The Harris legacy

While the mayor characterizes
his tenure as the renaissance
of Honolulu, critics
question the costs

Jeremy Harris says he probably won't run for public office again after serving 10 years in what he calls the best job in the world -- Honolulu mayor.

A quarter-century story

A timeline of Jeremy Harris' career:

1979: Harris is elected to the Kauai County Council and serves as chairman.
Harris loses the Kauai Democratic mayoral primary and becomes executive assistant to Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi.
1985: Harris becomes managing director after D.G. "Andy" Anderson resigns to run for governor.
1994: Harris is sworn in as acting mayor after Fasi resigns his seat to run for governor. Later that year, Harris is elected mayor, defeating Arnold Morgado, Ann Kobayashi and Gary Gill in a special election.
1996: Harris beats Morgado to win re-election for mayor.
2000: He defeats then-Councilman Mufi Hannemann's bid for his seat.
2002: Harris decides against running for governor.
2004: He leaves office at the end of the year because of term limits.

"It's been a wonderful experience, the most incredible opportunity that anyone can be given to make a difference," Harris said. "But it is also the most all-encompassing -- it is your whole life, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. ... There is no personal life, there is no family life, it is all the city."

As Harris prepares to leave office a week from today, he and others talked about what his legacy might be.

The price of beauty

"It's far more than just sidewalks and sewers. It's all about building neighborhoods for people to live in, and you have to look at what makes for a good quality of life," Harris said.

The mayor is credited with making the city a better place to live and visit, through projects such as beautifying Waikiki, Chinatown upgrades, Hanauma Bay improvements, Central Oahu soccer and softball fields, canoe halau, swimming pools and skateboard parks.

But critics say those projects came at a cost.

"He didn't do the infrastructure improvements at the same time that he did the revitalization of glamour projects, and we're going to pay a price for it," said Mayor-elect Mufi Hannemann.

Harris is most proud of the $50 million in construction projects that improved "third-world" conditions in Waikiki -- sprucing up Kalakaua Avenue, expanding Kuhio Beach, doing beautification and transportation projects along Kuhio Avenue and Ala Wai Boulevard, erecting a new Kapiolani Park bandstand and beginning restoration of the Waikiki Natatorium.

Harris said that sprucing up Waikiki helped draw more tourists to Hawaii, lure more locals into the tourist mecca and give area hotels and businesses incentives to invest in improvements. The more investment dollars that pour into Waikiki, the more tax revenues are generated for the city, Harris contends.

"Waikiki was a model for what not to do," he said. "Now it's just the opposite -- we're asked to give speeches about Waikiki as an example of visitor industry revitalization."

"The city's definitely a more beautiful place now because of Jeremy Harris," said Councilman Gary Okino. "If you had another mayor, you probably wouldn't have this nice-looking city, and that's important, too. But at what cost? That's the problem."

Harris describes the period of capital rejuvenation during his tenure as the renaissance of Honolulu -- hence the name of the book he recently unveiled. The book, like some of his other projects, is being criticized as a waste of taxpayer money.

Harris said he is not averse to adversity.

"Every one of those things has been a huge battle -- many of them ending up in court, many of them with me being sued to try to stop the project. And was it worth it? Yeah, it was worth it a hundredfold," Harris said. "The truth is, nothing worthwhile is accomplished without hardship and struggle.... Even if it was going to be controversial or unpopular, I was going to do what I thought in my heart was the right thing to do."

Jeff Mikulina, Sierra Club of Hawaii director, said that Harris has a way of stating his vision so that it resonates with people.

"He is terribly enjoyable to listen to when the mayor talks about his vision," Mikulina said. "But when it came to execution, there were areas that definitely could have been improved."

Mikulina said he butted heads with the Harris administration on land-use issues because he felt the administration could have done more to stop urban sprawl in central Oahu.

Harris said his administration has laid the groundwork to reverse years of planning that encourages urban sprawl.

Mayor Harris smiled as he reviewed some of his accomplishments last week during two terms as Honolulu mayor.

Fiscal 'tricks'

In a lot of ways, Harris said, he's leaving the city in better fiscal shape than when he got there.

City spending is growing at a slower rate, the size of government has shrunk with fewer employees, and bond agencies have raised the city's credit rating, Harris said.

