Thursday, December 30, 2004


Russell Okata

Russell Okata's grass-roots campaigns helped Democrats gain five seats in the state House this year. Above, Okata speaks to delegates during the Democratic National Convention.

Labor leader helped
to put Dems in office

The HGEA head also secured
a big raise for his members

When Democrats gained several legislative seats in last November's election, it reinforced Russell Okata's reputation as a kingmaker in Hawaii politics.

Ten who made a difference

The Star-Bulletin recognizes 10 individuals who have changed Hawaii this year
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As several Democratic House candidates were locked in highly contested races against opponents endorsed by a popular Republican governor, 60-year-old Okata and members of the Hawaii Government Employees Association stepped in with their grass-roots support network that included sign-waving, mailers and political donations.

The campaign by the HGEA and other unions was a factor in the Democrats' efforts to unseat five Republican incumbents in the House, reversing GOP gains during the past elections.

The losses of those House seats will make it more difficult for Gov. Linda Lingle to reject pro-labor measures that are approved by the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

"I would say they played a major role in the elections of a lot of candidates in Hawaii," said state House Speaker Calvin Say.

The election results were among several highlights for the HGEA in 2004.

In March the union secured a new two-year contract when an arbitration panel awarded HGEA members a merit-based pay increase ranging from 5 percent to 9 percent.

Lingle vetoed the pay raise, saying it would cost the state $248 million over five years, but the veto was overridden by the Legislature.

Okata had argued that the Lingle administration provided larger raises for other public-employee unions.

Since 1981 the low-key Okata has served as executive director of HGEA, which represents 24,000 city and state workers and another 19,000 retirees and associate members.

Okata's increased visibility comes as leadership in the local labor scene has been in flux. Longtime Carpenters Union head Walter Kupau died in 1999, while federal criminal investigations have led to the ouster of United Public Workers union boss Gary Rodrigues and ex-Teamster and Unity House official Tony Rutledge.

"He's a great leader," Richard Port, former chairman of the Hawaii Democratic Party, said of Okata. "He represents the workers in the best sort of way."

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