There was a time when Joseph Jerome Harris Jr.'s passion involved only the ocean: to care for what was under it and to ride what was on top of it.
By Tim Ryan
When the sole child of a carpenter and a social worker graduated in 1968 from John Dickinson High School in Delaware's rural Pike Creek Valley, Harris listed his aspiration in the school yearbook as "Marine Biologist."
That dream was spawned by a father who immensely enjoyed fishing with his son, helped pay for his kid's first surfboard used during family outings to the New Jersey shore, and encouraged the boy to explore what was below the ocean's surface.
At Dickinson, six miles from his home in Hockessin, Harris was a member of the track team and Latin Club in his junior and senior years, served as business editor for the school newspaper, the "Patriot," and was in the Pigskin Club as a sophomore -- but he never lost sight of becoming a scientist.
And when Harris makes a decision -- even early on -- it pretty much sticks unless there is a compelling reason to change, say friends and adversaries of the 6-foot, 200-pound-plus man of English, Scottish and Swedish descent.
"I always accepted my interest was in the ocean, that I was going to be a marine biologist," Harris said during an abbreviated interview in his Honolulu Hale office, which followed two weeks of requests.
Harris surfed extensively along the East Coast. With board under arm, he continued the lifestyle first in Hawaii, then California, where he attended universities, and later on Kauai, where he would work as a college teacher, environmental activist and County Councilman.
Soon after arriving in Honolulu as a teenager with less than $100, he walked to Waikiki from his apartment and saw "the biggest, most beautiful waves I had ever imagined," says Harris, now 49.
"I had the time of my life, and I was scared," he recalls. "I never, ever thought I would give (surfing) up."
But the lure of politics eventually replaced the excitement of tube rides.
On Kauai, as councilman and community activist, Harris is remembered as rarely avoiding confrontation on issues he believed in, though some say he also rarely started them. Harris "despised" it when politics prevented important issues from being initiated, one person says.
Harris, seeking another term as mayor against former City Councilman Mufi Hannemann and former mayor Frank Fasi, is described by current and former workers as "a hands-on manager," "micro-manager," "perfectionist," "easily convinced by the last person who grabs his attention" and "fanatic for detail."
Several people who worked for or are currently employed by the city agreed to talk about Harris only if their names were not published. City workers say they would be reprimanded even if they spoke in support of the mayor. People who have worked with Harris on other projects say they fear reprisals to friends or family members working for the city.
Several years ago when he was working on a Fasi campaign, Harris was in charge of setting up sign-waving along a section of Nimitz Highway. According to a fellow campaign worker, Harris staged a rehearsal, sending sign holders out well before pau hana traffic began.
"Then Jeremy drove around the block several times in 5-miles-per-hour increments until he decided how far apart sign holders should be spaced," this campaign worker says. "He drives everybody nuts with his micromanaging and burns a lot of people out."
Harris makes no excuses for his attention to detail. He remembers as a child starting his own newspaper in Ocean City, N.J., suggesting that he may have been more strident about editing than story selection.
"I am a perfectionist," he says. "I strive to get it right; you have to take care of the details if you want the end product to be good."
The Harris family was close and had little money. Every house the family owned was built by father and son, including Harris' own and his parents' house on Kauai. The mayor also built his two-bedroom home on about 15 acres in Kalihi Valley.
Harris learned everything from his father, he says, not having an older brother to lean on.
Always short of cash, when something in the house broke, the family never considered calling in a professional.
"Never, ever," Harris says. "If the washing machine broke, dad and I would spend Saturday fixing it."
Despite a hectic schedule as mayor, Harris still insists on being the home repairman, says Ramona, his wife of 11 years. The couple met while Ramona worked for the city.
While studying at the University of Hawaii, Harris earned a living tutoring kids in physics and science. On Kauai, he worked as a short-order cook in Hanalei.
Harris brought his parents to Kauai from Delaware. The family lived in two tents on the Anini Beach property while dad and son built their home.
One night, a wild bull charged down the mountain.
"Here we were in this tent, and the bull storms all over the property, thrashing lumber everywhere and ripping the tent we weren't in," Harris says. "We climbed up on the floor joist to stay out of its way."
Harris, who was teaching at Kauai Community College, became involved in the island's senior citizens' program, which included a softball team.
"My dad was so poor as a kid he never learned how to play baseball, so I taught him," Harris says. "He became the star first baseman; I was his coach."
About this time, Harris began getting involved in community affairs and started being noticed.
"Politics never remotely entered my mind," Harris says. "I was just concerned about what was happening to the island environmentally."
Then came the Constitutional Convention, with organizers discouraging politicians from becoming involved. Harris saw a chance to make a difference.
"I thought, here's something I can do to make an impact with environmental issues," says Harris, 27 at the time. "Life is so strange; I actually got elected."
And the surfboard was put into dry dock.
A fellow marine biologist with UH's Sea Grant program is not surprised at Harris' political life.
"Some people have an aura about them to take charge of things, and that was always my impression of Jeremy," Bruce Miller says. "He was always hardworking, goal-directed, personable and attended a lot of community meetings on Kauai."
