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My Turn

By Burl Burlingame

Saturday, May 1, 1999


No disguise of Senate
vote on Bronster

s WEDNESDAY felt like a watershed day in Hawaii politics, the kind that you'll always remember. It wasn't an arbitrary date, like the millennium; it had a real sense of society folding over, like a hinge, like a chasm that can be jumped only once without going back, like a dark room harshly illuminated by a flare and the things that are scuttling within stay burned and glowing on the retina.

OK, that's about three similes too many. But you rarely get to see legislators at work this clearly.

No matter how much we try to report on what happens at the state Capitol, it's like observing an iceberg and guessing about internal ice fractures.

The real decision-making goes on behind closed doors, and what we eventually see is either so diluted or so distorted that it's difficult to tell which end is up.

Not Wednesday. The state Senate had an issue of overriding public importance and interest that required a simple yes or no vote. It was put up or shut-up time. It couldn't be disguised by folding it into an unrelated bill, it couldn't be nattered away into committee, it couldn't be amended into a lapsed resolution.

Nope. Senators had tears running down their cheeks as they realized the public had a clear, unambiguous view of them voting their conscience -- or rather, lack of conscience. The only comfort to the Senate was that this isn't an election year.

The issue at hand was whether to keep Attorney General Margery Bronster, who had successfully shepherded both an investigation into the Bishop Estate trustees' work ethics and a big-money settlement from tobacco companies.

Both actions will eventually affect Hawaii for the better. Public interest and support for Bronster's work was high.

The Senate, however, decisively bounced Bronster, and for good measure, Earl Anzai, the governor's designated pennypincher, and the only person in the Cabinet who could make Cayetano seem mellow by comparison. Although reasons were hauled out for the dismissal, they all smelled like feeble excuses rather than damnable evidence.

Actions have consequences, and the reason the Legislature seems to be largely inactive is because its members are terrified of the consequences of actually making decisions. Wednesday, though, they revealed themselves as beyond shame, uninterested in the public interest and -- particularly in the persons of Norman Mizuguchi and Marshall Ige -- totems of craven sleaze.

And these are the people elected as our leaders.

Politics is the art of the possible, of getting things done while making as many people happy as possible. That's what a democracy is all about. The people elected to make this happen are supposed to be politically savvy.

Instead, we have folks that are either too naive to perceive the public interest, too stupid to strive for the public good or too arrogant to simply give a damn about the public. Or all the above. Take your pick.

THE consequences of their inactions reach far beyond the tacit toadying to the Bishop Estate trustees that occurred Wednesday. It all has to do with public perception. The vote to boot Bronster may have been highly visible but, to citizens, it was also business as usual.

It's pretty disheartening when public officials cease to care about public needs. The net effect is that citizens begin to believe that nothing will make a difference. Why go to the polls? Legislators will swing into decisive action only on issues that affect their own pockets.

Over the years, this creates a loss of faith in the political process, which, in turn, leads to lower voter turnout. Eventually, you have loss of faith in the entire structure of society, and a fractionalization of public issues. You wind up with leaders elected by less than a majority of citizens, and these politicians are attached, like a flea, to the hindquarters of the special interests that can rustle up the few votes needed to elect them.

This psychological toll -- anomie of the people! -- creates a sense of powerlessness and paralysis in society. Which explains a lot about the way Hawaii has headed in the last decade.

It is said we elect the leaders we deserve. The horror, the horror.


Burl Burlingame is a Star-Bulletin features writer.
My Turn is a periodic column written by
Star-Bulletin staff writers.




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