Original air date: Tues., Mar. 18, 2008
Hawaii’s ‘Maverick’ Mayor
When you call Harry Kim “Mayor,” he says, “I’m Harry.” And when you learn how humble his beginnings truly were, you can begin to understand his true nature.
Although his early years were defined by poverty and toil, Harry Kim’s love and respect for the beauty and power of nature would lead to a long career with County Civil Defense. Now in his second term as Mayor of Hawai’i Island, Harry Kim sits down to visit with Leslie Wilcox.
Harry Kim Audio
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Aloha! I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. Last week on Long Story Short, we sat down with a man who says, “I’m just Harry.” He’s the Mayor of Hawai‘i Island, Harry Kim, who grew up in poverty just outside Hilo, the youngest child of Korean immigrants. He shared his deep admiration for his mother’s courage, his father’s gentleness, and he spoke of his respect for nature. This week, we’ll continue to talk story in Part 2 of a two-part conversation with Harry Kim.
Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox – produced with Sony technology – is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in HD. High definition… it’s in Sony’s DNA.
For 24 years, Harry Kim worked in Hawaii County’s Civil Defense system, protecting people and property spread over 4,000 square miles – that’s more than all the other main Hawaiian islands put together. He retired as Director, after getting citizens through many powerful visits from the forces of nature.
You know, we think we control our destiny, so to speak. And when you look back, you probably had one percent influence over it. We had a mayor by the name of Herbert Matayoshi. I was the Director of Law Enforcement Agency at the time. And I used to get different kind of assignments. On that day in 1975, we had a major earthquake of seven-point-two. And it caused a lot of destruction, obviously. Unfortunately, a fatality from the tsunami. And county government got criticized for lack of proper response. And the person in charge told the mayor shortly thereafter that he would not like to keep the job. He was temporary anyway. And the mayor called me in and said that I want you to fix this agency. Just ensure me that when I leave this job as mayor, nobody else’s death is on my conscience. And that’s how I fell into the job. I thought I didn’t want the job. I thought maybe two years, and I’d leave. I wanted to go teach at the college level. And that’s how much of a slow learner I am. You know, two years, stayed ‘til 24. It was just one of those things that so many things happened thereafter in regards to storms, in regards to fires, in regards to droughts, in regards to volcanic eruptions, you know. You just kept going, and before you know it, 24 years passed.
After “falling into the job” and enjoying a long career at County Civil Defense, Harry Kim entered the race for Big Island Mayor. That was just two weeks before the Primary Election in 2000 – and his bumper stickers read, “Applicant for Mayor.” Kim won the election and took the General Election with 50% of the votes, nearly twice that of his closest rival. He became the first mayor of Korean descent in the United States. Now, Harry Kim is nearing the end of his 2nd term.
You know, I’m sure everybody remembers your remarkable candidacy for Big Island Mayor.
The $10 limit on campaign contributions, no campaign network to speak of. And I’m wondering what it was like when you entered the mayor’s office. I mean, clearly, you knew county government. What made you think, I can do this, I can do this mayor’s job, and of this very diverse island facing so many challenges?
I worked for county government at that time thirty years. Every job in county government was of administrative level; just the way it turned out. The job before civil defense was the director of law enforcement system administration, of working with State, County, Federal and private sector. Civil defense, basically the same, but in a concentrated field. I knew where we were financially from cabinet meetings and projections of gover—and shortage of revenues. I was typical of a lot of people, of seeing things not being done, but you know, you don’t say anything, ‘cause it’s not your role. Saying things didn’t matter anyway. I went in it totally aware of what uh, problems I wanted to address. That was one side. The other side of it was simpler. I think I represented a lot of people that felt of a growing detachment from our government, of even distrust. Of that this government which was supposed to be for us, was not for us. So you went with that kinda philosophical thing. But you also knew to do what you wanted to do, you had to run a certain way, you know, to give you that kind of independence, and tell people to no more than that. No fancy speeches or brochures of I’m gonna do this, and I’m gonna cure the, you know, ills of the island and the state or whatever. All I said was one thing; I will apply for this job, and I promise you to do my best to do what is right by law. And that’s all I promised; no more than that. And I knew I could do it in regards to two reasons. I really felt I knew government, I really felt that I knew what the problems were, and I really felt that my jobs of past gave me the needed experience of having people work together to address it. I didn’t have no magic answers, you know, in regards to how solve the problem. I just knew that confidence within because of job experience that I could—I knew these people, I could try to get them together to address the problem.
