Good News: A Small Elite No Longer Runs Hawaii
Bad News: Nobody Does
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Today, it is probably Mufi Hannemann who most closely resembles
If Hawaii is to answer the major questions confronting the state – How do we create a healthy economy while preserving what makes Hawaii special? How do we improve our public schools? How do we sustain effective government? – we first need to deal with the fundamental issue: What has happened to power?
In 1964, the story goes, when Gov. Jack Burns became concerned about the effectiveness of Hawaii’s most important charity, the Community Chest, he didn’t hold hearings or try to drum up public support in the media. Instead, he summoned two community leaders to his office — labor activist Jack Hall and Lowell Dillingham, dean of the Bishop Street crowd — to remind them of their civic responsibilities.
“Boys,” the governor is supposed to have told them, “something’s broken here, and it’s up to you to fix it.” In most versions of this story, these two old antagonists set aside their differences and worked on the problem. By the time they left the governor’s office, they had outlined an organization that would eventually become the Aloha United Way, with Hall serving on the board to secure the support of labor, and Dillingham, with the imprimatur of Big Business, as its chair.
Stories like this, many apocryphal, are parables of a time in Hawaii when power and leadership were exercised much differently than today. In that era, when the Big Five still dominated the business community and the great Democratic political machine was reaching its zenith, it still seemed possible for a governor to lead without equivocation, to decide unilaterally on a course and then act. Perhaps more importantly, it was still possible to identify a core of community leaders, men like Hall and Dillingham, who had the status and force of personality to get things done.
For many of those who lived through that era, there’s a nostalgia for the simplicity of its power structure. It was, of course, a much less democratic age, a time when a few men (and they were all men) made most of the important decisions for the state. But, as David Heenan puts it, “Many people respect an oligarchy.” Heenan, former CEO of Big Five company TheoDavies, and now a trustee for the Campbell Estate, is no apologist for the excesses of that earlier age. But it’s hard to ignore the advantages of concentrated power. “When I was involved in Big Five stuff,” he says, “and with companies like Dillingham and Pacific Resources, the two estates, and the two big banks, back then, there were eight or ten people you could turn to. You could get those guys in the room and get things done. There was gravitas there.”
And it wasn’t just in the business community. “It was the same thing on the political front,” Heenan says. “You had the Burns machine, and then Ariyoshi. There was more of a notion of centralization. And although the unions may have been larger than today, actual power lay in the hands of just a few people, men like Jack Hall, David Trask and Art Rutledge.
“You could identify the players,” Heenan points out. “They all had some real clout. Then that got fragmented by globalization and technology and so forth. Now, you’re trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”
Today, that fragmentation of power is the central feature of Hawaii’s political and cultural landscape. It’s blamed for everything from the failure of the Superferry, to the confusing, on-again, off-again saga of Act 221, to the seemingly endless squabbling over Honolulu’s rail project. And, if Hawaii is to answer the major questions confronting the state – How do we create a healthy economy while preserving what makes Hawaii special? How do we improve our public schools? How do we sustain effective government? – we first need to deal with the fundamental issue: What has happened to power?
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