The Chances Of A Gov. Harry Kim

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - August 03, 2005

So hows about Harry?

Harry Kim, I mean. Hows about his chances as the Democratic candidate for governor in 2006?

They’re none too good. At this moment, no Democrat’s chances against Linda Lingle look good. A growing economy, fueled by good visitor numbers and a booming construction industry, make it an uphill battle for any Dem.

The state’s low unemployment rate also helps Lingle. Many of the jobs may be low-paying. But working folks, even if two or three jobs are necessary to make the mortgage payment and buy the groceries, tend not to notice. Work of any kind satisfies.

That said, Kim’s candidacy has to fascinate the political junky. No, it’s gotta fascinate anyone with even a mite of politics in their DNA — for Kim truly qualifies as a legend in his own time.

Kim is the first Korean mayor of an American city. Admittedly, by Hawaii political standards, that’s not much. Hawaii’s provided the first Chinese member of the United States Senate — Hiram Fong; the first Japanese member of the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate — Dan Inouye; the first Japanese woman to serve in the U.S. House — Patsy Mink — and the second — Pat Saiki; the first Hawaiian to serve in the U.S. Senate — Dan Akaka; the first Japanese, Hawaiian, and Filipino state governors — George Ariyoshi, John Waihee, and Ben Cayetano, and so on and so on and so on.

With our ethnic mix … well, that’s what we do.

But Kim carries it a step further. Koreans represent one of the smallest ethnic groups in the state, a mere 3 percent of the population — compared to roughly 24 percent haole, 20 percent Hawaiian, 19 percent Japanese, 15 percent Filipino. In Hawaii politics, where an office-seeker’s ethnic group constitutes his or her political base, Kim starts with a miniscule one.

How Korean is Kim?

He and his mother ran a kim chee factory for almost 40 years. Any other questions?

Kim’s ethnic base may be small, but perhaps no one in the state transcends his ethnic political base better than he. Kim first won the Hawaii County mayoralty in 2000 by … well, by simply filing for the office. Kim faced two far better financed opponents, refused to accept campaign contributions of more than $10, and walked away from the field.

Last year, despite the rigors of four years of governing what seems like two contentious counties — Hilo-centric East Hawaii and Kona-centric West Hawaii, Kim easily won re-election with 63 percent of the vote. Kim owes his popularity to Madam Pele.

From 1976 to 2000, Kim served as Hawaii County Civil Defense director, and from 1983 to this morning Kilauea volcano has been spewing lava from a series of east rift eruptions.

During that period, three Hawaii residential communities suffered damage: Royal Gardens in 1983, Kapaahu in 1984 and Kalapana in 1990. Through all of the eruptions, Kim coordinated the response of police, firefighters and his own civil defense staff. He ordered people evacuated — and told others not to worry. In the process, Harry Kim became a Hawaii island household name — and an honored one.

Household names, particularly heroic ones, usually trump party affiliation and ethnic base. The problem for Democrats would be making Harry Kim a statewide household name.

Kim claims another important advantage: He owns an up-frompoverty, local boy resume of the same type that Jack Burns, George Ariyoshi, John Waihee and Ben Cayetano rode straight into Washington Place.

Both of Kim’s parents emigrated from Korea and struggled with the English language. They lived in a one-bedroom house on a small farm outside Hilo.

His parents had nine children together before Kim’s father died when Harry was 15. To make ends meet, the fatherless Kim family — all of them — spent their evenings weaving lauhala mats for sale. Weekends, they worked all day.

The children attended public schools, for Harry that meant Keaau Elementary, Hilo Union, Hilo High School and Hilo College. A stint in the Army gave Kim GI Bill benefits with which he finished teacher training in Oregon in the mid-’60s. He taught high school for four years, made kim chee, then protected the folks from the fires of the earth.

A great exportable story for a Hawaii politician, but to make it known outside of Hawaii County will require accepting campaign contributions of more than $10.

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