Capitol View

By Richard Borreca

Wednesday, June 26, 1996

Richard Port's
one-man political telethon

EVERY day Richard Port is on the phone. He starts in the morning, stops at one, only to resume the dialing in the evening. He's calling every one of the 29,000 registered Democrats in the state, a process he estimates will take at least a year.

Knowing that politics is won or lost on the retail level, one sale at a time and having a slow-paced gift of gab, Port, 59, is talking to his state's Democrats about what bothers them.

So far only Hawaii Kai has been completed, but Port says he already is getting impressions about what is happening in Hawaii.

Democrats, like voters and observers all across the state and nation, are becoming increasingly turned off to politicians. Not politics or issues. They are fed up with politicians.

What gripes folks is that they don't feel elected officials are in it to do good.

"I hear that some of our legislators are too self-serving. Some chairpersons, they say, are getting too powerful. They feel there is the appearance that politicians are serving themselves, not the public," Port said.

Port knows this is a real problem because his Democrats are the only game in town. When a voter thinks of a legislator he or she thinks of a Democrat.

If the publics thinks of politicians as bums, by extension the public thinks of Democrats as bums.

"That is at the center of my attempts to reform both the reality and the perceptions of the party," he said.

To combat the problem, Port is trying to open the party.

"At our convention, anyone who requested a committee assignment got their first choice. There was no attempt to squelch resolutions or stifle debate," he said.

While Port says he's open, there is a tension within the party as old-timers who grew to power by attaching themselves to one or two key legislators or to whoever was the incumbent governor are now finding no extra clout within the party.

In the past the Democratic Party was an extension of the governor's clout as he was listed as "the titular head" of the party.

Now Cayetano is a power by himself and Port is seeking to make the party a separate institution.

"We are pushing an agenda that is responsive to the vast majority of citizens, not less government, but more efficient government," he said. As for Cayetano, Port says he is doing just fine.

He is still able to raise campaign funds and he still has influence among Democrats.

IF the party under Port is at arm's length from the governor, it has adopted an "in-your-face" attitude toward the Legislature. Port has no qualms about attacking Democratic legislators he feels could do a better job.

He is also willing to lobby the Legislature in public, as he did this week, asking for action on both no-fault reform and doing away with the legislators' perk-filled retirement plan.

The party's good old boys aren't rushing up to thank Port for all this reform, openness and outspoken independence. In fact, they are plotting to dump him in two years. Already two potential candidates have been mentioned.

But Port isn't worried, because he says after his re-election at the May convention, he isn't planning to run again.

"I think four years is enough," he said.

"This is essentially four years of my life, for what I think of as community service," he said.

Until then, Port continues to dial for Democrats, hoping to make his converts the old fashioned way, one at a time.

Richard Borreca reports on Hawaii's politics on Wednesday. Write him at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, 96802 or send e-mail to

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