Rob Parsons

Election reflections

Reminiscing on elections past and present

by Rob Parsons

October 30, 2008

Go Mustard, go Mustard!" A cadre of sign-wavers aside Ka'ahumanu Avenue greeting pau hana traffic with election year zeal was among my first glimpses of the peculiarities of island politics. The year was 1978, and everything about Maui was still new to me-the breathtaking natural beauty, local foods, singsong "da kine" rhythms of pidgin English and especially the grassroots politicking of roadside sign waving.

That year, Shigeto "Mustard" Murayama ran for County Council, after many years of service as County Treasurer, Finance Director, Water Director and Managing Director to Mayor Elmer Cravalho. A year earlier, Murayama served as Acting Mayor when Cravalho disappeared for 12 days on an unexplained walkabout. Cravalho, who had run Maui County since 1967, resigned soon after, bringing about a Special Election with a wide field of 18 candidates.

Rising to the top of the heap was Hannibal Tavares, who had served on the County Board of Supervisors, predecessor to our County Council back in the 1950s. A mountain of a man with a booming voice to match, Tavares, a Republican and father of current Mayor Charmaine Tavares, served as an executive for Alexander & Baldwin, one of Hawaii's "Big Five" companies, all with a base of wealth rooted in plantation agriculture.

That contrasted sharply with the background of the runner-up in the 1979 Mayoral Special Election-an upstart, outspoken young man from Oahu-Wayne Nishiki. I remember Nishiki's television ads, with the signature "Zorro" sword slash to write the "N" of Nishiki. "Do you want Maui to become another Honolulu?" he asked, a refrain that didn't change much over the more than two decades he served on the Maui County Council thereafter.

Nishiki is on the ballot again some 30 years later, apparently refreshed and renewed after nearly six years away from politics (he reached his 10-year term limit in 2002). The announcement of his candidacy for his old South Maui residency seat came as a surprise to many. A few months ago, Council member Michelle Anderson, Nishiki's former executive aide, said she wouldn't seek re-election.

But the familiar Nishiki name had already been vaulted back into the spotlight in May, when the oldest of Nishiki's six children, daughter Kai Nishiki, launched her campaign for the Makawao-Haiku-Paia residency seat. Many would agree that name recognition, as much as the importance of key issues, plays a significant role in local elections.

In Murayama's case, however, it may have worked against him. In a brief phone interview, "Mustard" told me that though he beat everyone in the primary, he lost in the general election to a radio announcer named Ricardo Medina, known as "The Carabal." Murayama believed that there may have been some ill feelings about those who had been associated with Carvalho's administration, and the odd circumstances that caused him to vacate his Mayoral post early in his term.

The 1980 election also marked the year a first-time candidate from Molokai was voted into office. Linda Lingle, a Mainland transplant with a cum laude degree in journalism, founded the Molokai Free Press, a popular community newspaper. A skillful public speaker and savvy politician, she gained prominence by serving five 2-year terms on the Council and two 4-year terms as Maui County Mayor. After losing the closest Gubernatorial race in Hawaii history in 1998 to incumbent Benjamin Cayetano, she was elected in 2002 and is in her second term as Governor of Hawaii.

Many prognosticators believe Lingle, who is related to the Cutter automobile dealership family, will continue her climb up the political ladder by running for office again in 2010, possibly for U.S. Senator. My own early memory of Lingle is when she brought a group of women for a lunch meeting at Polli's Mexican restaurant in Makawao, circa 1984. I recall she left a 10 percent tip. Of course, County Council salaries have increased appreciably since then.

Roadside sign waving is as much a unique part of Hawaii's campaigns as anything else you can name, from chicken hekka fundraisers to gimmicky gifts. I recall then-Molokai Council incumbent Pat Kawano waving to traffic at the corner of Ka'ahumanu Avenue across from the Maui Beach Hotel, even while running unopposed. Years later, Maui Soda and Ice Works president Mike Nobriga was a fixture on that same corner and acquired a golden brown complexion from his hours in the sunshine. The late Councilman Tom Morrow is fondly remembered for donning his cowboy hat and sitting atop his horse while waving to traffic at the confluence of the Hana and Haleakala highways.

