Cec Heftel, former Hawaii congressman, dies in California at 85
• Photo gallery: Cec Heftel's life in Hawaii remembered
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Staff Writer
Cec Heftel, the media executive and former congressman known for his sharp intellect and tongue and major successes in local TV and radio, died Thursday in San Diego.
Heftel, 85, had been in failing health for some time and died of natural causes, a family spokeswoman said.
Many remembered Heftel yesterday for his contributions to Hawai'i radio and TV, including as owner of KGMB AM-FM and TV, which in the 1960s and '70s were among the top-rated stations in the country. Part of that success was thanks to Heftel's uncanny ability to spot talent.
He plucked, for example, news anchor Bob Sevey for his nightly news broadcast on KGMB. Sevey was quickly a household name, and became known as Hawai'i's own Walter Cronkite.
As owner of KGMB-TV, Heftel also decided to start "Checkers and Pogo," a wildly popular afternoon children's broadcast that a generation of Hawai'i residents still recall fondly. The show ran from 1967 to 1982, and thousands of Hawai'i children tuned in every afternoon to watch the popular show with its wacky array of friends and adventures.
Earl McDaniel, who was the general manager of KGMB radio (later called KSSK) when Heftel owned it, called Heftel "one of the most incredible men and broadcasters I've met." McDaniel added, "There will never be another one like him."
Family friend John Michael White, a land developer, said Heftel's media contributions "put Hawai'i on the map."
"He was way, way ahead of his time," he said. "It's hard to speak about him in the past tense."
But for all of his success, Heftel undoubtedly will also be remembered for his controversial loss to John Waihee in 1986 for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, which Heftel blamed on a smear campaign.
SWITCH TO POLITICS
Cecil Landau Heftel was born in Chicago on Sept. 30, 1924, and got his bachelor's degree at Arizona State University after serving in the U.S. Army from 1943 to 1946. He came to the Islands in 1964, after already establishing himself as an owner of broadcast stations on the Mainland, and quickly became a force to reckon with in Hawai'i television and radio.
Michael W. Perry, of "Perry and Price," said Heftel was the "ultimate promoter."
"He loved stunts," Perry said. "He loved contests."
When Perry and Price took over the morning show in 1983, Perry said, Heftel decided to give away $1 million. "Cec just wanted to make sure that nobody lost the message" to keep listening, Perry said.
Heftel got into politics in the early 1970s — first as a delegate to the state and national Democratic conventions. He would later be elected to Congress, serving from 1977 to 1986, when he resigned to run for governor.
Friends say Heftel pursued politics because he wanted to give back — and he believed he could make a difference.
Longtime Heftel friend Rick Fried, a Honolulu attorney, used to play poker with Heftel and others weekly and remembers getting engrossed in long conversations on politics with him.
"Just his inquisitiveness and his intellect is what impressed me," Fried said. "He would have great insight on a variety of areas, but mostly politics."
Doug Carlson, a communications consultant who served as Heftel's press secretary, said the former congressman would work tirelessly, often sleeping only a few hours a night, to pursue his causes.
One of those was sustainable energy — well before it was in vogue. Carlson said Heftel got an electric car as his official district vehicle for use in Hawai'i, and introduced legislation that would have increased federal gasoline taxes to fund renewable energy research.
"He was there decades ahead of the game," Carlson said.
Carlson, who also worked under Heftel at KGMB-TV, said the former congressman was also a demanding boss.
"To work for Mr. Heftel was to work for someone harder than you had ever worked," Carlson said, laughing after recalling a time he was reamed by Heftel in front of others for not working hard enough. "No matter how good a job you had done on a particular project, Cec was there to say, 'OK, but you could have done a little more.' "
DEVOTED TO HAWAI'I
Heftel went through his darkest days in 1986, after losing the race for the Democratic nomination to succeed Gov. George Ariyoshi to John Waihee, who had been trailing well behind Heftel in the polls. Heftel claimed he was smeared by false rumors in the closing days of the primary, and a state investigation was opened to look into the matter.
But nothing came of it, and Heftel left the Islands for California.
"He just got so fed up," said Jerry Wilson, Heftel's former son-in-law. "It was a mess."
Heftel lived away from the Islands for more than a decade, though he kept a home here and visited often.
Heftel re-emerged in Hawai'i public life in 2004, when he was elected to one term on the state Board of Education. Heftel said at the time that he was running for office "to create a budget that directs funding to the classroom, so that we can educate our children first and support the bureaucracy last." He did not seek re-election in 2008.
Leslie Wilcox, president and CEO of PBS Hawai'i and former KGMB-TV journalist, said Heftel "was convinced he could effect change" in public education. "Cec Heftel was a guy who knew what he wanted and made it happen."
Yesterday, politicians statewide praised Heftel's strong head for business and years of public service.
Mayor Mufi Hannemann, in a statement, called Heftel an "influential leader" in the Islands.
"He used his experience very effectively during his term as our congressman, bringing his media savvy and strong business background to the job, to his candidacy for governor, and to his stint on the Board of Education," the mayor said. "The lessons he imparted have certainly helped guide my approach to the news media, government and politics."
Gov. Linda Lingle said Heftel had a "deep sense of service" and an "impressive political career."
"He was recognized as a community leader, always finding a way to give of his time," she said.
U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie said he often sought Heftel's advice after his 1986 loss to Waihee.
"Cec Heftel had a devotion to Hawai'i that was complete," Abercrombie said.
Private funeral arrangements for Heftel are pending.Staff writer Vicki Viotti contributed to this report. Reach Mary Vorsino at 221-8681.