Groups across U.S. hail isles' election of transgender
Iwamoto advocates more school autonomy and promoted student safety and diversity
Kim Coco Iwamoto's successful run for a Board of Education seat is being hailed by transgender groups here and on the mainland, with one organization calling her the top transgender elected official in the nation.
Iwamoto, a 38-year-old civil-rights attorney, beat two former state lawmakers and an incumbent on Tuesday to take an at-large Oahu seat on the board. She joins 13 other members who will oversee the statewide Department of Education and set policies for public schools.
With her win, Iwamoto, who was born on Kauai, reached the highest office ever for an elected transgender, said Denis Dison, of the Victory Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based group that monitors races involving lesbian, gay and transgender candidates.
Currently, Dison said, the only two other elected officials in the United States who are open transgenders are a city alderman in Missouri and a city councilmember in Georgia.
"This would be a first," he said. "It's a pretty rare feat."
Eduardo Hernandez, executive director of the Center, a Hawaii organization that helps lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, said Iwamoto's triumph will make the school board "more representative of the people."
"It's exciting," Hernandez said. "Now transgender kids at schools will have someone they can look up to. She presents a positive role model."
Iwamoto did not immediately return calls seeking comment yesterday. Her parents, Linda Toshiko and Robert Iwamoto Jr., owners of the tour bus company Roberts Hawaii, were traveling in Las Vegas and also could not be reached. In one of Iwamoto's campaign fliers, Robert Iwamoto praised his daughter for "always helping others" and "making a difference."
"As a father, I am proud of all my children when they set goals for themselves that are life-affirming and benefit a greater good," he wrote in a statement yesterday. "I feel that same sense of pride in Kim Coco."
Although her Web site shows that Iwamoto attended both public and private schools -- including Saint Louis School, a Catholic school for boys -- her gender was not mentioned in her campaign or brought up by her challengers.
Board of Education voters rely mostly on name recognition and policies when casting ballots, but Iwamoto's background could have cost her some points if it had been publicized, said Neal Milner, a political scientist at the University of Hawaii.
"It probably would have been a distraction, and it might have hurt her, though it shouldn't have," he said. "It might have made some people nervous. Others could have made it an issue of her trying to keep it secret."
A popular face who often testifies in board meetings, Iwamoto has backed giving schools more autonomy and promoted student safety and diversity as a member of the board's Safe Schools Community Advisory Committee. Among her goals is to become a board advocate in the Legislature.
On Tuesday, Iwamoto edged out former Democratic state legislators Terrance Tom and Brian Yamane as well as incumbent Darwin Ching, who was appointed by Gov. Linda Lingle in August 2005. Other winners were former board member Donna Ikeda; incumbent Karen Knudsen; John Penebacker, a former basketball star; and Eileen Ishihara Clarke, a 63-year-old retired vice principal of Mililani High School.
Board Chairman Randall Yee said yesterday he was pleased with the new group, noting that the transition should be smooth because most of them are familiar with the board. He had predicted Iwamoto's win and welcomed her aboard.
"I expected her to be way up there," Yee said. "Having Kim on the board will provide a very good perspective and viewpoint."