Waihee: ‘We are too splintered’

Former governor calls for unity; backs Ige

Former Gov. John Waihee speaks recently during the second installment of the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center’s Leadership Series at the Kahili Golf Course’s Nahele Room in Waikapu. -- The Maui News / BRIAN PERRY photo

WAIKAPU — Former Gov. John Waihee came to Maui recently to speak of leadership and to honor the legacy of nisei veterans of World War II, but he also brought a call for unity in a time of increasing divisiveness.

“The biggest problem is that we are too splintered,” he said, serving as keynote speaker for about 100 people attending the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center’s Leadership Series at the Kahili Golf Course’s Nahele Room. “Hawaiians go this way. Somebody else goes that way. We go all kinds of ways. Guess what? One of the challenges of the political future is putting things back together, to understand, to have a political philosophy that includes every one of us, and at the same time gives us justice where justice is due.”

The first Native Hawaiian elected governor of a state, Waihee served as Hawaii’s fourth governor from 1986 to 1994. He was a delegate to the 1978 Hawaii State Constitutional Convention, where he was instrumental in the creation of the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs and with the adoption of the Hawaiian as the official language of the state.

His comments about unity come as the Hawaii Democratic Party undergoes a bruising primary contest with U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa and former state Sen. Clayton Hee challenging Gov. David Ige’s re-election.

Later, in an interview with The Maui News, Waihee explained why he’s supporting Ige’s re-election and would prefer that Hanabusa remain in Congress.

In a phone interview Monday, Waihee told The Maui News he had supported former Gov. Neil Abercrombie for re-election in 2014. Ige unseated Abercrombie, and now that Ige is seeking re-election, Waihee is backing him.

“As leaders of the Democratic Party, I don’t believe we should be changing horses in the middle of the stream,” he said, adding that a sitting governor should be retained unless he’s “actually doing something detrimental.”

The governor’s job is to represent all the people, Waihee said, and part of the job is that everyone won’t agree with everything a governor does.

“I want a governor who listens and makes decisions,” he said.

Waihee said he asks himself about Ige: “What is it that he did that’s so bad that we would encourage opposition to him?”

“I don’t see anything,” he said. “I look at the job David’s doing, and it’s a pretty good one.”

Waihee pointed out that Hawaii has record low unemployment, schools are improving and classrooms are getting cooler with the installation of air conditioning.

“What is the criticism?” he asked. “That David Ige is not loud and noisy?

“I’m a lawyer, and we are trained to make noise. It’s our business to say things,” he said. But “David’s an engineer. His training and predilection is to build stuff. . . . He moves one piece at a time. He’s a careful guy.

“In my opinion, he’s a very straightforward, honest guy,” he said.

Reflecting on the Jan. 13 false alarm of an incoming ballistic missile, Waihee said people have suggested that because it took the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency 38 minutes to declare there was no imminent threat that Ige did not demonstrate leadership.

“I beg to differ,” he said.

The only politician in the state charged with ensuring that the lives of citizens were safe is the governor, and, of his critics, “none of them is in charge with our kids’ lives,” he said, maintaining it was necessary to be absolutely certain that people were safe.

“When life-or-death situations occur, it’s better to be safe than sorry,” he said.

Waihee said that if Democrats don’t back a sitting governor who has been “doing the job that was necessary” and “doing it well,” then he worries about a “splintering of the party.”

“We need to find a philosophy that binds us instead of splits us,” he said. “We need to emphasize addition and not subtraction.”

When asked about Congresswoman Hanabusa, Waihee said, “I like her. I campaigned for her in two elections. If she ran before David ran, I probably would be helping her.”

“I really wish and believe in all my heart that it would be very good for Hawaii if she stayed in Congress,” he said. “She has the potential to be great. She’s already a very good congresswoman.”

Looking ahead to midterm congressional elections, Waihee said there’s “a very good chance Democrats could return to power.”

And, if that were to happen, Hawaii would do better to have someone like Hanabusa, with experience and seniority, as opposed to a freshman member of Congress, he said.

“It doesn’t make sense to me (for her) to change positions and run against David Ige,” he said.

When asked about leaders in the Hawaii Legislature who’ve actively supported Hanabusa, Waihee said that’s part of the splintering of the party and factions within it.

“That’s one reason . . . we need to be united by a higher message and a higher cause,” he said.

He said he feels “sad” to see so much invested in Hanabusa in Washington, and, at the moment for the payoff when Democrats could take over, Hawaii would lose her there “for some people to carry out their own political vendettas against a sitting governor” because “they don’t like one or two decisions.”

During a recent visit to Maui, Waihee was the second speaker in the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center’s Leadership Series. (The first was former Gov. George Ariyoshi on Feb. 17.) Future speakers include Ige on June 9 and Abercrombie on Aug. 19.

This year marks 75 years since the formation of the legendary 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and Waihee noted the anniversary while reflecting on the accomplishments of the nisei veterans, who fought prejudice while serving their country.

He recalled attending an event years ago at which Medal of Honor recipients were recognized. A 442nd veteran was called up, “and, we’d all be looking, ‘Who is that?’ . . . And all of a sudden this tiny little guy walked up to pick up his Medal of Honor, and he was so much shorter and unassuming than anybody in the room. You saw that, and you have to be amazed at what these people did when they volunteered to help their country.”

Waihee agreed with many, including Ariyoshi, who say the second-generation Japanese-Americans who fought in World War II were inspired by the values they learned growing up. Values such as loyalty and honor.

“But I would suggest to you that partly why they did what they did was because they were living here in Hawaii,” Waihee told his audience.

“Old Hawaiians believe we don’t own the islands, they own us,” he said, explaining that anyone who lives in the islands for any length of time comes to appreciate the lack of space and finite resources.

“If you don’t like your neighbor, you have no choice,” he said. “We can’t just leave and go to another part of the continent.

“In Hawaii, your neighbor is your neighbor, and if you waste something you lose it forever.”

When the nisei soldiers came home, “they wanted to build something special,” he said. “They called themselves ‘local.’ ‘We are all local boys. We may be different, but we all the same because we have all been influenced by the islands.’ ”

Waihee said the nisei veterans who had experienced discrimination also wanted justice.

“They did not want to put up with the negative things that were going on,” he said. “They were not second-class citizens. They were not here to build Japan but to build Hawaii.

“They were fighting for their home, and their home was Hawaii and not somewhere else,” he said.

He reminded members of the audience of the reforms brought to Hawaii by the veterans, including universal workers’ compensation, medical insurance and education.

Waihee said that while he has been credited with leading the creation of OHA during the 1978 Constitutional Convention, it was the late former U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, also a 442nd veteran, who agreed to make phone calls to all 101 delegates because he was convinced that the creation of OHA was necessary for the future of Hawaii. He said Inouye’s support was important in paving the way for OHA’s birth.

The people of Hawaii are unified by the aloha spirit, the foundation of being “local,” Waihee said.

He urged people to visit the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center to see the stories of the heroes there.

“Then ask yourself: ‘What are you going to do to make this the Hawaii that we all love, a place where the land can love us and we can love it back?’ ”

* Brian Perry can be reached at bperry@mauinews.com.