The Tenacious Windward Cowboy
Wednesday - May 24, 2006
Windward Oahu state Sen. Clayton Hee is one-part Chinese, one-part Hawaiian and the rest cowboy.
The Chinese comes from a mid-19th century Chinese immigrant who came to work in Hawaii’s sugar fields. Great-grandfather Hee could wield hammer and saw, found work as a casket maker during Honolulu’s bubonic plague outbreak, and helped build the original Wo Fat Restaurant. Charlie Hee, the senator’s father, worked for 49 years for the Board of Water Supply, “the longest years of service of anyone with the board,” says son Clayton.
The Hawaiian comes from mother Roselani Maa Hee. Her family had its roots on the Island of Hawaii. “I’m half-half,” says Sen. Hee, “and both halves are pure.”
The cowboy comes from small-kid time. Hee’s father exercised horses at the old Dillingham Stables at Kapiolani Park, and young Clayton grew to love them. “I think horses are in somebody,” says Hee. They’re certainly in him. He wears cowboy boots, has owned as many as five horses and a rodeo business, and has been rodeoing himself since his college days.
Hee, like four of his Senate colleagues, would like to fill the 2nd District Congressional seat being vacated by Ed Case. “I want a voice in Congress that says that the United States should get out of Iraq,” says Hee, “a voice that says No Child Left Behind isn’t a cookie-cutter fit for our diverse population, many of whom are immigrants. I want the challenge of making Hawaii a more prominent state in Washington, D.C.”
At age 53, Hee has held public office most of his adult life. After attending Kamehameha School and the University of Hawaii, Hee went to Molokai to teach school. In 1982 he ran for the state House of Representatives and won in a canoe district that included Molokai, Lanai, and Lahaina on Maui.
“My district included an island with the highest number of welfare recipients per capita in the state - and the most union households: ILWU, HGEA, HSTA, UPW,” says Hee.
In 1984, back on Oahu, Hee won a Senate seat on the Windward side. A divorce and a spirited Republican challenge resulted in Hee’s defeat four years later (Hee’s first wife, educator Lyla Berg, currently serves in the state House of Representatives. They had a son who is now a student at Princeton University).
In 1990, Hee was elected a trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a position he held until 2002. “I represented a distinctly lower-income, higher-incarcerated, lower- educated, landless constituency of native Hawaiians,” says Hee. During a tumultuous decade for OHA, Hee served a controversial term as chair of the trustees.
“It was a tough period,” he admits, “but exciting. When I became a trustee in 1990, OHA had $19 million. I was involved in working out the first settlement with the state in 1992. In one day, OHA went from $19 million to $150 million. After that, no one could ever use the excuse that OHA didn’t have enough money to help Hawaiians.”
Hee departed OHA to run for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor in 2002; he lost to Matt Matsunaga, one of the contenders for the 2nd Congressional District seat this year. In 2004, Hee ran once again for the state Senate, the same seat he had lost in 1988. He won it back. His Kaneohe to Kahuku district sits entirely in the 2nd Congressional.
“Every office I’ve held and all my life has been spent as a country boy in the 2nd Congressional District,” Hee boasts.
Hee has a reputation, not unlike that of longtime political friends Ben Cayetano and Neil Abercrombie, for bluntness and a quick temper. “I’m straight-forward,” Hee admits. “If someone asks me a question, they ought to prepare themselves for an answer. It may not be the answer they want to hear, but it’ll be an answer.
“For example, ask my opponents who they’re supporting for the U.S. Senate, and they’ll say ‘both’ or ‘either.’ They’ll sugar-coat it or play it safe. But I’ll tell you: I’m supporting the re-election of Sen. Dan Akaka.
“Regarding a temper, I don’t think I have any more of a temper than most. I like to think of myself as focused and passionate, results-oriented and tenacious.”
Hee is married to former television newsperson Lynn Waters. She currently runs a media relations firm. “I help her,” says Hee with a smile, “but she doesn’t pay me.”
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