May 22, 2000


Review & Outlook

Hawaii's Gray Politics

Hawaii is heaven for vacationers, but politically the island paradise is dominated by a one-party machine that would do Tammany Hall proud. The machine is finally being challenged, and is now trying hard to intimidate those who cross it.

The machine was shaken by last year's scandal engulfing the Bishop Estate, the nation's largest charitable trust and the owner of one out of every 12 acres in Hawaii. The trust's sole function was to run a private school for 3,100 native children, but its holdings grew to more than $10 billion. Its trustees earned $1 million a year, and became major players in the affairs of Hawaii's government despite federal laws barring trusts from politics.

Bishop's clout became clear last year after investigators opened a safe belonging to its late government liaison, Namlyn Snow. A sanitized summary of its contents compiled by the state Attorney General shows the estate had 10 teams drafting bills for lawmakers, steering contributions to politicians and investigating critics.

It was the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and not the state that finally forced the estate's five trustees to resign in favor of an interim board last year. Former trustee Henry Peters told "60 Minutes" that the only mistake the estate made was not buying the paper that broke the scandal of the trust's operations. "I think we would have bought the Star-Bulletin, our local newspaper, and at least we would have a chance to have our side of the story told," Mr. Peters said.

The Hawaii media is tame in reporting on government corruption. The only feisty media outlets are KHVH talk show host Rick Hamada and the Pacific Business News. Both have come under fire from Democratic Governor Ben Cayetano and his allies.

Indeed, a number of Cayetano critics have run afoul of the government. Lowell Kalapa of the Tax Foundation was removed from a state tax committee. Ed Medeiros, a gubernatorial opponent who had managed the state's largest flea market on the grounds of a state-owned sports stadium, saw his business taken over by the state. State Senator Sam Slom was hauled before the State Ethics Commission for tweaking the Governor in a press release sent out on his personal stationery.

When the Governor's own Small Business Task Force compiled a report documenting stories of retribution and harassment of business owners by state officials, it was leaked to the Pacific Business News. The Governor's office filed a complaint with the local Media Council and demanded that the paper take out ads and apologize for reporting only a draft report, but eventually the report was issued with only minor changes.

Last month, a series of mediation meetings did nothing to erase the impression that the Governor's complaint is off-base. But the Governor's office still insists that Pacific Business News erred in quoting from a draft. "This complaint looks like an attempt to discredit a reporter who accurately reported this and other stories," says PBN editor Gina Mangieri.

Hawaii is a beautiful land that deserves neither government by intimidation nor the tax and regulatory structure that has left it in the economic doldrums the past eight years, even as the rest of the nation prospered. Luckily, the machine's grip is weakening. Governor Cayetano won re-election with only 51% in 1998, and reform Democrats are becoming bolder in their criticism. Here's hoping that Hawaii can say goodbye to its bamboo-republic status and become a hospitable place not only for tourists but also for independent thinkers.

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