Heftel's media role outshone his politics
• Photo gallery: Cec Heftel's life in Hawaii remembered
By Jerry Burris
As a political figure, Cec Heftel had his faults. He was stiff, not truly comfortable with the backslapping ho'omalimali that is so important in local politics.
So, despite his insistence that he was done in by devious figures within the Democratic Party in his unsuccessful run for governor in 1986, the truth is more likely that this brilliant media executive just never connected with the people in a way that would put him over the top.
Heftel would contend to the very end that he was brought down by an insidious whisper campaign that painted him in vile terms. And there is no doubt there were those who worked the phones trying to convince voters that Heftel could not be trusted, that he was not "one of us" and was undeserving of the governorship.
But you would be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of voters who were aware of the nastier rumors about Heftel, let alone allowing those rumors to affect their vote. While Heftel later blamed the "smear" for destroying his promising run for governor, he told me just before the primary that he doubted that many voters knew about the canard, or at least he hoped they were unaware of it.
The more likely scenario is that the voters, in the end, did not truly know who Heftel was or what he stood for. So they went — in the primary — with someone they were comfortable with, the eventual winner John Waihee. While Heftel was away in Washington, attending to his congressional duties and largely absent from the local political scene, Waihee was working the streets.
That paid off.
Ironically, Heftel had an influence on Hawai'i that far outstripped his political career. As a media executive, there is no doubt that he changed the landscape of local radio and television. His radio station, KGMB, remains powerful today.
And while his television station has struggled — as have all TV outlets — it remains an icon of quality broadcast journalism. Heftel had big plans for himself and in pursuit of that he built a television news department that was second to none. In its heyday, KGMB went toe-to-toe with the local print media and often enough came out the winner.
Media observers from the Mainland would come to Honolulu and simply shake their heads in wonder at the quality of local television news. The other stations stepped up their game in response to Heftel's single-minded determination to run the best operation he could.
Congressman, gubernatorial candidate, school board member — those are all titles that might be affixed to Cec Heftel. But the one that should last is his role in making Honolulu — at least for a time — a glorious hot spot of radio and television excellence.