When his proposal for landscaping to replace parking for City Hall officials (including council members) was rebuffed, he took it upon himself to climb on a bulldozer and tear up the asphalt one weekend morning, opposition and the law be damned.
The “dawn attack” was an echo of earlier Fasi stunts, where his approach was to act now, debate later. Early in his mayoral career, he evicted the popular Queen’s Surf nightclub and the world-famous Kodak Hula Show from their beachfront sites in Waikiki, arguing the beach belonged to the public, not to commercial interests.
Fasi’s chin-first, in-your-face style was popular among many voters but did not sit well with the political establishment.
His most painful encounter, no doubt, was the famous 1977 Kukui Plaza controversy, which led to a charge of bribery brought against Fasi by the state administration.
That charge was eventually dropped, with Fasi insisting it was nothing more than an election-year political vendetta.
“Knowing what I know now,” he once said as he reflected on that incident, “I don’t know whether I’d run for office. To take all that which I’ve had to take. And I’ve taken a lot of crap.
“I’ve told my kids: ‘If at all possible, don’t run for office.’ For me, though, I guess it is too late.”
There are 11 Fasi children; five with his first wife, Florence, and six more with Joyce Fasi.
Joyce and Frank were married in 1958, when he was 37 and she was a 21-year-old University of Hawaii senior and 1957 runner-up in the Cherry Blossom beauty contest. Over the years, Joyce developed into an effective campaigner, a mainstay in political TV ads in which her chats about “Frank” helped soften his combative image.
For all his supposed penchant for feuding, Fasi created a deeply loyal core of personal followers. He used to joke that it might have been his Sicilian ancestry that made him stand by those who stuck with him.
For instance, many remember how deeply Fasi felt about Sammy Amato, a close friend and hanger-on who stuck with Fasi through thick and thin.
When the elfin Amato died in November 1978, Fasi put out this message:
“Sammy, my friend, has left us.
“No more, the short quick steps.
“No more, the toothless grin.
“No more Sammy.
“Sammy lives, in the hearts and minds of us he left behind. Sammy lives. In heaven, a little guy with a giant’s heart. Sammy, Sammy, my beloved friend pray for us that someday our Lord will make us one with him for all eternity.
“Good-by for a while, my friend.”
By the same token, when Fasi felt politically betrayed, he did not forget it. Fasi never forgave former Honolulu Managing Director Jeremy Harris for failing to support him when he quit his mayoral post halfway through his term to run for governor in 1994. Fasi believed he had a deal, and when Harris stayed neutral in that race, Fasi was furious.
Fasi’s scrappy political style traces in his mind to his early years in a tenement area of East Hartford, Conn. He was one of six children born to Carmelo Fasi, an immigrant from Italy. From the start, Fasi said, he experienced discrimination for being poor, for being Catholic, for being from immigrant stock.
“I came out of the slums. I had nothing, and I’ve watched a lot of discrimination,” he once said. “I’ve watched a lot of people with power push other people around. I think that’s what has pushed me along.”
Fasi saw Hawaii for the first time as a World War II Marine officer where he served as supply officer. He then settled in the Islands in 1946, when he took a job as a $250-a-month clerk for the Army Engineers. Within months, he quit to start his own surplus materials firm.
That firm — Frank F. Fasi Supply Co. — became the basis for his wealth, primarily due to a lucrative lease on a parcel of Dillingham Boulevard property that for years provided trust income for himself and his family.
That early business venture is, in fact, what launched Fasi into politics.
As he told it over the years, it was in 1948 and he was in the business of buying and selling old wartime buildings. The rules were that anyone moving a house had to have a paid police escort fore and aft.
That added as much as $100 to the moving costs, and Fasi refused to pay. He got more than 100 traffic tickets, but he fought the issue in court and won. Afterward, he was still griping when his attorney challenged him to get into politics if he felt so strongly.
Fasi joined the Democratic Party in 1948, signing up for a political system that left little room for maverick politics.
He began running (for the Constitutional Convention) in 1950 and kept at it until he won a seat in the Territorial Senate in 1958 — his first elected office.
