Ya Mul Kim is summoned from her work cutting sugar cane in an Olaa field. Her daughter is ill and she quickly walks the mile to the family’s one-room home in the rainforest. When she gets there, she feels her daughter’s face. She is warm, so Ya Mul straps the little girl to her back and starts down the dirt road to the plantation infirmary, which is five miles away. When she gets there, she unstraps her daughter and lays her down on the examination table. The doctor takes a quick look at the little girl and then turns to Ya Mul: “I’m sorry Mrs. Kim, but this girl is dead.”
The next day, the Kim family buries their eldest child in nearby Alae Cemetery, digging the grave themselves with their own shovel. They are too poor to afford a gravestone, so they’ll have to remember the spot where the little girl is buried.
The Kim’s youngest child, Harry, who isn’t born until 1939, is first told this story when he is four years old, old enough to understand and remember. He hears it many other times while growing up, especially when the family makes their annual visit to the girl’s grave.
Harry will never forget watching his mother at the graveyard, studying the surrounding landscape, looking for landmarks and then pacing off the distance before finding the spot where her young daughter is buried. “Over here,” she would say. “I think she’s over here.”
Last September, Big Island Mayor Harry Kim, now 68, walked into a Maui courtroom and testified in support of the controversial Hawaii Superferry. At issue was whether the high-speed interisland ship would be allowed to operate in Maui waters while an environmental assessment was being completed. Despite the protestations of the plaintiffs’ attorney, who pointed out that Maui had its own mayor and civil defense director, who could better address some of the issues Kim was likely to talk about, the judge allowed the mayor to testify as long as he stuck to the issues.
Sticking to the issues has never been a problem for the straight-talking Kim. In fact, it was the issues, and, in his eyes, people’s inability to focus on them, that motivated him to speak out that day. In his testimony, Kim talked about how Hawaii is the only state in the union that has only one form of intrastate travel. The Superferry would offer local businesses and families increased opportunities for commerce and recreation.
According to Kim, there were new developments in Hawaii that should be opposed but this wasn’t one of them. He shared the plaintiffs’ concerns about possible environmental impacts, including the spread of invasive species. But by working with Superferry officials, he believed that the state had an opportunity to implement mitigation measures that could someday be used to set future policies and requirements. Maybe someday other interisland carriers of cargo and people would be asked to do the same. Kim said that the Superferry would make Hawaii a better place to live.
In the end, Kim’s testimony wasn’t persuasive. On Oct. 9, Maui Circuit Judge Joseph Cardoza ruled that the Superferry could not operate while an environmental assessment was being prepared.
Taking the stand on Maui (literally and figuratively) was vintage Kim. There was nothing at stake for him politically. He didn’t need the exposure. He was just stating the realities – and tough choices – as he saw them. It was Harry being Harry.
“Sometimes things get heated. But Harry will just step in there and tell it the way it is,” says Didrick Castberg, professor of political science at the University of Hawaii Hilo. “He’s very pragmatic about the economic benefits that come from development. Harry is in favor of progress as long as it is planned and orderly and has consensus among the population that it is a good thing.”
Whether he strides into a Kona Chamber of Commerce gathering to talk about traffic congestion or strolls into a Kau community meeting debating development in Punaluu, Big Islanders, no matter what side of the debate they are standing on that day, expect their mayor to be prepared, unafraid and, above all, truthful.
He’s a perpetual denim-wearing, self-effacing, no-nonsense, sometimes foul-mouthed, Big Island version of Mayberry’s Sheriff Andy Taylor, combining the clear-eyed vision of a pragmatist with the backward glances of a hopeless romantic.
His life’s story, which is as much a part of the Big Island landscape as Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, would have made Charles Dickens shake his head in disbelief: Harry is the youngest of the eight children of Korean immigrants Kee and Ya Mul Kim. The family lived in a one-room house in a rain forest in the tiny village of Olaa (now Keaau). Kee worked at the nearby sugar plantation, while Ya Mul wove lauhala mats and purses with the help of her children, who worked after school and through the weekends.
