Pearl City coach
reaps criticism for
taking players
to fund-raiser

Onosai Tanuvasa says he took
the boys to Mazie Hirono's
event for the free food

By Gordon Y.K. Pang

A high school football coach and the mayoral campaign of Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono are under fire after Pearl City High School football players attended a fund-raiser and waved signs for her last week.

An angry parent of a player with the Pearl City Chargers varsity football team told the Star-Bulletin that his son was coerced by head coach Onosai Tanuvasa into waving signs at a Hirono fund-raiser at McKinley High School on Friday.

Other candidates for Honolulu mayor also called the students' participation inappro- priate.

Adults asked to volunteer may understand they have a political choice, said former City Councilman Mufi Hannemann, a candidate for mayor.

"But for a lot of these kids, they might want to do it just to please the coach," he said.

Tanuvasa, an acknowledged Hirono supporter, said he only wanted to get some free food for his players and denied asking them to wave signs.

"I know it's not ethical to do it, so why would I do it?" Tanuvasa said, adding that he got written permission from most of the parents and phone OKs from the others.

"It's blown all out of proportion. It all had to do with free food."

The Hirono fund-raiser drew 1,500 people and featured chicken, kalua pork and macaroni salad. About 40 of Tanuvasa's 75 players got on a bus he rented to attend, the coach said.

Later, several of the players decided on their own to wave signs and, in the end, about 22 to 25 ended up on the sidewalk, Tanuvasa said.

Principal Gerald Suyama said he spoke to Tanuvasa yesterday and told him that the free food at political fund-raisers and the sign-waving were against school policy.

"When it comes to political things, we're not going to participate and have kids get involved," Suyama said. "No matter if it's free food or not, we're not going to be doing this."

The school does not want to give the impression that it endorses any one candidate over others, he said.

Suyama noted that Tanuvasa is starting his first year as coach and that he wants outside activities for his players to bond as a team.

Tanuvasa said he has taken his players on outings when he was a Pop Warner coach and an assistant at Pac-Five. He always pays for the bus because he formerly worked in the transportation industry and is able to obtain cheap charters. In this case, the bus cost $80, he said, which came out of his own wallet.

"I'm one of those coaches that just takes the kids any kind of place," Tanuvasa said.

Spokesman Bob Toyofuku said the Hirono campaign staffers did not know in advance that Tanuvasa was bringing his players.

"His intention was probably 'Hey, let's go eat,' but that was not appropriate," Toyofuku said.

The Hirono campaign encourages political participation by youths, he said.

"I don't see anything wrong with a high school student being asked to participate in an activity as an individual just because the person is a high school student," he said.

"But in this situation where the coach is asking the team to attend a political event, I don't think that is appropriate."

Told of Suyama's comments, Toyofuku said, "If it's against school policy, then the campaign would abide by that."

But "our policy," he added, "is it's OK to ask people if they would like to sign-wave on an individual basis."

Others seeking the mayor's office this fall were quick to condemn the sign-waving by the players.

Several said that while they get support from unions or other organizations, a person who waves signs or does other campaign activities does so individually.

Former Mayor Frank Fasi, said that even if the function was voluntary, Tanuvasa was wrong to take the players to the function.

"Kids are going to listen to every word he says if they want to play the game," he said.

Former city Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro said he does not actively seek organizations of any sort to wave signs. As for what happened with the Pearl City players, "I don't think they should bring them out as a class."

Andy Winer, campaign spokesman for Councilman Duke Bainum, said his organization has a database of individuals whom they ask to wave signs and does not rely on organized groups to participate.

Hannemann said, "I think (Tanuvasa) exercised poor judgment. To me, you cross the line when you use the kids. If the kids want to do it, fine. But to me, it doesn't look like it's voluntary."

Said Tanuvasa: "I just got to learn there are certain things that I cannot do that I used to do before. As much as my intentions are good, some people just look at it otherwise."

Both Suyama and Tanuvasa questioned the motive of the parents, noting that the complaints did not go to the principal's office but to the media.

E-mail to City Desk


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