What got in the way, critics say, is Harris' drive to become governor. Harris was considered to be the front-runner in the 2002 governor's race, but announced that he wasn't going to seek the Democratic nomination after all.

Okino said Harris used "tricks" such as selling city properties, tapping vacant positions and debt refinancing to balance the budget. "He's managed it so well that he's used up all of these tricks, so how is the next administration going to balance the budget?"

Harris' run for governor might have kept him from raising revenue through incremental fee or tax hikes, critics said.

But Harris said his gubernatorial aspirations had nothing to do with his decisions as mayor.

"People will be surprised to know that all this ambition to be governor was largely manufactured. I certainly had considered running for governor, and probably would have if I thought I could've won," Harris said. "But the reality is I don't have an underlying, driving ambition to be governor. I think the best job in the world is being mayor."

Changing government

In 1998, Harris launched his plan to restructure and streamline city government to make it more customer-friendly and more efficient. He combined the functions of previously separate departments under one roof.

But there's talk now of undoing some of that reorganization.

"It was sold to the Council that it was going to consolidate services without reducing efficiency. In fact, it was going to create greater efficiency; we were going to reap tremendous cost savings," said Hannemann, who was the Council chairman in 1998.

Hannemann said the cost savings never occurred, and he will reverse some of the changes through executive orders after he is sworn in next Sunday.

Okino, who also believes the reorganization has not worked, said he would like the Charter Commission to take a look at undoing some of it.

Harris said, "We should always be looking for ways to modify the organization of the city, but if the approach were to go back to the old way, that would be a disaster of colossal proportions."

Campaign investigation

It's not yet known how an ongoing campaign finance investigation will play into Harris' legacy.

The probe into illegal campaign donations and other campaign-related wrongdoing resulted in dozens of no-contest pleas from local engineers, architects and other city contractors.

Harris said the investigation was all politics, and he believes it won't leave a lasting mark.

"I think when all is said and done, people will remember what was accomplished, and they will see at the end of the day that none of my people were involved in any wrongdoing, and that will be forgotten," Harris said.

Others disagree.

"Jeremy was a very prodigious fund-raiser, a skillful politician -- but once again I think ambition got the better of him that he was so anxious to raise so much money so quickly that perhaps he forgot some of the details," said City Councilman Charles Djou.

Political scientist Neal Milner is not so sure. If the investigation gets closer to Harris, then it may taint his legacy, he said. But political scandals have a way of appearing more significant at the time they occur than down the line, and history has a way of putting such issues into perspective, he said. As an example, he pointed to former President Bill Clinton's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Getting along

When Harris was elected in 1994, it was hoped that he would have a better relationship with the City Council than his predecessor. And for a while that was the case.

Harris said the toughest time for him came when there was a change on the City Council in early 2002. The configuration of a City Council that he had been friendly with -- and got things done with -- was suddenly overthrown.

"Virtually everything we tried to do was stopped. There was a terrible budget session -- I mean it was dreadful. It went from a very satisfying time of accomplishment and people working together to a very combative time where virtually everything we tried to do, somebody was throwing a roadblock," he said.

Harris said he didn't respond because he thought the public would realize "this was just political hot air ... so the council would whack away, and I didn't get in there and mix it up. And I should have."

His relationship with the Council got worse when a new batch of Council members was elected in the fall of 2002.

"Anytime you have a lame duck chief executive in his final years coupled with ... very new legislators, you're going to find a clash," said Djou, who came in with that class of councilmembers.

This time, Harris fought back, calling news conferences and meeting with newspaper editors.

Harris also blames the media for egging on the conflict between the two branches of government.

"The media abhors cooperation in government, I think. They like to have the combat. It certainly wasn't of their causing, but I think it was encouraged by them," he said.

Future plans

Asked if he's going to run for another office, Harris replied, "No, I don't think so." But after hearing city spokeswoman Carol Costa make a noise, Harris said, "as Carol admonishes me, you never say never."

Milner said he believes that Harris is still a viable candidate for governor for three reasons: He knows how to campaign; he has a political organization; and the Democrats have no viable candidate for governor right now.

Harris is still coy about his plans for the future, though he says they are just about firmed up.

He said he might do a little teaching. "There's a huge need for cities, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, to go through the same kind of renaissance that Honolulu has gone through. And if I can find a way to contribute to that effort, that's what I hope to be able to do."

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