Even then, newspaper clippings show that the trim, brash newcomer went by the nickname “Fearless Frank.”
There followed a couple of further political losses — a race for the U.S. Senate in 1959, right after statehood, and a 1960 campaign for mayor.
Fasi, then 44, was elected to the Honolulu City Council in 1964 but already was thinking about the mayor’s office. In 1968, longtime Republican Mayor Neal Blaisdell decided not to seek another term.
The field was open and Fasi — his visibility established by a colorful headline-grabbing four years on the council — beat fellow Councilmen Herman Lemke and Kekoa Kaapu in the primary and topped Republican state Sen. D.G. “Andy” Anderson to finally become mayor.
He often described his political persona as that of “calculated-risk taker.” Within his first year as mayor, Fasi took two such “calculated risks” that set the tone.
He decided that the famous Kodak Hula Show would have to move from its beachfront park site. Then he decided that the Old Queen’s Surf restaurant and bar, again at the beach at Kapiçolani, would be torn down.
The new mayor had taken on sacred cows. The “consensus” was that both the hula show and Queen’s Surf should remain.
But Fasi prevailed.
From the first, he set out to be a populist, “people-oriented” mayor with the emphasis on matters that engage the public’s attention and generate headlines.
Fasi took particular pleasure out of his beautification program around City Hall. During his mayoral years, he was often seen taking a stroll around the landscaped grounds during lunch hour.
Perhaps the best single example of Fasi’s management style was the creation of the city bus system.
In 1970, drivers of the old Honolulu Rapid Transit Co. (HRT) struck. The prospect of no service loomed.
Fasi formed immediate plans for a city-operated Mass Transit Lines Ltd. (MTL) — a technically private firm owned by the city. He wangled a $10.4 million federal transit grant and started looking for buses to augment HRT’s aging, smokey fleet.
The Dallas Transit Authority had used buses for sale, and Fasi flew off personally to Texas. He came back wearing a Texas cowboy hat and bearing word that he had purchased the first buses for the new city fleet.
If there was a theme to Fasi’s great public successes, there is also a theme to the events that caused him the greatest grief: campaign fundraising and the people who do it.
Fasi never had a highly organized grass-roots political organization similar to that formed for Democrats such as Burns and Ariyoshi. But, with the assistance of long-time confidant Harry C.C. Chung, he made up for the lack of a grass-roots army by becoming a prodigious fundraiser.
Shortly after he took office in 1969, his aides began selling tickets for what was to be the first of many “birthday party” fundraisers. Tickets were $125 a couple and soon rose to $100 apiece.
The birthday parties became a tradition. Developers, consulting architects and engineers and others bought up entire tables. These were the same types who made contributions to other Island politicians, of course, but somehow, with Fasi, it was more visible.
In fact, it was Fasi himself, in a remarkable 1977 speech, who candidly described the system he was so much a part of.
When consultant contracts are in the works, Fasi said, recommended firms are reviewed by “a screening committee which advises me on political matters.”
“Simply stated, all else being equal, you help your friends, you don’t help your enemies,” he said. “That’s the way it has been for the past 200 years in U.S. political history.”
But nothing compared with the storm that erupted two years later over a city-sponsored urban development project named Kukui Plaza. That project generated more than 18 months of wildly unfavorable publicity for Fasi, culminating when the state attorney general’s office brought charges of bribery against the mayor and his longtime campaign fundraiser and political associate, Chung.
The trial began in December 1977 and ended that same month after developer Hal Hansen refused to testify.
For a person as active and widely known as was Fasi, his social life was modest at best. It included coffee and early morning gossip at a Downtown restaurant with a group of buddies and occasional rummy games in that portion of the game room at the Waialae Country Club where they take their cards seriously.
After he was out of political office, Fasi for years kept up a headquarters of sorts in Downtown offices, fully furnished with mayoral regalia and staffed by daughter Gina.
In recent years, he had been spending increasing amounts of time at his Makiki home, making occasional forays out for speeches or get-togethers with old friends and political associates.