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Friday, October 20, 2000

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Mayoral hopeful Keiko Bonk mimics a life-size
cutout of herself, outside her campaign headquarters
in downtown Hilo.

began early
in Bonk family

The Green Party candidate
urges a balance of economic
and environmental needs

By Rod Thompson

HILO -- In 1991, Hawaii-born musician and artist Keiko Bonk, tired and saddened by the AIDS-related deaths of several friends in New York, came home to Hawaii after 15 years' absence.

Within a week her parents, Bill and Fumie, long active in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, told her Hawaii's open government laws were under attack.

Even as a teenager, Bonk had lobbied to control development and to open government. "I come back. The same things are happening," she says.

Disillusioned with the Democrats, she joined the new Hawaii Green Party and won a seat on the Hawaii County Council in 1992, which made her the highest-ranking elected Green in the nation.

Now she's running for Big Island mayor, her second try for the post, saying she wants to end cronyism and the influence of money in government and to build a society where economic and environmental needs are in balance.



Meet the candidate

Bullet Name: Keiko Bonk
Bullet Born: July 13, 1954, Honolulu
Bullet Residence: Hilo
Bullet Family: Husband, Michael Christopher
Bullet Education: Hilo High School, 1972; University of Hawaii-Manoa, B.F.A., 1976; Hunter College (New York), M.F.A., 1982
Bullet Professional: Art teacher, Berkeley, Calif., 1978-1980; art gallery assistant, New York, 1981-83; singer with rock 'n' roll groups, New York, 1983-1991; artist, more than 60 U.S. and foreign exhibitions, 1981-1998; art lecturer, University of Hawaii-Hilo, 1997-2000
Bullet Political: Hawaii County Council member, Upper Puna-Kau-South Kona district, 1992-1996 (chairperson, 1995-96); Big Island mayoral candidate, 1996, unsuccessful

Her family's background in politics began long before she was born. Her father, from a Polish-German family, remembers when he was 12 in 1936, passing out campaign buttons in New York for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, seen as a savior of the family when the Depression put his father out of work for five years.

Bonk's mother, of Japanese ancestry, remembers her father having to move the family dairy farther and farther toward Koko Head as Honolulu development encroached, finally selling it as anti-Japanese feelings rose with World War II.

William Bonk and Fumie Matsuoka met in New York in a Buddhist student group at Columbia University.

After their marriage, the couple moved to a lighthouse-keeper's cottage at the Big Island's South Point in 1953, where Bill Bonk did archaeological work for Bishop Museum on early Polynesian settlement in Hawaii.

Daughter Keiko was born at Queen's Hospital in 1954, but within a week she and her mother were back at the archaeology digs at South Point.

From 1960-63, the family lived in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, where Bonk's father was a professor. There, the three "hapa-haole" Bonk children encountered racism for the first time. Some of the Illinois children threw stones at them, shouting, "Bombs over Tokyo."

Bonk also remembers sitting on her father's shoulders as presidential candidate John F. Kennedy spoke at the University of Illinois.

On the day Kennedy was shot, the Bonks pulled their children out of school and bought a television so they could watch the news.

Back in Hawaii, eighth-grader Bonk organized a fund-raising dance for Congresswoman Patsy Mink.

"I was going to help her on my own," says Bonk, who raised more than $700.

During a 1970 trip to Washington, D.C., Mink arranged for the 15-year-old Bonk to sit for a moment in the chair of the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Star-Bulletin file photo
Before entering politics, Big Island mayoral
candidate Keiko Bonk was a singer. Here,
she poses with His Master's Voice in 1985.

Meanwhile, her father was trying to save Hawaii's past. He was barely able to squeeze in an archaeological study at Honokohau, North Kona, before the site was blown up to create a harbor.

Bonk joined a group called Save Our Surf, which opposed a breakwater across Kaimu Bay --"So you could have a safe 'swimming pool' for the resort project they wanted," she says.

The breakwater was stopped and the resort proposal was dropped after the bay filled with lava.

Creative output

While Bonk attended the University of Hawaii-Manoa in the early 1970s, protests were under way against the urbanization of agricultural Kalama and Waiahole-Waikane valleys.

"I thought at the time, 'I don't want to see this happen on the Big Island,' " she says.

Bonk married musician Mark Abramson, eventually moved to New York City, and earned a master's degree in fine arts in 1982.

She was the lead singer in several music groups, including the rock 'n' roll band Cosmic Oven. She also exhibited her art in more than 60 exhibits in the 1980s.

Then a friend with AIDS she was caring for died in 1991. "I was exhausted," she says.

A Green on the Council

Back in Hawaii, she discovered the Hawaii County Council trying to put public testimony at the end of meetings, after votes were already taken.

She testified against the idea, then tried to find someone more experienced than herself to run for the Kau seat on the Council.

"I wasn't going to run at all," she says. "I couldn't find anyone else willing to do it."

Elected, she found herself in the minority, denied enough staff to do Council work.

Michael Christopher, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of California at San Diego, hearing about this unusual success by a Green, first sent students to Hawaii to serve as Bonk's staff, then came himself.

Bonk put Christopher on the county payroll, then also fell in love with him, leading to accusations of impropriety.

Bonk, who divorced her husband and married Christopher, countered that Christopher was best qualified for the job.

Comments still float around that he is the power behind her. Christopher responds: "That sounds like the kind of thing insecure guys say when they come up against a woman smarter than them."

Bonk's belief that Republican council members betrayed a promise to her of openness in government led her to align herself with Democratic members in 1995.

In turn, she became council chairperson from 1995-96.

She says she was able to accomplish these reforms:

Bullet Lowering taxes on native forests

Bullet Tax benefits for certain agricultural practices

Bullet Keeping information open to the public

Now, she says, "It's time for a real change. We must end government corruption and build a sustainable society."

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