Talk Story



Her past, present and future

I arrive at the lieutenant governor's office early to find things in transition. Two ceiling lights were burned out, another blinked like a strobe. A 14-foot Christmas tree -- left behind for the new lieutenant governor to decorate -- displaced the sofa.

Compared to the governor's office, the reception room is the same size but more austere. The portraits of past lieutenant governors are black- and-white photos, not oil paintings.

Mazie Hirono greets me in an interior sitting room, impeccably dressed, not a hair out of place. We start the interview:

Gubernatorial candidate Mazie Hirono was still upbeat on election night after the first printout showed Republican Linda Lingle in the lead.

John Flanagan: What have you been up to?

Mazie Hirono: I'm just cleaning out my desk. It's kind of wild. Eight years of accumulated things.

JF: When do you leave?

MH: Our last day is Monday, Dec. 2. They want to transition in, so ... I thought while certain things are still fresh, I'd like to share my perspective on this election, which was a really unusual election in the sense of the unpredictable things that happened.

JF: What were they?

MH: Jeremy Harris -- I think that was the biggest one.

JF: Everybody said switching from the governor's race to the mayor's race and back again hurt your campaign.

MH: I don't think it really mattered very much in the scheme of things.

JF: Why did you lose?

MH: I think there are many factors. The change message was very hard to overcome. What played into that desire for change ... people were abusing their public trust. None of that was me, personally.

Clearly, after 40 years of the Democrats ... it all kind of coalesced. I have no regrets in being the candidate, but things happened that just caused a lot of people to stay home.

There was also a national trend Hawaii couldn't withstand. The winds for movement toward the Republican Party blew all the way across and affected the election here.

From a totally realistic standpoint, there's no question the amount of money Linda (Lingle) spent had a major part in enabling her to win. Look at my campaign. One million dollars -- that was about all we had until the last couple of weeks of the campaign, and we almost did it.

JF: How much did you end up spending?

MH: About $1.5 million.

JF: For both the primary and the general?

MH: Oh, yeah, that was the total -- versus her $5 million.

JF: Did you enjoy being lieutenant governor? (Gov.) Ben (Cayetano) said his eight years as lieutenant governor were the worst of his life.

MH: His style is very different from mine. I managed to get a lot of bills through the Legislature. Our styles are very different, and style really affects outcome.

My style is substantive; his is top-down -- which is not to take anything away from him, because this administration did a lot in tough times, but his style is basically top-down. A lot of times he would propose things and the Legislature would just say, "Forget it, we're not going to do it."

My style is to look for really substantive things to make some changes, such as in the insurance assignments pool. It is very esoteric, workers comp, you know? Everybody's eyeballs fog over.

In pushing for high-tech and some other things, we laid the groundwork and we were well on our way to doing a lot. Sure, a lot of things didn't happen --but my style is so different from Ben's that it's hard for him to understand how I go about doing things.

JF: He's goal-oriented and you're process-oriented?

MH: No, no, no -- not at all. What's the point of the process unless you attain a goal? I'm goal-oriented, but I use the process. He's goal-oriented, but he doesn't use the process. He works much more by announcement. I'm not saying that's wrong. That's just the way he is.

I look at how he does things and he does not like to engage in the process -- even the ERTF (Economic Revitalization Task Force), which is completely turning our economy around, he tried to do that in two days. He's not a process kind of guy.

JF: Linda Lingle got involved as Republican Party chairwoman right after her 1998 loss and began organizing her 2002 campaign. Today, the Democratic Party is in disarray -- there seems to be a leadership vacuum. Is it a vacuum you'd be interested in filling?

MH: I'm giving myself some time. The thing about Linda's becoming the Republican Party head, it was more of a focus on her and what she wanted to do. It's harder to do that with the Democratic Party. The Demo-crats cover a wide range of people. It's much more akin to herding cats.

There's no question the Democratic Party has to revitalize itself, rekindle and become relevant. Both parties are not particularly relevant to the lives of people.

JF: You describe yourself as an idealist, but also a realist.

MH: I'm an idealist because I'm in this business. Come on -- politics! Who wants to run for office? What person in their right mind? Who doesn't want to have a normal life?

For me it's a way of giving back. So, from that standpoint, I'm very idealistic.

JF: Most of the big goals that the Democrats stood for have been reached. The heavy lifting is done. Is there enough idealism left in the Democratic Party to pull things together?

MH: It gets harder when you've increased educational opportunities. You don't see such a huge gulf between the haves and the have-nots -- but it's still there. There are people in our society who have very little, who need help. It's just not as apparent. The numbers are not so many.

It gets a little harder to focus in on the things that need to be done, but what's coming down the pipe are huge issues: health care, Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, health insurance coverage -- huge, huge issues.

JF: We didn't see the "real Mazie" often during the campaign -- the relaxed, informal, funny Mazie. The candidate we saw was more on guard, stiff, formal. Did you get any advice to let your hair down a bit?

