Arnold Morgado speaks at the Korean Chamber of Commerce
forum as Mayor Jeremy Harris listens.
Photo by Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
The Honolulu mayors race is the talk of the town. Will voters allow incumbent Jeremy Harris to continue steering the city? Or has challenger Arnold Morgado convinced them that change is needed?
City Hall reporter Gordon Y.K. Pang recently spent full days with the candidates and today presents portraits of both.
He nonchalantly waves to honking drivers. A broken city planter along Hotel Street stops him and he tells a person over the phone that it needs to be fixed.
He strolls onto the construction site of the city's Kekaulike redevelopment project. Opponent Arnold Morgado says these projects should be left to the private business sector when there are more pressing budgetary worries like more police. But for Harris, this project is essential to make Chinatown "a real viable place where people can live, work and shop."
The visit is unannounced and he queries site engineers on everything from the completion date to specifics such as sewer lines, grading and landscaping.
This is what Jeremy Harris does best - putting on a hard hat, stepping into the mud and getting his hands dirty. It's the same Harris who walks into the sewer holes, cleans streams and scrubs graffiti off park walls.
Morgado calls it micromanagement by Harris, a waste of time that should be devoted to more urgent issues. Other detractors call it grandstanding in the tradition of former Mayor Frank Fasi.
But friends like campaign spokesman Chris Parsons, insist it's not an act: Harris is just a hands-on kind of guy who wants to know the details.
"He's a problem-solver. ... He likes to tinker with things and build things and see things take form," said Parsons.
Growing up in Delaware, Harris learned construction from his father, a master carpenter. Years later, when the family moved to Kauai, Harris built their home, then again after moving to Kalihi. Harris says seeing a project from conception to fruition is "the best part about politics."
The experience gave Harris his first taste of politics, and he got elected to the Kauai County Council in 1980.
In government, the results are more easily seen than in most other occupations, he adds. He found a like mind in Ben Lee, now city deputy managing director. Harris entered Fasi's Cabinet as executive assistant in 1984, after losing a bid for Kauai mayor. Lee joined the Fasi team the same year as deputy land use director.
Lee, the best man at Harris' wedding, says he and the mayor share a passion for diving into projects and working out quick results.
"He's not a person that will be idle. He will always be on the move," Lee says.
"It's the working on the vision that really gets him off, not the describing of it to people," Parsons says. "If you look at what he's done, a vision emerges."
Parsons points to Harris' position on a shoreline park at Hawaii Kai's Ka Iwi coast. Harris suggested that if the state could not take over the park, the city could do so by using fees collected at Hanauma Bay Nature Park. "To me, that's a vision," Parsons says.
When all is said and done, Harris says, he wants to be known as the environmental mayor.
Morgado and others, however, point out that Harris' proposed amendments to the Waikiki Special District would add density and unsightliness to the area, not help the environment.
Harris responds:"As mayor and managing director of the city, you have to balance all different interests in order to protect the public well-being and so you have to find ways to take care of the economy, make sure people have jobs, make sure people have homes and at the same time the environment is protected."
Harris says his Waikiki initiatives are not about adding hotel rooms, but allowing developers incentives to rebuild an aging inventory at existing densities while requiring more open space.
In recent weeks, the Harris campaign has put out a new flier detailing Harris' personal background.
Harris has also been reluctant to discuss his mother's terminal illness with cancer. But he has been spending entire afternoons at his Kalihi home caring for her - leaving behind city business and the campaign. Aides say the illness has had a profound effect on the mayor.
Harris says his mother is now on a 24-hour watch and that "our fight is near an end."
An only child whose father died four years ago, Harris says the illness "reminds you what's important in life."
"It puts your priorities in order. Taking care of people is more important than getting votes."
Anyone spending a substantial amount of time this mayoral season with Arnold Morgado, former professional football player, can see he has one trait common to successful athletes - he's focused, one eye always on the goal.
This was apparent at a forum held by the Honolulu Rotary Club this week. It was the third time in 24 hours that Morgado had come face to face with opponent Mayor Jeremy Harris.
The moderator tossed out an offbeat, yet telling question: "What is it you find in your opponent that you like?"
The question brought roars of laughter from the audience. A solemn Morgado, the first to answer, stepped to the podium and barely mustered a smile: "I want his job."
"He's focused; he knows how to concentrate his energies on his objectives in order to get there," says Bill Meheula, his campaign co-chairman and a friend since the two entered Punahou School in seventh grade. "He knows from athletics that in order to achieve a really high goal, it takes a day-to-day kind of effort."
When asked what motivates him, Morgado notes that "the mayor of this city has reduced this campaign to a misinformation campaign."
Morgado says he has constantly encountered "smoke and mirrors" from Harris and his supporters. Each time Morgado brings up a criticism of the mayor's policies, he's been countered by administration arguments that seem to negate his initial points.
Morgado's criticism that the administration has done little to address a shortage in police officers is one such point. He's called for more recruits and facilities to accelerate the process.
An apparently neutral Police Chief Michael Nakamura points out that while he'd like to meet the 300-officer shortfall more quickly, he doesn't want to go too fast because he'd be collecting from a diluted pool of candidates.
Harris has been quoting Nakamura ever since in defending the administration's policy. Morgado believes Nakamura is bowing to the wishes of the administration and notes that the chief says he'd support his plan if salaries can be raised to attract better candidates.
Morgado also believes the real issue, an increase in violent crime, has been obscured by the exchange.
Polls through the Sept. 21 special election showed Morgado trailing Harris badly. The mayor came close to winning it all - he got 49.3 percent when he needed 50 percent plus one vote. Morgado's strong showing rejuvenated the campaign, and the latest polls show him surging and in position to capture his goal.
"Now it's toe to toe, now it's what he says and what I say - on the issues," Morgado said.
Morgado considers himself an underdog, a role he's used to.
Dave Eldredge, his Punahou football coach, recalls Morgado as "the boy from across the tracks." The Morgado family lived on an Ewa plantation then, and the young Morgado worked in the cafeteria to finance his education.
"He came from what most people would say was outside the Punahou family."
Still, Eldredge says, "it didn't take him too long to find out or understand he was just as good as anybody, as good an accomplisher as anybody. He found he fit in very well."
"It comes from the point of pushing the envelope," says Meheula. "Anyone is going to be an underdog if he continues to reach high, and he does. I think that's one of the things he understands more than most people."
Morgado's first taste of politics came when he returned to the University of Hawaii after his football career to get his degree. He and then-coach Dick Tomey got into a publicized debate over the effort to recruit local players.
Morgado says while things have improved, he believes the university can do more to help the scholar-athlete.
"It's a state of mind," Morgado says. He insists that the advertising campaign is not a reference to the fact that Harris was born and raised on the mainland. Instead, as Morgado sees it, it means that a local-style administration would be forthright and not do things for political expediency as the current one has.
The transit issue comes to mind. Morgado continues to be criticized by Harris and his union supporters for voting against the city's $1 billion rail-transit project.
Morgado was one of five who voted against it, but the charge is that he led the effort. Morgado believes the excise tax increase would have bankrupted the city and created an unnecessary burden for low- and middle-income families for a project, he argues, that would not have taken cars off the streets.
Morgado calls himself a "chronic complainer."
He says he got involved in politics "because I wanted to do more than just complain about it; I wanted to affect change."