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Maverick Gill leaves social justice legacy


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POSTED: Friday, June 05, 2009

Crusader for the underdog and willing to take orders from nobody, Tom Gill played crucial roles at the state and federal levels as an agent of reform. Thomas Ponce Gill died Wednesday at the age of 87, and he will be remembered as Hawaii's most iconoclastic figure in advancing the state in the last years as a U.S. territory and in the beginning years of statehood.

Born in Honolulu, Gill was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his service fighting in New Guinea and the Philippines in World War II. After the war, he earned his law degree and quickly became involved as a liberal maverick in Hawaii politics.

Jack Hall's longshoremen's union successfully backed him in 1954 to head Oahu's Democratic county committee over the choice of rising but unmanageable star Jack Burns, but Hall soon found that Gill also would not knuckle under.

Gill served in the Territorial Legislature and was majority Democratic floor leader in the state House for three years after Oahu gained statehood in 1959. He was instrumental in the passage of social, economic and environmental legislation.

Elected in 1962 to the U.S. House, Gill made quick use of what would be his only term. While President John F. Kennedy was cautious about civil-rights legislation, the freshman congressman took an active role in enactment of the landmark Civil Rights Bill of 1964, which banned racial discrimination in schools, public places and employment. He authored a portion of the bill that banned racial discrimination by programs that receive federal financial assistance and was floor manager of the bill when it reached the full House.

Sen. Hubert Humphrey, who managed the bill on the Senate floor, called it “;the greatest piece of social legislation of our generation.”; Kennedy called the Gill provision “;simple justice,”; but he was assassinated before it became law.

After losing to Republican Hiram Fong in his bid for the U.S. Senate in 1964, Gill was appointed by then-Gov. John Burns to head the state Office of Economic Opportunities. Gill was elected lieutenant governor in 1966, against Burns' wishes, and ran unsuccessfully for governor against Burns in 1970 and, in 1974, against George Ariyoshi, who had been Burns' loyal lieutenant governor after Gill's exit.

Gill did not run for public office after that, devoting most of his career to his law practice. Throughout the years, he continued to be an inspiration for every individualist entering politics without being willing to bow to the powers that be.