And you’ve spent a lot of time working to get people together. Not management by fiat, but hey, let’s get a group together, and let’s really talk about this, and let’s come together.
And that’s the job, you know. The hardest part of the job is this, without any question on that answer to that; is no matter what you do with some, they don’t trust you. They question your truth. And I don’t care what you do. And when you know 100% of what you did is of truth, of openness, and they still question you. That is hard.
And you haven’t had any scandal or—I mean, that’s one of the things that’s said throughout all segments of the island; that basically, you’ve dealt with truth and sincerity, and good intentions. And some things haven’t worked out to some people’s satisfaction, but not because of any ill effect or mismanagement by you; it’s just a different vision.
I think we all look for people that we can trust, uh, all look for people that you know, will be of truth. And we worked hard to be that. I’m so lucky that I surrounded myself with good, smart, you know, maybe the words are wrong, but I call ‘em pure people, of what they want to do. And every day, I think, they convey that. And as they were told from day one, that’s all what we got to try to do. And the only way you’re gonna have people trust you is to be 100% all the time. You mislay them one time, then all your 99 times is for naught. And I don’t think I’m any different than anybody else of what I want from my leader. And I’m gonna really try to be that.
So let’s talk about the different figure you cut in office. Um, you—you’re a hard guy for lobbyists to get to, because—
–you don’t have lunch, you don’t play golf.
Yeah; I know. But isn’t that great?
No, no. You know, lobbyists—I was asked many years ago what’s my attitude on developers and I have always said you know, they’re my only hope, they’re my greatest hope. And they have been, and they are in regards of addressing problems. I just came back from the legislature prior to this, asking for them to help us fund a transitional home, and telling them of the private sector. The land is from the private sector, the people who’s gonna run for as a private nonprofit, people who are of community gonna help us develop it. And I think that uh, I know this is gonna be misinterpreted, but I’ll say it. It was us in power and us politicians that created the atmosphere that you’ve got to do this, and butter this hand, you know, before this hand reacts. I know that’s not true of most. But the atmosphere was created that way, you know, by us politicians. And so they learn they have to do that. But we created that situation. If all of us created a situation where—no, they wouldn’t do it; they’re not fools; they’re not gonna do something that’s gonna hurt ‘em. They’re doing things that they feel they need to do. And I think because of what transpired in the past seven years of, you know, all we’re interested in is the issue, I think they welcome it more than anybody else. You know, I joked with them; I said, you know, any money you had to spend on me, just give it to charity on this island. And I wish they would do that, and they probably did; and a lot of people have. You know, I’ll mention Castle & Cooke; I mention Stanford Carr. You know, I just told the Legislature, I said, Stanford Carr you know, built for me brand new, a safe place in Kona and paid for everything. You know. And that was his contribution, on his own. We didn’t ask for it; you know, he donated it.
I know you don’t mind getting your hands dirty when it comes to work; but did you ever felt like your hands were starting to get dirty in politics?
Nobody ever tried to grease your palms, or line your pockets?
I think during the election, there were you know, offers for financial help. But you just later, you know, [INDISTINCT] what will or will not be, and from day one, I think it didn’t take long before everyone knew to just address the issue.
It’s just not gonna work to do it that way.
Yeah. And it’s been really good. You know, like I said, I’ve never had you know there’s a lot of disagreements, obviously. But as long as we stick to the issue, and then they stick to the issue, and it’s been good.
Have you had any disappointments? I’m thinking of that five-year land dispute over Hokuli‘a, the housing—gentleman’s housing subdivision. Any disappointments during your term in office?
Oh, yeah; you know. Lot of disappointments; this guy trying to get some things done. Because you find out all the hoops that must go through. Everybody knows about EIS, for example. You know, I mean, the average EIS takes a year, you know, and the rules that the private government as well as any private developer to build a highway, a major highway, you find out the average is eight to nine, to ten years. And the average person cannot obviously understand that, why does it take so long. And it does take long. The Hokuli‘a issue that you brought up, you know, you get tied up in court and this and that. But if you step back from it, you know, why, and you can understand it. You understand it, you accept it. You don’t have to like it, but you know, you can accept it. The problem is trying convey that to public, of why it’s taking this long, and try to curtail any kind of hostility towards anybody. And I still continue to try to get there. But that kinda disappointment always there. There’s lot of other kind of disappointment in us, in government not addressing or focusing on certain kind of problems, and more fixated on things of roads and parks, and those things.
