Offbeat lawmaker is a true survivor


POSTED: Monday, September 28, 2009

State Rep. Joe Bertram stands out among his straight-laced peers: He's a Hawaii legislator who wears sandals, advocates medical marijuana and same-sex civil unions.

He is also a long-term HIV survivor who's celebrating nearly 25 years with his partner.

In a job where it usually pays to hew to the popular path, the 52-year-old Democrat has also stuck his neck out for a convicted sexual predator.

Somehow, Bertram's brand of earnest, alternative politics has kept him in office since 2006—a former valet and waiter elected to represent some 20,496 people from south Maui, one of the most affluent areas in the state.

Above all, Bertram believes in the right of all people to be as quirky as he is.

“;Some people say their way is the right way, and the other side says, 'We'll decide for ourselves.' I'm always hoping for the other side,”; said Bertram, whose district includes Wailea, Kihei and Makena. “;Whatever it is that puts everything together for you as a person, that should be legal.”;

; Bertram nearly died last summer, when he shrunk to 90 pounds and was ill for about a month, according to his father, Joseph Bertram Sr. His father blamed the sickness on a parasitic disease his son caught while cleaning his cat's litter box. But Bertram faults the powerful drugs he took while hospitalized.

You see, Bertram is also opposed to pharmaceuticals. He refuses to take medicines designed to boost his weakened immune system. Instead, he eats a vegan diet and hopes for the best because he says the drugs are worse than the disease.

“;He's smart, but he doesn't have what I call street smarts,”; Bertram Sr. said. “;I don't know how he'd do on the mainland. They probably couldn't make any sense of him.”;

“;He's a pretty special guy to us,”; said Bertram's mother, Esther.

Bertram's apparent naivete of political correctness got him in trouble last year with Hawaii Republicans, who aired TV and radio ads attacking his in-court defense of a friend convicted of using the Internet to entice a 14-year-old girl into having sex.

Bertram told the judge that the undercover police sting created an “;imaginary crime”; that penalizes people for potential rather than actual behavior.

“;His feeling toward being soft on crime and on his friend's behavior is obviously disturbing to us who love the children,”; said Hawaii Republican Party Chairman Jonah Kaauwai. “;The Democrat Party ... what they believe is becoming more and more apparent, and Bertram is bringing that to the surface.”;

At the time, Democratic Party Chairman Brian Schatz said Bertram doesn't represent the views of the party or Democrats in general. He also noted that the sexual predator law was passed by the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

After Bertram graduated from Baldwin High School in 1975, he traveled across the rest of the country for years before returning to the islands for good in 1989.

During that time, he learned he had HIV when he was trying to give blood. It was also when he met his partner, Albert Morairty, and they were unofficially married in 1985 by a pagan witch in a hot spring in the middle of a snowy field in Breitenbush, Ore.

“;He was raised with a strong tolerance and understanding of different people,”; said Morairty, who says he maintains a platonic relationship with Bertram and doesn't have HIV. “;He believes in his issues, and it's good to see someone speak up for what they believe in.”;

Bertram got his own start in politics as an activist for more walking paths and bike trails in his Maui community.

He unsuccessfully ran for the Maui County Council three times before finally getting elected to the state Legislature in 2006 after Republican Rep. Chris Halford retired. Then he won re-election last year, despite the Republican Party's attack ads.

“;Sometimes I don't think even Joe knows how he got elected,”; said Rep. Tom Brower (D, Waikiki-Ala Moana). “;In many ways he's not calculated, which is very enjoyable, especially for a lot of seasoned legislators. And he can be frustrating at times because maybe he speaks before he thinks.”;