If his childhood seems torn out of the pages of a Dickens’ novel, then his political career – beginning with his 2000 campaign for mayor – could have been spliced from a Frank Capra film. Entering the race two weeks before the primary, Kim, who registered as a Republican, had no political handlers and a campaign staff of only himself, his wife, Bobbi, and several other family members.
A hanai brother told him that all he could afford was a $10 campaign contribution and the candidate off-handedly mentioned that conversation to a local newspaper reporter. A few days later, the Kim mailbox was overflowing with letters and contributions. He ended up sending thousands of dollars back to people, who had sent more than the limit, including $10 to a supporter, who tried to submit a contribution on behalf of his dog.
Kim easily won the primary and then the general election, garnering 50 percent of the vote, nearly twice that of his closest rival. In 2004, he was re-elected as an Independent by nearly the same margin. In 2005, Kim announced that he was considering a run for governor as a Democrat, a surprise move that sent politicos into a tizzy. A year later, he withdrew his name from consideration. With the 2010 gubernatorial election several years away, the question: “What about Harry?” will inevitably be asked.
For more than three decades, first as Civil Defense director and now as mayor, Kim has been the calming voice on the radio who warns Big Islanders of coming storms, tells them when and where to evacuate, and then lets them know that the coast is clear. “If you heard Harry, you knew that everything was in control,” says Castberg. “And when he became mayor that trust followed him.”
Even though he still speaks in folksy, sometimes broken English, Kim’s voice has become more forceful and focused. His message, which he wraps within the graceful stories about his childhood struggles, is urgent and probably more important than ever: Hawaii is in crisis. We’ve built a home that is unrecognizable, one that is livable for only a few, only the wealthy.
“We are supposedly experiencing an economic boom, a BS word just for those who are making money,” says Kim. “How does it [the boom] affect a clerk’s pay, or a teacher’s pay or anyone in the middle class? We need to do something.”
The message sounds familiar and it is, but Kim adds a twist (and there is always a twist with him): Developers aren’t the Islands’ enemy, they are its salvation.
For Kim, the ultimate litmus test for determining the merits of a development project is simple: Does it make his island a nice place to live? If it improves the quality of life for residents, then it improves the quality of the business environment, especially in an island state that is heavily dependent on the visitor industry.
In other communities, this core concept might be called “sustainable development,” “managed growth” or some other forward-thinking, buzzy term. But for Kim, it is all about being a “nice place” and all that entails. It’s the theme of his administration, defining not only how it encourages developers what to build and where to build it, but how the government zones land, supports businesses, and collects taxes, where it collects them and how it spends the money.
“We made a huge mistake, 20, 30, 40 years ago. We forgot that this is our home. We were held hostage by a way of thinking that said that if it’s good for the economy, it’s good for us, without really measuring the impact that it would have on our lifestyle,” says Kim. “We’ve created a playland for the rich. But what good is your development if it’s surrounded by areas where locals can’t afford to live anymore?”
With talk like that, you would have expected Kim to be straddling a surfboard and staring down the Superferry in Nawiliwili Harbor instead of testifying on its behalf in a Wailuku courtroom. But that’s Harry. He’s studied the issues, met with some of the players, taken a hard look at his island and come to a decision.
Curiously, it is an approach that business people and developers seem to appreciate. Harry Saunders, president of Castle and Cooke Homes Hawaii, met Kim for the first time three years ago. He had come to Hilo to meet with the mayor and show him the plans for Makana Kai, a development of two- and three-bedroom townhomes in Waikoloa Village. The project had been approved by the county years before, so Saunders’ visit was more of a courtesy call then anything else.
Kim sat down with the businessman and listened to him describe his housing project. Starting in the low $300,000s, Makana Kai was designed with local residents in mind. After Saunders was done, Kim shared his concerns about the shortage of affordable housing on his island. People couldn’t live anywhere near where they worked. He asked the businessman for his kokua. What could he do for the island?
