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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 7, 2010

Legislator stood up for state's ag workers

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Jack Suwa

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A quiet man in ways that may seem incomprehensible in contemporary politics, Jack Suwa wielded tremendous influence as a 20-year legislator and champion of Hawai'i's agricultural workers.

Suwa, 85, died Jan. 22 in his native Kurtistown on the Big Island.

Suwa served in the Army and worked as a supervisor for Puna Sugar Plantation before successfully pursuing a seat in the territorial House of Representatives in 1958. He was later elected to the state House of Representatives.

One of a generation of nisei veterans who helped shape Hawai'i's political landscape in the early years of statehood, Suwa earned the respect of his peers with his diligence and focus, eventually ascending to the chair of the House Finance Committee.

Suwa spoke sparingly and often in a mumble, but he was widely respected among his fellow lawmakers.

"He was a very quiet man, very humble, in that old Japanese style," said state Rep. Calvin Say, the House speaker. "When he gave his word, you knew his word was good."

True to his roots, Suwa was a strong advocate for Hawai'i's agricultural industry and its workers.

He was involved with the Kohala Task Force, which sought to diversify the Big Island's agricultural industry in the wake of Castle & Cooke's decision to cease sugar production in Kohala. He also helped mediate negotiations between plantations and unions, and was an early supporter of alternative energy initiatives.

"He was very influential in trying to protect the interests of working people," Say said. "He was very intelligent about agriculture and the budget. In those days (the state budget) was much smaller than it is today, and agriculture was still a big piece of the equation.

"He really tried to protect the people in agriculture."

Suwa held several other prominent positions in his lengthy career in public service, including deputy director of the state Department of Transportation and director of the state Department of Agriculture. He also worked as an AMFAC executive.

Throughout his career, Suwa made sure that Hilo was well accounted for in budget decisions. Say pointed to the expansion of the Hilo Airport and improvement to Hilo Harbor as indications of Suwa's influence.

Suwa also played a key role in the development of the University of Hawai'i-Hilo as a four-year institution.

Suwa is survived by his wife, Fusae; sons, Alan and Wesley; daughters, Sharon Toyota and Corinne Kalani; brother, Kenneth; sister, Carol Suzuki; and eight grandchildren.

Services will be held Feb. 13 at Dodo Mortuary Chapel in Hilo. Visitation is scheduled for 3 to 5 p.m., with memorial service to follow. The family requests no flowers. Donations in memory of Jack Suwa may be made to Hospice of Hilo.