From Food Stamps To Congress?

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - May 31, 2006

“The country is crying out for leadership,” says City Councilman Nestor Garcia. “It needs elected officials who are willing to risk their political careers to do the right thing.”

Garcia feels that he is just such a risk-taker.

“When I was in the state House of Representatives, I was one of only 14 members who voted for same-sex marriage,” he says. “It bothered me when life partners couldn’t see each other at the deathbed - or receive death benefits. All Americans should enjoy the same rights.

“My last year in the Legislature - 2002 - I presided over the legislation in the House that would allow first-time, non-violent drug offenders to go straight into rehabilitation rather than to prison. That wasn’t a popular position with many politicians; they feared they’d be accused of being soft on crime.

“As a councilman, I was the point of the spear in pushing to raise the state excise tax to fund a mass transit system. It’s critical to moving goods and services throughout the state that Honolulu have a smooth, efficient transportation flow. Everyone from Hilo to Hanalei benefits from that.”

Garcia’s betting that his leadership on such controversial issues will help him stand out in the crowded field of Democratic candidates in Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District race.

But there’s something else that distinguishes him. “My father was in the Army, and he went to Vietnam in 1966,” Garcia remembers. “Subsequently he and my mother divorced.” Winifred Garcia moved Nestor and his younger brothers in with her mother in Kaneohe, then she moved them to Waipahu. She received no child support.

“I’m a Waipahu boy,” says Garcia, “Waipahu High School, class of 1975. My mom worked at National Mortgage, at GEMS in Waipahu, at Watamulls. She was a waitress - whatever she could find to support us.

“At times, we were on welfare; we received food stamps. That wasn’t easy. I’d do the shopping for my mother and hope none of my classmates were around when I had to pay for the groceries with food stamps.

“But I understand firsthand what government can do to help, how important it is to the survival of people temporarily in need. I helped my mother with everything - cleaning, shopping, washing clothes, yard work, ironing - but I was the proudest guy in the world the day I was hired at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor. I was 15 years old, and I could finally give my mother a paycheck.”

Grants, work-study money, and a year working at the Federal Building within the local office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development helped Garcia through the University of Hawaii. Then there was a part-time job that launched a career.

“I was majoring in journalism at the university, and the department secretary told me one day that KHON had called asking if we had anyone interested in an office assistant’s job,” says Garcia. “That was my start in television - in 1978.”

Garcia graduated from Manoa in 1980 and worked his way up at KHON to become an on-camera reporter, one of the few male Filipinos in such a position in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. In 1991 he received a call from Sen. Dan Inouye, offering him a job as press secretary. Garcia and wife Karen packed up daughters Lindsey and Cara and moved to Washington, D.C.

They were back two years later, and in 1994 Garcia ran and won an open state House seat from Waipahu. In 2002, he moved over to Honolulu Hale, winning a two-year term on the City Council.

Garcia won a full four-year term in 2004 and will not have to resign his Council seat to run for Congress. He will have to share the Filipino vote, however, with state Sen. Ron Menor.

Garcia bridles at the suggestion. “After 100 years in Hawaii, I think Filipinos have matured enough to want two candidates in a race,” he says. “A lot of issues in this election transcend race. I want people to listen to me. We gotta get serious about what’s happening: in Iraq, in our need to secure sources of oil, in regard to global warming, alternative energy development.

“I want to appeal to Filipinos, Hawaiians, locals, people not born in Hawaii, people in every part of the 2nd District. I don’t want to be the Filipino candidate; I want to be the 2nd District Congressional candidate who happens to be Filipino.”

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