What We Need is Another Tom Gill
Wednesday - April 12, 2006
I’ve been thinking a lot about Tom Gill of late.
“Who the hell is Tom Gill?” you ask.
He’s an 83-year-old lawyer who - as a younger man - helped organized Hawaii’s modern Democratic Party, held a seat in the first state Legislature from 1959 to 1962, represented Hawaii in the United States House of Representatives from 1963 to 1965, established the Office of Economic Opportunity in Hawaii during 1965 and 1966, and served one term as lieutenant governor, 1966 to ‘70.
Gill never won the big ones: a bid for the United States Senate in 1964 and two attempts at the governorship, in 1970 and 1974. In 1986 he tested the waters for a third gubernatorial run, found them cold and - so far as I can discern - never thought about elective office again.
“So why are you thinkin’about him?” you ask. “Sounds like a loser to me.”
First, because they’re holding some festivities marking the opening of the Thomas P. Gill papers at the University of Hawaii library next week. Secondly, because Tom Gill - whatever the results at the polls - was no loser.
Gill stood for things - important things - like civil rights and equal economic opportunity. He warned his fellow citizens about the economic and environmental costs of over-development. He championed a rail mass transit system at a time when we might have been able to afford to build one.
Intellectually, Gill was usually two steps ahead of his colleagues in the profession of politics. That didn’t always sit well with them - or with the voters.
And Gill didn’t fudge his positions. He told you straight up where he stood - often too straight up for his own political good. He was one of the most impolitic politicians Hawaii has ever seen.
That did not, however, make Gill a loser.
On the contrary. Gill was - and is - a winner, no matter his U.S. Senate and gubernatorial losses.
Our contemporary political landscape, both locally and nationally, is strewn with losers. Many of them, however, have never lost an election. But their political literacy doesn’t go beyond their ability to read poll numbers. Their skills are those of the press agent, and they are less interested in solving problems than they are in owning an issue.
They don’t govern much either; they just stay in office.
Tom Gill would never have been content with that - thus his haste to leave a safe seat in the U.S. House in 1964 to challenge Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Hiram Fong - and six years later, the relish with which he left the lieutenant governor-ship to run against incumbent Gov. John Burns, a fellow Democrat.
Much of the political drama of the 1960s revolved around the Gill-Burns contest for control of the Democratic Party. Neither could stomach the other.
Yet, it’s always seemed to me, they were so very much alike. At times Burns could be even more impolitic than Gill. Both lacked the political arts of schmoozing and small talk. Neither did much with a speech, nor did either concern himself with polls or publicity.
Gill lost as many elections as he won; he finished with three wins, three losses. Burns finished a winner - just; he was five and four over the course of his political career.
But both Gill and Burns, like so many of the post-war generation in Hawaii, took governing seriously. It was far more important than pandering to the voters.
Over the next eight months we will see millions of dollars spent by candidates for the state Legislature, the governorship, Congress, and the U.S. Senate. They’ll be all over the airwaves, on the roadside, at our front doors.
Would that there were a candidate of the quality of Tom Gill among them.
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