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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Opening Day festivities brought folks together

By Susan Jaworowski

The word is out: no Opening Day festivities at the state Capitol this year.

That's probably the right thing to do. These are serious times. No music, dancing, entertaining: Head straight for the bills.

And yet Opening Day was one of those only-in-Hawai'i things that bridged the gap between the legislators and their constituents; between the "high muckamuckas" and the regular guys; between the people who make the decisions, and the folks who are affected by them.

Opening Day was always the day for the regular people to come to the Capitol. Maybe they couldn't get a seat in the House or Senate chamber to see the schoolchildren doing the hula and hear the Makaha Sons sing, but they were ready and waiting when the senators and the reps returned to their offices, with leis stacked high, piles of purple orchids, white tuberose, red cigar lei, looping lacey Micronesian ginger, with the punctuation of eye-popping orange 'ilima.

Almost every legislator had his or her door open, giving the public the chance to eat, greet and meet them. Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, famed for her generosity in the committee room and out, had an entire conference room set aside so that no one would leave hungry. Sen. Gary Hooser would bring in Hamura saimin from Kaua'i. The "Daves" (Reps. David Stegmeier, Morihara, and Pendleton) would band together and serve ice cream.

Who was all this for? Not for the legislators and their staff. It was for the public.

People stood in line, patiently, to hug the legislators or shake their hands, and then make a plate of kalbi and noodles. Or chichi dango and brownies. Or kalua pig and laulau. Chicken long rice their auntie made or brought in from Marion's. You know, Hawaiian style.

It was a low-stress way for people to meet a legislator, say a few words, find out how they felt about an issue, maybe speak their minds about whether they were for or against it easy, local style, no pressure.

For the past three years I've taught a college course on the Hawai'i legal system. I always encouraged my students to go to Opening Day, meet a real legislator, see them as a regular person who needs their input to do a good job.

People think that legislators are smarter, better, more important than they are. Once they got to the Capitol, though, and joined the thousands of people ringing the atrium, hanging over the railing, talking story, running into cousins and co-workers, the Capitol seemed friendlier, the legislators more approachable, the process less intimidating. More local. Some of them would be back to testify at committee hearings,

We're not talking a few dozen or even a few hundred insiders.

In its heyday, there were thousands of people at the Capitol for Opening Day. People showed up in their work clothes, or their group T-shirts, stood in line and chatted with senators, representatives and their staffs.

Maybe they visited with their own senator and representatives, or maybe with the committee chairs on bills they favored or opposed. Perhaps they came just for the 'ono grinds.

Whatever the reason, there was an ease and an equality on Opening Day rarely seen in other states' corridors of power. The food was the social lubricant that broke down barriers and made average folk think themselves good enough to speak to their elected representatives.

That's what I'm going to miss on Opening Day. The paid lobbyists and the organized citizens groups will always be at the Legislature. But those aren't the only voices the Legislature should hear. Lessening the chances for the public to meet informally with legislators means fewer of their thoughts will be heard.

When economic times improve, and there is a lessened pressure for immediate legislative action, maybe Opening Day festivities will come back. Maybe or perhaps it will be another grace note of a uniquely Hawaiian tradition that falls by the wayside.

If it returns, I'll be back. Will you come, too? It's your Legislature.