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Good News: A Small Elite No Longer Runs Hawaii

Bad News: Nobody Does

(page 2 of 4)

The Big Five sugar plantation companies and their leaders, including
David Heenan, were once the core of Hawaii’s power elite.
Photo courtesy of David Heenan

A Failure of Leadership

“To me, the biggest disappointment has been the leadership,” says Heenan. “And I’m part of it.”

Indeed, one of the great ironies of the current crisis of power is that it’s possible to trace its origins directly to the failures of leadership from the Big Five era. There’s still some nostalgia for the last of these leaders — men like Heenan, Herb Cornuelle of Dillingham and Henry Clark of Castle and Cooke, who presided over not only their own companies, but many of the state’s civic organizations. But it was the inability of these companies, under their leadership, to adapt to the decline of agriculture that spelled the end of the Big Five. One by one, they were gobbled up by offshore corporations or succumbed to piecemeal liquidation. By the mid-1980s, all but A&B were gone.

As these leaders disappeared, they took with them a style of leadership that was both more personal and more willing to acknowledge a debt to their community. One prominent local businessman put it succinctly: “Today, we’re really stuck with a colorless group of leaders.” Although there are still a few business leaders – old-timers like Walter Dods or Jeff Watanabe, whose power and influence crosses into the civic and the political arenas – it’s hard to imagine who their successors will be. Today’s business leaders are much more focused on their own narrow corporate interests. This growing factionalism in the business community is emblematic of what’s happening in the broader society. There’s simply much less communication between different groups. And yet, this reaching across lines is often the sign of real power.

According to Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, getting things done isn’t merely a matter of more negotiations; it also has to be personal. “You’ve got to put a face to the issues,” she says. She likes to use as an example the friendship between the former union leader Art Rutledge and the prickly business magnate Harry Weinberg. She points out that, although they were often on opposite sides of contentious labor negotiations, “They had a great relationship. And when Weinberg was sick, it was Mr. ‘R’ who would go to see him.” It’s a lesson Hanabusa has taken to heart. She mentions her close relationship with Senate Republican Sam Slom. “I don’t think I could tell you that there’s a better colleague, a better friend in the Senate,” she says.

Senate President Colleen Hanabusa says that, then and now,
personal relationships are a big part of getting things done in Hawaii.
Photo courtesy of Colleen Hanabusa

New rules

Hanabusa is also one of the few people mentioned by business and community leaders as an example of an old-fashioned, arm-twisting politician. But it’s a reputation, she says, that has more to do with her argumentative style than the quality of her leadership. In fact, she sees herself at the vanguard of a more collaborative type of legislative leader. “In the old days,” she says, “if you didn’t follow what the leadership wanted, you didn’t get CIP – Community Improvement Projects. The way we operate as a legislative body now, it’s much more of a shared decision-making concept. If there’s anything new, it’s the sense that, unless we have consensus, whatever we do is not going to sustain.”

Even Mayor Mufi Hannemann, whose charismatic and forceful style of leadership most closely resembles the old-time powerbrokers, preaches the twin doctrines of collaboration and consensus. But he gives them a more didactic cast. “Leaders,” he says, “sometimes make the mistake of sitting behind their desk, or hiding behind their cadre of PR doctors, and hoping the public will ‘get it,’ or that the nature and power of their office will win the day. But those days are gone. I don’t think sitting around with four or five power brokers is going to do it anymore. I think you’ve still got to sit with those four or five powerbrokers and get their ideas. But, at the end of the day, you’ve got to go sell it to a Joe Kamaka in Waianae; you’ve got to go sell it to a Helen Suzuki in Manoa; you’ve got to go sell it to a Larry Smith in Hawaii Kai.”

But he points out that the power of consensus doesn’t come from simply listening to what others have to say. “Sometimes, that word is overused,” Hannemann says. “It’s important to listen; but, in my opinion, listening also requires action.” He uses the example of rail: “It’s not my idea. It’s been around for years. But we executed very well to be able to get a tax increase passed in one legislative session – with a Republican governor who wanted to do it three years before, didn’t do it, and then has had second thoughts every step along the way.” As much as anything, it’s been his ability to keep rail moving forward that makes the mayor a touchstone in any discussion of power in Hawaii. And the ultimate success or failure of rail will likely affect Hawaii’s map of power for decades to come.

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Dec 13, 2009 12:53 pm
 Posted by  JohnKSmith

Good News: A small elite no longer runs Hawaii -- Bad News: Mufi thinks he can change that

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