Remembering Heftel’s Heady Days

Bob Jones
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Wednesday - February 10, 2010
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The late Cec Heftel was the most complex man I ever worked for - and sometimes the most generous, or the strangest.

He hired me away from the Honolulu Advertiser Saigon bureau in 1966 with a brief letter offering me twice whatever I was making. I was making $150 a week. In 1968, I left KGMB to be an NBC News foreign correspondent at about $35,000 a year. In 1969, Heftel offered me $50,000 to come back.

Heftel grew up Jewish but converted to marry into a wealthy Mormon family in Utah. He said he didn’t drink, but one night I saw him in a dim Kapahulu bar’s booth with a waitress and what sure looked like a drink. He was as Republican as they came when he was on the Mainland, but blithely switched to the Democratic Party in Hawaii.

The book Ben by former Hawaii governor Ben Cayetano has some fascinating observations about the 1986 Democratic primary campaign for governor between John Waihee and Heftel. I know a lot about that. Some people say Heftel was done in by a smear in the last days of the ‘86 gubernatorial primary. I don’t agree. I’ll detail that incident for you conspiracy theorists.

Everything’s on the record in public documents released by the state attorney general’s office.

The state Narcotics Investigation Unit got a statement from an arrested-convicted-imprisoned drug-gie (I recall her name as Helga Adams) claiming to have observed Heftel at a party where drugs were used. The state gave a copy of that statement to the city prosecutor, the late Charles Marsland, and it got photocopied in his office and was distributed to reporters, who did not use it, and anti-Heftel labor unions, who did.

But few ordinary voters saw that document. It could not have been a deciding factor. So what did in Heftel? I say a combination of his often-odd mannerisms, his flip-flop politics and Hawaii not being ready to elect a never-held-local-office fellow from the Mainland.

And I think people had a lot of questions about Heftel’s late-night, car-hits-tree accident in 1983 in Washington, D.C., and another incident where he claimed to have been mugged at 2:30 in the morning in a pharmacy-andporno-videotape-rental store in D.C.

I suspect a lot of people had a change of heart in the voting booth. Heftel was this Mainlander, despite long residence here and for us in D.C.. He had been a card-carrying Republican who switched long after he came here, a heavily Democratic state. When he made KGMB radio and TV No. 1 and vanquished KHVH and his very personal adversary there, Bob Berger, politics hit him as the next No. 1 goal.

He decided to do on-TVair editorials - obviously to raise his recognition factor. We (me as the news producer and 10 p.m. news anchor, and the late Bob Sevey as news director and 6 p.m. anchor) didn’t want editorials. Our newscasts, minus sports, only ran 16 minutes. Heftel’s editorials would deduct two minutes. But Heftel insisted. He hired journalist Scott Stone to write the editorials.

The editorials (lots of practice sessions and many re-do’s for each one, pre-taped) were effective, and in 1976 Heftel was elected to Congress. In Hawaii, once you get in Congress, you’re in until you die or resign to run for something else. Heftel resigned five terms later to run for governor.

He had no time for small talk or kissing babies, slept little and was compulsively competitive. Business came first. Oddest person I ever had lunch with.

Cayetano has this in his book: “A friend who dined with Heftel on several occasions told me he was taken aback by his table manners. ‘He treats food like fuel, as if eating is something he has to do just to keep his body going. I don’t think he enjoys it.’”

I don’t think Heftel enjoyed much of anything except being top dog in whatever he did. He told me he didn’t enjoy Congress.

“Too many people who don’t do their homework and are elected from small towns,” he said.

Heftel didn’t hang around for a second go at governor the way Linda Lingle did when she lost to Cayetano. He moved to the Mainland and was very successful as the owner of Latino radio stations, which he later sold at an enormous profit.

Eventually, he returned here, wrote some letters to the editor, won a seat on the Board of Education, but did not run for re-election after an unproductive term in which his health became an issue.

It’s a fascinating story because for a while it looked as though Heftel was headed right to the top. Then the boom fell on him and he was never again a player in Hawaii politics.

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