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Capitol View

By Richard Borreca

Wednesday, April 5, 2000

Why the HGEA
endorsed Hannemann

IN a world filled with political uncertainty, the Hawaii Government Employees Association played the endorsement game just right.

When the HGEA gave its nod to City Councilman Mufi Hannemann over incumbent Mayor Jeremy Harris, it nicely aligned itself for not one but two elections. The folks who run the state's largest public employee union are a smart, no-nonsense bunch. They don't take risks that will dilute either the power or effectiveness of their union.

The HGEA, unlike most of the other public worker unions, depends on the continuing good will of both the public and the state's political leaders.

Why? Because if the roads aren't fixed by United Public Workers members, if the public school cafeterias are not staffed with UPW workers or the classrooms run by Hawaii State Teachers Association members, we would certainly notice and squawk.

But the HGEA has vast legions of state and county workers who perform jobs that, while they may help state government, are not considered vital and are rarely understood by the public.

They also staff many of the jobs that would be threatened if the state and counties ever got serious about high-technology workplace reform.

So it makes sense for HGEA to be both the leader of the PAC (political action committee) and first in line at the inaugural ball.

When Harris proposed laying off HGEA members during his city reorganization plan, the union and its executive director, Russell Okata, challenged the mayor.

If dumping workers wasn't bad enough in the union's eyes, Harris also wanted to turn union jobs over to private business. Both moves would make a private businessman smile, but the Okata countenance was grim.

Last month Harris found out the results of bucking Okata and his exquisite political connections. The union came out early for Hannemann.

The councilman is a Democrat who toyed with the idea of joining the Republican Party in order to run for Congress this year. He is also closely connected with business in Hawaii, so his name wouldn't be the first to come up as a union-endorsed candidate for mayor.

BUT this year, when the HGEA's clout is threatened in both the state House and Senate and when the union has dropped much of its support of Gov. Ben Cayetano, who is pursuing his own civil-service reform plans, it just makes sense to send a message.

By endorsing Hannemann, the HGEA put incumbents across the state on notice that the union has a long memory and it is not afraid to go against a powerful incumbent.

Although union endorsements probably have more clout in a state- or island-wide race, there are few politicians who would reject an offer of support from the HGEA, with its 23,000 members.

The Harris rejection also puts the union in an interesting position for the 2002 race for governor.

If re-elected, Harris is expected to run for governor, as are Republican Linda Lingle and Democratic Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono. Hirono is generally supportive of the unions and has so far stayed away from Cayetano's efforts to reform civil service and Harris' privatization plans.

So if the union defeats Harris in November it gets a chance in two years to help Hirono, a nice political bank shot in any year.

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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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