Harry Kim serves a big island where there are big differences in what citizens want to see happen. But he says the differences tend to be misunderstood or overblown.
And you’ve served so many different constituencies, and of course, many people still believe Hawaii Island should be Hilo and Kona side, ‘cause those effectively act like two islands sometimes.
Kona and Hilo side conflict is exaggerated, grossly exaggerated in regards to the differences, so to speak, is very understandable if you are not of history of Hawaii. And Kona bloomed and blossomed and boomed—whatever word you want to use, in the past 10, 15 years at the most. All right. If 15 years ago I said to anybody in Kona—a little more than 15 years—that someday you’re gonna have a Walmart, Costco, Home Depot, Lowe’s, traffic problems, I guarantee you every one of ‘em would have asked me, What have you been drinking, Harry?
You know. The growth factor—people don’t even know that Queen Ka‘ahumanu Highway was not finished until 1973 or 74 or so. Governor Ariyoshi coined that, I think, the Gold Coast. Because Kona was just a small, you know, quiet place, and all of a sudden this growth came, like the world—and the world did discover this beautiful place of Kona and Kohala. Naturally, the infrastructures did not keep up; naturally there’s impatience; and naturally, when you see the amount of money they contribute to the whole property tax of 65, 70%, and they see what they had versus what they perceive Hilo to have, they’re gonna say, Look, that’s not fair. So if you understand that, your job is twofold; to try to catch up as best as you can, but being fair to the whole island based on need, not how much you contribute. But the other part is to try to make people understand, and I really believe most of them do. And I believe, like most things of controversy, there are a few that will make a lot of noise. But I really believe there are few. I can feel that when I go to Kona. I have never had anyone mistreat me in any kind of tone, I don’t care where I go. And the controversy of east and west of Hilo, Kona, I don’t think is what people think it is. There was about a year, maybe longer, maybe shorter period where people were asking me if I was gonna run for governor. I don’t think I ever really seriously considered wanting to run. My ego was, I think, getting to me, because people were saying, you know, we want you to run for governor and do what you’re doing of government. And it came to the point where I felt that that was something that I should do, you know, to be responsible for, as they say. And then you know, time came where I knew I had to make a decision. My answer was no, I would feel you know, like I’m betraying the commitment I made and who I am.
But you were interested?
You know, I don’t know if I can use the word interested, Les, because—
You didn’t dismiss it out of hand.
No, it was about the job, about doing the job. I didn’t want to be mayor. And I know—I really didn’t want to be mayor. I had my life set out; I was gonna—I did retire, you know. And even running for second term—and this is the total truth; I didn’t want to run second term, much less run for governor. And I wanted to do certain things of personal, and maybe learn to play enjoy the fish a little more, and the birds a little more, and the sun, and the ocean. My wife did not—I committed to everyone, I will tell you what my decision is by Monday; a certain Monday. Because I promised this reporter. You know, just to put him off three, four weeks earlier, I said I’ll set this date, and I just picked a date. He didn’t forget. [chuckle] So as the date approaches, all right, I said, okay, you know, I made a commitment. I did not know ‘til four o’clock that morning; no one knew. My wife, staff, cabinet; nobody knew. I had a cabinet meeting set up for eight o’clock that morning to tell them what I’m gonna do. ‘Cause their jobs depended on it. And it was at four o’clock in the morning, sitting by myself in the dark in the quiet, that you know, I felt I knew what I was gonna do. That’s shows you the political ambitions I had, which was nonexistent. Yeah. As far as governor’s race, you go through all the things you would like to see the government focus on that I don’t think we are. There are certain social issues that I really wanted to see if could be done.
But decided your obligation was to the Hawaii Island.
I’ll tell you what my thought process went that morning. Regardless if I ran for governor, regardless if I won, regardless if I lost, I would have a real difficult time looking at Hawaii’s people in the eye again, because I would feel like I betrayed ‘em. Because when you run for office, it’s automatically without say anything; you’re committing yourself for four years. Nowhere did I ever say, maybe two. You know. It was an understanding I was gonna be here for four years, and I felt that if I left, I’ll be leaving in two. And that’s a betrayal.
