I know I’m going to sound like an old fuddy-duddy — after all, “fuddy-duddy” is something only old fuddy-duddies say — but, doggone it, I miss the political campaigns of yesteryear, when candidates charmed and cajoled voters, rather than relying on heavy-handed smear and fear tactics.
Long before we reached voting age, we kids looked forward to attending campaign rallies with our parents. Except for the County Fair, the Jaycees Carnival and MIL football games, family-friendly nighttime public events were pretty scarce in 1960s Maui. The outdoor rallies featured free food, musical entertainment, door prizes and plenty of play time while the grown-ups listened to rousing speeches. We knew each of the candidates’ names, if not their platforms, because of all the swag we took home — yardsticks and rulers, pencils, matchbooks, and — my favorite — Toshi Ansai’s red, white and blue emery boards.
Before Spark Matsunaga was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1976, he served seven terms in the House of Representatives. In those early years, my mother spoke on his behalf at Democrat Party rallies. When Mom’s turn came to take the stage, I’d leave the game of tag or hide-and-seek to watch. Most of her speeches went over my head; I just loved seeing her at the microphone, wearing her official Sparky garb: a sleek, sleeveless, long white dress emblazoned at the hem with the red-and-blue campaign logo, and a floppy-brimmed white hat with a Matsunaga bumper sticker whapped around the crown. My father and I agreed, she was the classiest speaker at the rallies.
She was far from the most colorful, though. Some of the old-time politicians were expert showmen; none more so than Council Member Joseph E. Bulgo, who was a noted singer and quite a character. He outfitted his auto with a public address system, loudspeaker atop the roof, and would drive through neighborhoods (and in the County Fair parade) urging folks to “vote for Joe Bulgo!”
That was before streetside sign-waving became the standard campaign practice. According to longtime political observers, the late Charles Campbell was the first to employ the strategy in 1968, when he entered the Honolulu City Council races. I can’t say for sure, but I believe Maui candidates followed suit in the mid-1970s.
Of all Maui’s sign-waving candidates over the years, Council Member Tom Morrow might have been the most beloved, and certainly the most memorable. Perched atop his horse, wearing cowboy hat and boots, he greeted motorists on Hana Highway, near the Haleakala Highway intersection. Days after his tragic death in a 1996 plane crash, he won reelection to the East Maui seat.
My favorite sign-waving story comes from a campaign my father managed, for a County Council candidate. Two of the candidate’s supporters, a pair of local women, eagerly volunteered to wave signs on Kahului Beach Road. After setting them up and instructing them to smile and wave at each passing car, my dad’s best friend pulled off the shoulder and headed to his next stop. Glancing in his rearview mirror, he was shocked to see the women flashing the one-finger salute at a motorist. Uncle pulled a U-turn and jumped out of his truck to scold them.
“Ho,” they said, “we wave at them, but that one, he no wave back!”
I think about that incident each time I pass sign-wavers. Having done my share of sweating on the side of the road, I empathize with them. Regardless of the candidate and his or her politics, I respect and applaud the selfless dedication of their supporters. And I smile and wave back.
* Kathy Collins is a radio personality (The Buzz 107.5 FM and KEWE 97.9 FM/1240 AM), storyteller, actress, emcee and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every other Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.