A Summer Starr hot pad, acquired two months ago at a fundraiser for her run for the Upcountry House District 12 seat, reminded me of years past and freebies given away emblazoned with a candidate's name. One year I found a pair of gardening gloves in my Wailuku post office box, with a call for "Many hands working together." Extra points for any reader who can remember which candidate sent these island-wide.

I still use the (Kauai Senator Gary) Hooser chip bag clip from a previous election and recently found a purple and yellow Mike Molina pen in the back of a drawer. Often, it's the functionality of the campaign doo-dad that determines whether it will be picked up in the first place and kept and used thereafter.

My early political awareness dates even further back. Growing up in the 1960s in Madison, Wisconsin, I knew little about local elections. But I remember vividly the day I came home from sixth grade to find my mother glued to the television and in tears at the news that President John F. Kennedy had been shot.

I recall the lopsided victory of Lyndon Johnson over Republican Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, a race that is echoed this year, some 44 years later, with another Arizona Senator, John McCain, seeking the White House.

During my high school years, I paid much closer attention to the unfolding presidential campaign. I was intrigued by the persistence of former Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen, who had run for the country's top office three times previously, (and five times after 1968). I applauded the audaciousness of deadpan comedian and political satirist Pat Paulsen of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in a half-baked run for president. On a show that often stretched the limits of media censorship policies, Paulsen announced his presidential campaign slogan, "I've upped my standards. Now, up yours."

On his political party affiliation, Paulsen stated he belonged to the Straight Talking American Government party, or STAG party for short.

But my greatest awakening came with the entrance of Senator Eugene McCarthy to the race. No sitting Democrat had challenged Lyndon Johnson's party leadership until McCarthy, an outspoken critic of the increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam. He made an unexpectedly strong showing at the early New Hampshire primary against Johnson, who withdrew two weeks later after Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York entered the race.

Rob Report

Madison was a liberal university town with a growing reputation for radical protests of the war, ROTC recruiting on campus and job fair participation by Dow Chemical, makers of napalm. My father, a physician I knew to be more inclined to serve as a Cub Scout Packleader than a political activist, nevertheless grabbed the baton of the McCarthy anti-war campaign. He drove me to junior high school in a '64 Buick Special sporting a triangle-shaped Styrofoam McCarthy emblem strapped to the roof.

He took my older brother and me to a McCarthy rally at the Dane County Fairgrounds, though without a lot of preaching or fanfare. "Boys," he said, "I want you to see this man speak tonight." The campaign had won the support of some Hollywood celebrities, among them Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand and Burt Lancaster. The comedian team of Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara (parents of comic actor Ben Stiller) attended the rally. What caught my attention was the amount of money my father pulled out of his wallet when the collection basket came around-far more than what I had typically seen at Sunday Presbyterian services.

The political seed had been planted. I found myself involved with school politics, first in junior high as campaign manager for my friend running for Student Council Vice President. Once elected, he appointed me to be Council Sergeant-at-Arms. The position was primarily to keep order at meetings if anyone spoke out of turn, but also extended to picking up a tray of milk cartons from the cafeteria and bringing them upstairs to the biology classroom where meetings were held during lunch hour.

I later found myself serving as Student Senate representative to my high school homeroom. The biggest issues back then revolved around student dress codes.

Fast forward to 2000, when I entered the Maui political scene and sign waving faithful by running for Council. After a long battle to "Save Baldwin Beach" and "Stop Spreckelsville Sprawl," I tossed my hat in the ring to help bring greater attention to the issue, which eventually failed by a close 5-4 vote.

This year, many other hopefuls are doing all they can to illuminate vital issues and earn your support to serve the best interests of Maui County. Please show up and vote!