MH: I wanted to go there myself, but I also know that politics is an arena where, for me personally, it's cultural. It's just how I do things. I'm just very focused on getting things done. I'm not good at spinning

I got all this advice about how I should "get to the sound bite." I don't like manipulating to make yourself look good. I guess I'm not as pragmatic about politics as I think I am.

I'm pragmatic in terms of what I want to get done, but the media relations and the PR part of things? For cultural and other reasons, I didn't let my hair down the way I wanted to.

There's a tendency -- for women especially and culturally for me -- to be over-prepared. I have to literally get myself away from that, to be looking more at style and how I make my delivery.

JF: George Bush, on the other hand, comes across as being kind of dim -- he never gives you too much information. People who have met and talked with him say he's a bright guy. It's just that he communicates on an informal, relaxed level.

MH: But Al Gore, on the other hand -- I relate to Al in the sense that I think he really knows a lot and he really works on substantive kinds of things. That's where I come from. He's not so good with the sound bites and that.

JF: A policy geek?

MH: In some ways.

Growing up, my political hero was John Kennedy and candidates like him who always seemed relaxed and informal.

I think that's a tremendous quality to have. In the Asian culture there isn't much of a story-telling tradition. It's all about hard work and all that. That's why it was such a challenge for me to run for governor.

JF: Do you ever look at your plan -- all the things you and Matt were going to do in the first 100 days -- and just go, "Phew!" Are you relieved you don't have to pull it off?

MH: No, because I had every intention to. It's stuff that I knew we could do. Both of us had a lot of experience in getting stuff done.

I gave it a good shot and, I tell ya, I'm really proud of the campaign we ran. The challenges, the barriers against my running -- it was awesome.

So, (after I read your interview with Governor Cayetano on Nov. 21) I talked to Ben and I said, "Hey! So, you would have done it differently? Come on!"

I remember his '98 campaign. I mean, he had $5 million. I said, "Ben, don't you remember all those commercials? You'd put one in and then you'd pull it off and put in another one."

JF: What's next?

MH: I'm finishing cleaning up. Then I'm actually going to take a break. I haven't had a break for a long, long time.

JF: You practiced law before you went into the Legislature.

MH: Yes. I'm glad to have that background. (But) I need to be doing something that's more creative because, if I'm going to bust my ass, I want it to be more than being a lawyer and making tons of money. That never motivated me.

I wanted to become a public- interest lawyer. It's too bad there aren't that many places where I can do public-interest law. I'm much more interested in the policy things and making those kinds of changes. But getting back into a law practice, nose to the grindstone, that would not be my first choice.

I expect to be doing something in the public arena. I really do, because that's what gets my juices flowing.

JF: Are you surprised you didn't get more support from the national party? The story was that both parties were focusing their support and money on contestable races. Yours certainly qualified.

MH: The kind of support I would have liked was the get-out-the-vote stuff. I didn't need people from the mainland coming in and telling me how to do the day-to-day campaigning, but the phone calling, the phone banking -- sure. That's practical support that I would have welcomed.

JF: In many ways, wasn't the outcome almost preordained?

MH: I never thought that. I knew it was going to be a challenge. But, to tell the truth, I didn't know until the second printout. Even the Republicans, with all the firepower they had, you can't tell me they thought they had it in the bag.

Nope. So, we ran a hell of a campaign.

JF: The second printout had always been good to Demo-crats.

MH: I put it in a philosophical context. Sure, there are specific things that we've learned, but overall, with what we had, the time we had, and the firepower that they lobbed at us, and a lot of the negative stuff that came out that we really didn't have the money to counteract -- I think it all had an impact.

I didn't even see most of those (Lingle) ads. Cumulatively they fed into the sense of "Let's just vote for somebody else," or "Let's just not vote."

I believe especially that if I had more money, more focus on the get-out-the-vote part, if the unions had come in earlier and really mobilized their people -- we had only six weeks to beat the bushes for their members. It was pretty tough to do.

JF: Will you be back?

MH: I don't intend to go away. I just don't know what exactly I'm going to be doing.

JF: Pat Saiki says timing is everything in politics.

MH: Most of the time when I'm running for office, people are always telling me that the timing is wrong (laughs). Every race I've run, people were telling me, "This is not the time for you to do it." After the fact, if I won, everybody said the timing was great.

But things are never in perfect alignment. You gotta go when you gotta go.

Like running for governor this time -- after Jeremy dropped out and there was no mayor's race -- I had to go, even though I knew how tough it was going to be. It's always been tough. Nobody ever hands you anything. Nobody ever hands me anything -- so what?

JF: Maybe someday they will.

MH: I'd like that! That would be really nice. I'm waiting.

John Flanagan is the Star-Bulletin's contributing editor.
He can be reached at:

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