Harris went on to create "a huge" environmental education program for kids, Miller says.
"He always had some kind of reef walk and limu lecture going," Miller says. "He's always been involved in making things work. People do tend to like him. He got things done."
Harris' drive and "boundless energy" is mentioned by friend and foe. But some people charged that Harris and his organization "treat people as objects ... cogs in his wheel."
Former Kauai mayor and County Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura, a Harris friend, remembers his love of diving off Anini Beach, fishing and "anything to do with the ocean."
"There's not much nightlife on Kauai, so the outdoors takes up most of your free time," says Yukimura, who splits her time between Oahu and Kauai.
Yukimura also isn't surprised at Harris' political successes.
"It was hard enough for a young person like me, who grew up there, to break into the old boy's political system," she says. "And here you have this haole guy going for it. That's a pretty audacious thing to do."
Harris is a "tireless campaigner" who is "smart and articulate," Yukimura says.
The boyish-looking Harris "uses conflict to his advantage," she says. "Sometimes he wanted to be involved in controversy because it helped make the issues very clear. He ended up being elected as a mechanism for change and didn't work with a lot of arrogance."
Harris is not only a leader at the office, but also at home.
"He's definitely boss at home," said Ramona, who talked while sharing a chair with her five-month-old puppy, Bear. "But he does listen. He kept saying we couldn't have another animal, and he ended up getting Bear for my birthday."
The couple, who have no children, have a menagerie that includes a golden retriever, ducks and geese.
"But we want children very much," Harris says.
"I wish it were as simple as a campaign promise," Ramona says.
It is Harris' first marriage. When Ramona, 47, was questioned, Harris shook his head at a reporter, ending any response. Ramona, who has been married before, has no children.
Harris moved to Honolulu after losing the Kauai mayoral race and was offered a job by Honolulu's then-managing director, Andy Anderson. Yukimura was not surprised that Harris left the Garden Isle.
"Many of us felt Kauai had gotten too small for Jeremy," she says. "He had gotten a taste for politics, and I think he saw he had a gift, so he pursued it."
Yukimura understands why someone wants to be mayor.
"You want to get things done; that's why I did it," she says. "Jeremy wants to get things done; he wanted to be leader."
"The joy of the job is that you get to see accomplishments," he says. "When I was teacher all those years, you hope you're making an impact, but you never really know if what you've taught has changed their perspective."
Though Ramona no longer works outside the home -- she is helping with her husband's re-election campaign -- the couple enjoy visiting city job sites to see how projects are progressing.
"You know how people always look through those spaces in fences where there's construction going on?" she says. "Now I'm on the inside looking."
Friends describe Harris as a private man but "not a recluse." His 14-hour days prevent a lot of socializing outside of city business. The Harrises and managing director Ben Lee and his wife celebrate their birthdays together with a "no city business" policy -- initiated by the wives -- during the evening, Ramona said.
Harris prefers to talk about his current life rather than his childhood or high-school years. Both his parents are deceased, a memory that creates noticeable sadness in his voice.
His mother, an avid gardener on Kauai, became ill before her husband, though the diagnosis of cancer wasn't made for years.
During a routine doctor's visit for his father's diabetes, the physician made a fatal discovery following a chest X-ray.
"That's when they found the cancer in dad," Harris says. "One lung was completely gone and half the other."
Harris didn't tell his 79-year-old father, because he "always worried about his health.
"Three days later, he died in my arms," Harris says.
Cancer in his mother reached the critical stage while he was elected mayor in 1994, and she was living in the couple's Kalihi Valley home. Despite treatment, her condition deteriorated.
During his 1996 re-election campaign, his mom, then 79, fell. At the emergency room, a chest x-ray revealed lung cancer.
"She suffered with it another 10 months; it was terrible and painful," said Harris. She died one month after her son's re-election.
Harris is more comfortable these days in dark slacks, shoes and socks and a conservative aloha shirt than baggies and slippers.
"I do miss surfing ... when I think about it," he says. "But there's so little time anymore."
There are parks to build, campaign luncheons to attend, council people with whom to do battle.
"I can't stand it when people don't take pride in their work, or when politics interferes with a goal," he says.
Born Dec. 7, 1950, in Wilmington, Del.; only child
1968: graduated from John Dickinson High School in Wilmington
June 17, 1989: Married Ramona Sachiko Akui; no children
Residence: Kalihi Valley
EDUCATIONUniversity of Hawaii: Two undergraduate degrees in biology
University of California at Irvine: Master's degree in population and environmental biology, specializing in urban ecosystems
PROFESSIONALInstructor, Kauai Community College
University of Hawaii Sea Grant Advisory Service
On Kauai, taught oceanography, conducted reef walks and classes in marine conservation and Hawaiiana for youngsters
POLITICAL1978: Delegate to the Constitutional Convention
Elected to Kauai County Council at age 29, serving two terms; became council chairman
1985: Joined Honolulu government as an executive assistant to Mayor Frank Fasi; eventually promoted to deputy managing director, then managing director
1994: Became acting mayor when Mayor Frank Fasi resigned to run for governor
1994: Elected mayor in special election
1996: Re-elected for a 4-year term as mayor