“He just asked for help, he didn’t demand it, and it was clear that I wasn’t going to get any special favors if I did,” says Saunders. “But he spoke from the heart, so we wanted to show him that we came to the Big Island to stay, not play.”
Saunders took his plans, which had been 75 percent complete at the time, back to Honolulu and challenged his designers and planners to accommodate the mayor’s request. Several months later, he flew back to Hilo with a new plan that included 49 affordable townhouses, which ranged in price from $165,000 to $259,000. The two men shook hands.
“I think that business people and developers like working with Harry, because it’s just about the issues with him,” says Millie Kim (no relation), a development consultant from Hilo. “He’s not the kind of guy you have to schmooze and take to lunches. In fact, I don’t think the buggah even eats lunch.”
Hilo County Building, late 2000
Newly elected Mayor Harry Kim, 61, calls up Bruce McClure and asks the engineer if he would like to join his administration as the head of the county’s Department of Public Works. Kim knows that McClure is a hard worker and is trustworthy, just the kind of person he needs on his team.
McClure comes in the next day and tells the mayor-elect that he spoke with his wife the night before, and they agreed that he couldn’t devote the amount of hours required to do the job well. He has a 10-year-old daughter and he doesn’t want to miss her growing up.
Kim looks McClure in the eye. “F*#k you, Bruce,” he says. “I’m asking you to take the job for your daughter, so don’t give me that s*#t! I’m giving you a chance to make things better for your daughter, not for you!”
He asks McClure to go home and think about the offer again. McClure agrees. He returns the next day and accepts the job.
On Dec. 4, 2000, at Hilo’s Civic Auditorium, Harry Kim, the Islands’ most atypical politician, gave what was likely the shortest and most apolitical inauguration speech in state history. Clocking in at a little more than two minutes, the speech was simple, sincere and unrehearsed. It wasn’t even written down. The new mayor thanked the people of the island for their trust and said that he would not betray it. “I will work every single day to show you that your vote has not been wasted,” he said.
“What is his vision?” asked Jim Wang, a political science professor, in a Dec. 5, 2000, Honolulu Star-Bulletin article. “I thought today he would say something. [Instead,] absolutely nothing.”
Hilo Town, circa 1957According to UH Hilo economics professor David Hammes, the people got someone with vision and more. In fact, Hammes believes that Kim turned out to be the right leader that was needed at that exact time. The professor points out that the Big Island, more than any other island in the state, is widely diverse geologically, culturally, politically and economically. Those differences generally fall within one side or another of a deep East (Hilo) and West (Kona), Hatfields and McCoys divide, which seems as old as their vastly different landscapes.
In 2000, the Big Island, like the rest of the Islands, was on the verge of a massive economic upswing, with most of the cash pouring onto the Kona side. The Island wasn’t only going to be a lot wealthier, it was going to grow much more complex.
In addition, the Big Island had experienced a series of strong, old-school, Hilo-centric mayors, and backroom deals weren’t only accepted, they were expected. Hammes believes that if voters had chosen another old-boy mayor, the Big Island could have been torn apart. But with Kim, they got a leader who knew every highway and one-lane road on both sides of the island. Kim may have lived in Hilo, but he knew where you lived, too.
“Harry has an almost organic style of leadership, where he doesn’t lead from the front with a sign that says ‘Follow me,’” says Hammes. “He goes to meetings and listens and develops mechanisms in which people can be heard. Even though things may not turn out the way they like, they know they had an opportunity to speak.”
That style of natural leadership came as a surprise to some observers, such as UH Hilo’s Castberg, who had worked with Kim while he was the director of the Civil Defense, a position that called for quick, oftentimes unilateral decision making. But it was Kim’s experience at the agency, which shaped how he leads the Big Island today.
When Kim took over the Civil Defense in 1975, he found a department in total disarray. The island had been hit by both an earthquake and a tsunami that year. Kim quickly realized that the key to a successful system was a strong command and control center. It was the place to which information needed to be sent and from which that information was to be dispersed and responses coordinated.
