BOE winner transcends gender issue
All Kim Coco Iwamoto wanted was a chance to fix Hawaii's public schools when she entered the race for a seat on the Board of Education.
But just hours after her general election victory last week, the 38-year-old attorney became known across the country as a role model for transgenders.
For Iwamoto, whose gender orientation was never a big issue in four months of campaigning, the recognition as the nation's top elected transgender official is "an honor." She, however, would rather focus on her educational platform.
"I didn't run as a transgender candidate," she said Friday at the Bishop Museum, where some of her political signs still hung on fences. "I ran as an advocate for education and for every student."
When she is sworn into her first public office next month, Iwamoto, who was born on Kauai and earned a law degree from the University of New Mexico, will join 13 other board members who oversee the state Department of Education and set policies for 285 island schools.
Among her priorities, the civil-rights lawyer said, will be to increase funding for schools and libraries, support new approaches to learning and ensure that all students feel safe on campus. Finally, Iwamoto would like to immerse parents in the curriculum -- an idea that can be traced back to her own childhood.
"My mother was an active person in my education," said Iwamoto, who attended both public and private schools, including the boys-only Saint Louis High School. "She would help us out with excursions, get involved in school fairs and it would really send a clear message to me that learning didn't stop at the schoolyard fence."
Besides the challenge of running against three former Democratic lawmakers and two incumbents, Iwamoto also had to cope with the loss of her mother, Linda Toshiko, in August.
She relied on an aggressive campaign, with hundreds of volunteers distributing fliers around the island, visiting events like the Okinawan Festival, spending weekends at Waikiki's Sunset on the Beach and participating in get-out-the-vote rallies. The most exhausting part, she said, was sign-waving.
"I was very accessible to the community," Iwamoto said. "And I was very humbled and flattered that they would spend the time to talk to me about their concerns and what's working in the school system for them and what they'd like to see more of."
The strategy worked. By election night, her Web site, the only one set up among a field of six candidates vying for three at-large Oahu seats on the board, had logged 200,000 hits. And then there's Iwamoto's catchy middle name "Coco," an invaluable asset in a dispute often decided by name recognition.
For that, Iwamoto thanks her late mother, who went into labor during a party at the famous Coco Palms Hotel, which closed in 1992 after Hurricane Iniki slammed Kauai's east shoreline.
"A lot of people think that 'Coco' is in reference to Coco Chanel," Iwamoto said, mentioning the popular French designer. "But it's really Coco Palms."
In Tuesday's general election, Iwamoto overcame 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. She went to bed at 1:30 a.m. and, by the time she woke up, dozens of media outlets had turned her into a political celebrity, with stories about her feat running below headlines such as "Hawaii Elects Gender-Bender" and "Hawaiian's election make transgender history."
Iwamoto said her victorious run shows that island voters care about issues, not a candidate's gender identity, when casting ballots. And for her, that beats the national attention she is receiving.
"A lot of people know that I went to Saint Louis and a lot of local families realize what that means," she said. "I've never run as anyone else but myself. I am a first-time candidate, so I think it says a lot about the people of Hawaii who'd like to focus on the issues and move education forward."