Changing Hawaii

By Diane Yukihiro Chang

Monday, November 9, 1998

Hawaii’s most
political upset

SO Minnesota has elected a boisterous former professional wrestler, Jesse "The Body" Ventura, to be its next governor. Ho hum, big deal. Hawaii had an even wider jaw-dropper just 10 years ago, one still regarded as the biggest political upset in this state's wacky history.

It happened on the Big Island, when a senior citizen named Bernard Akana -- a retired Helco worker who used to hang around shopping centers and who would run for public office just to see his name on the ballot -- beat incumbent Dante Carpenter in the general election to become the Republican mayor of Hawaii County.

Carpenter had been a productive chief executive, especially when it came to promoting economic growth. He snipped reams of bureaucratic red tape, personally facilitated the building of resort developments like the Hyatt Regency Waikoloa, and was an unrelenting crusader for the promotion of new enterprises in high-tech and agriculture.

But Carpenter needed some lessons in tact. He displayed a brash Cayetano-esque style of management capped by the flippant and highly publicized comment that, if the folks on the Big Island didn't like it, they could vote him out of office.

They ousted the dynamic Democrat by 800 votes. "I don't know that they wanted Bernard as much as, for whatever reasons, they just didn't want Dante," one Big Island attorney said. "And they were so strong in their feelings that they were willing to vote for someone they knew nothing about."

On Nov. 8, 1988, when the first televised printouts showed that Akana was leading Carpenter, two reactions prevailed from Kona to Hilo. Half the people laughed, thinking the TV stations or state elections office had made a stupid mistake; the others were petrified.

"It dawned on me that Bernard Akana was going to be our next mayor and I started to consider the consequences of that," a local banker remembers. "Needless to say, I didn't sleep very well that night."

The next morning, business people from all sectors of industry called each other in a panic -- searching for answers, looking for assurances that this shocker wouldn't impede the economic momentum of the island.

In fact, Akana's rise to power didn't hurt Hawaii County at all. There were actually some silver linings to his election:

Bullet Since he threw no fund-raisers, made no campaign promises, sought no union endorsements and spent only $1,660 in winning the office, he had no political debts to repay.

Bullet Because he admitted knowing nothing about running the county, he surrounded himself with competent people and was open to their input. His selection of cabinet members was dominated by neither Republicans nor Democrats but by technocrats, including four holdovers from the Carpenter administration.

Bullet The newcomer's need for a learning curve led to a "slow growth" philosophy, which gave the Big Island a breather after a period of rapid resort and economic development.

FROM a humanitarian standpoint, winning the mayor' race was also a nice final present for the soft-spoken and unassuming Akana, who just a year after his victory was diagnosed with cancer. When he died in 1990, Lorraine Inouye won the special election to replace him. She was succeeded by current Big Island Mayor Stephen Yamashiro.

So that's the story of one of Hawaii's biggest political upsets. (Sigh) Does anybody else wish we had a lot more of these in this last go-round?

Diane Yukihiro Chang's column runs Monday and Friday.
She can be reached by phone at 525-8607, via e-mail at, or by fax at 523-7863.

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