Capitol View

By Richard Borreca

Wednesday, December 8, 1999

Richard S.H. Wong’s
fall from power

ALL you had to do was watch Richard S.H. Wong walk across the blue-carpeted state Senate floor to know he was at home. He didn't shuffle. If anything, there was a bounce as he went to confront whoever was delaying the Senate's and therefore his business.

It could be a complaining member of the bipartisan coalition he put together to run the Senate for two years, or it could be a dissenting Democrat or Republican, but Wong always acted to rebalance the power structure.

There is a Chinese saying that it is the wise man who can keep three generations under one roof, and if Wong was wise, it was as a coalition builder. The proof of his coalitions was in the number of years he remained as Senate president, an unprecedented 10.

Former Gov. John Waihee and Wong used to be allies in politics. What Waihee would propose in his State of the State address, Wong would handle in the halls of the Legislature.

What neither man acknowledged publicly was that Wong wasn't following executive orders, but executing plans that he had drawn up and suggested to Waihee.

It was that sort of subtle handling of power that prompted Waihee to say that when Wong retired from politics he would be missed not just by the Senate, but by the whole state.

He supported and delivered increased funding for social services. He pushed Waihee to build more low-cost housing and he sponsored some of the state's most progressive gun-control legislation. No one has been able to lead the Senate as well since Wong left.

His skills on the Senate floor, however, did not translate when he claimed his political spoils and was appointed to the Bishop Estate.

There he had the power to run the nation's wealthiest endowment and grab a huge income of more than $850,000 a year.

Wong resigned from the Bishop Estate last week, the latest to fall victim to the disaster that the trustees brought upon themselves.

Wong is a particularly tragic figure because his skills at coalition-building and developing a consensus were used not to reform the estate but to balance the competing powers on the estate's board.

In the end, it was the excesses of one board member, Lokelani Lindsey and the objections of another, Oswald Stender, that brought the estate so much public protest.

THE estate's problems had been documented for years, but it wasn't until Lindsey's excesses and Stender's proddings pushed five respected leaders to publicly complain that the state investigated.

Again Wong misread his job, deciding to defend the board and the status quo instead of leading the reform of the Bishop Estate.

In the Senate he had learned the skills of survival, but they did not translate to the wider forum of public opinion, federal oversight and a state administration no longer willing to play ball with the estate.

Now those connected with the tainted trustees have become a festering sore. Former political all-star Milton Holt and Bishop Estate employee is in federal prison.

Sen. Marshall Ige is under investigation for campaign fund-raising linked to the trustees.

A state judge ordered Lindsey off the board. Another trustee, Gerard Jervis, resigned in disgrace. The only one left is former House Speaker Henry Peters, who stubbornly clings to his position.

And Richard S.H. Wong walks slowly to spend his days at a mid-town athletic club.

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Richard Borreca reports on Hawaii's politics every Wednesday.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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