Building the infrastructure was a hard task in itself. But, according to Kim, the real key to his system, which is the envy of the state, was simple: trust. He had to build a coalition of fellow county, state, federal agencies as well as private landowners and a myriad of other parties. Then he had to convince this diverse group to let him be in charge. He wasn’t going to grandstand or overstep anyone’s authority and embarrass them. He would serve them and collectively they would serve the people.
Says Kim, “We’ve had people from Indonesia, Iran, Kenya and other countries come to examine our system, and they all ask the same question: ‘What authority do you have to do this?’ The answer is, ‘none.’ It’s all about trust. You work every day to get it and then work every day to keep it.”
The offspring of this collaborative model may be the Community Development Plan Program (CDP), part of a complete revision of the County of Hawaii’s General Plan. Approved in 2005 by the County Council, the CDP opens community planning – the goals, policies and standards and their implementation – to the “keepers of the flame,” the wider community itself, which can best address its own economic, energy, housing and environmental issues.
The island was divided into six geographic regions, according to their shared environmental and economic profiles. Each region’s process and timeline for completion vary, but the method generally involves working with a private consulting firm that coordinates extensive interviews, public meetings, and focus and working groups, which eventually results in a document for the community to review. The process is transparent and inclusive, and the completed plan carries the force of law.
In 2006, the County Council imposed a moratorium on land zoning until the completion of all six CDPs.
The CDP process is prototypical of the Kim style of governing, and that may be the problem for some, who view the six-year-old Kim administration as more concerned about aloha than action. “When an executive has to resort to these brokering sessions and conferences, to me that is an indication that something is broken,” says attorney Michael Matsukawa. “We have a representative form of government that has other opportunities for participation. Mayor Kim is a nice guy, but we need to get things done. Hugging a tree and singing ‘Hawaii Aloha,’ they are all over that, because that stuff is easy.”
Matsukawa cites the county’s slow response to such things as the Hokulia development controversy (a five-year land-use dispute in Kealakekua) with creating an atmosphere in which laws, permits and lawful processes are negotiable. He believes Hokulia and several other skirmishes throughout the island were a preview to the Hawaii Superferry dispute.
Could a CDP or something like it have prevented a Superferry battle in the first place? It’s hard to say. But Matsukawa, who served as corporation counsel under former Mayor Lorraine Inouye for two years, does admit that the outreach and transparency of the Kim administration has had tangible, beneficial effects on the island.
“He may not have achieved much, but he turned the battleship around and brought a responsible, inclusive government that people can’t retreat from,” says Matsukawa.
That is exactly what Kim wants and, in the end, may be his greatest legacy.
“From Harry’s standpoint, I’m sure he would like to see an island on which his grand kids are driving the same roads as he did, except that maybe they are three lanes instead of one,” says Hammes. “There will have been significant development, but the place still has the same spirit and feeling as the one he grew up in and remembers.”
In other words, a nice place.
Harry Kim, 18, is riding his bike through town on his way home. As usual, he’s busy, working as many as 18 hours a day at his mother’s business, Keaau Kim Chee. He’s also going to school fulltime, carrying 18 credits at Hilo College.
Life is difficult but it is good. Some day, Harry hopes to become a teacher, even though his high school guidance counselor had to suppress a laugh when he told her of his life’s ambition. “Why don’t you look for a job on the plantation, or join the Army?” she suggested.
He’s not thinking about her, other obstacles or past hardships when he stops his bike at an intersection and looks across the street and sees the storefront of The Nice Barbershop. The old, wooden building could use a new coat of paint, but it really does look like a nice place – small, tidy and homey.
Nice is a special word, but it couldn’t be that easy. Just calling your business nice doesn’t make it so. It probably takes a lot of work. Young Harry thinks Hilo and the rest of his island are nice places to live, and he would like to see them remain that way.
He jumps back on his bike and heads down the road, his future and his island’s future unfolding before him.