From a sense of loyalty he felt he owed the people who elected him to office, Harry Kim chose to serve out his term rather than resign to enter the race for Governor. He’s now getting ready to wrap up his second term. Harry Kim’s approach to politics and governance has been called, “unconventional.” He doesn’t “do lunch,” he avoids the dinner event circuit, and his dress-up clothes are pretty much his everyday clothes.
Everybody knows you as the guy who wears jeans—
Hey, I buy the better looking jeans.
I hope you appreciate it. [chuckle]
Have you ever worn dress slacks in office?
Yeah. I think um first day, when I got inaugurated. [chuckle]
And then? [chuckle]
Second time when I got inaugurated the second time. I think that’s about it.
And no need, otherwise.
Yeah, I mean, you know, I don’t feel comfortable wearing certain kinda clothes. You know, obviously, I have ‘em. I’m sure people wish I wore ‘em more. But I just wear what I feel comfortable.
It’s funny, isn’t it; lot of people who grew up without a lot—their dream is to have the material comfort they didn’t have. But that’s doesn’t seem to be true in your case.
Oh, I like comfort. I like clean water. I don’t want to worry about food. One of the things that is uh, scar that’s there for whatever reason I like a dry place and a dry house, ‘cause we had so much leakage. Walking to school every day, whether it be couple of miles and back, not owning an umbrella and many times caught in the rain, wet and cold. You have that. I was talking to you earlier; above everything else is a quest for peace. You know, what brings—what makes you feel good. Nature makes me feel good because I depended on nature. I love you know, a kid with macho problems, you don’t say it publicly, but I love touching and staring at flowers and beauty of flowers. I love wildlife, I love fish. I have pet fish that I call names in the ocean. You know, and they grace me with letting me touch them, or they touch me. I have a high impatience of people that have very low tolerance of people. I have a strong, strong uh, dislike of people of violence. And you know, that’s what stuck with me. I always know the hardship of my mom and dad, of their loss of family because of war, of man’s—and I’ll say it I’ve said it many times, Les. I consider man’s greatest failure is that of war. And I will always feel that. To me—I’m not talking about wars of country, I’m talking about any individuals. When you resort to say, I don’t like you, so I gotta kill you. You know, what else can you say but that it’s gotta be our greatest failure. You know, that that’s the only way we can resolve something. And I think that all reflects on why we try to do the things the way we are doing and why I have a love of our cosmopolitan past. I think the Hawaiian people is our greatest gift, the natural warmth and beauty about them. And that’s innate with them. And all of those things which I grew up that are special. The problems will always be there; the only difference is how do we resolve them. And that’s what I just want to dedicate the rest of my time for, you know, in regards to a better way to resolve problems. It doesn’t mean that people are gonna be happy, you know, [INDISTINCT]. Because I learned something long time ago; if you have a problem, I don’t care how many people are on each side and the two sides, you can get ‘em together, but one side come together with the total confidence, are we gonna get everything we want. You have nothing. Yeah. You have to come to the table with an idea that you’re going to listen. And that’s our biggest task, just to talk to them. Will you at least come and listen. You know. Not to give your side; will you just come listen to the other side, and then talk.
Takes a lot of time on your part, doesn’t it?
Oh, yeah. It but you know, with the faith of mankind, you find that most of the people, they want that too. I really believe they want that too.
So uh, when you leave office, uh, you’ve said a couple of tantalizing things; that maybe you’ll go back to teaching, or maybe you’ll devote your life to peace and resolution of war.
I would like to do that, I don’t care how small a scale. And I’m not, you know, putting myself on any pedestal level. Okay. It can be on any level. What greater way to spend your life than that. And I want to see what else I can do. And this job ends in less than 10 months, and I’ll see what else I’ll do after that.
Does that mean you’re not gonna take up golf, that you’re not gonna learn new hobbies, or any hobbies?
You know, once uh we went on a vacation. I asked what do the kids want to do. Everybody named one thing. And I told them what I wanted to do, and I’m gonna show you how limited my—how easy it is to make me happy. And my family knows this. I said, I just want to find me a beautiful stream in Oregon—that’s where we were gonna go—and take off my shoes, and I’ll wade knee-deep, stand there and feel the freshness and coolness of the water, listen to the water, listen to the—look at the beautiful trees. And that’s all I want to do.
You’re a cheap date.
[chuckle] Yeah. But really, you know, you give me a choice of what I want to do, and I love that; I just love that.
We can only speculate about what retirement will mean for Harry Kim. He has no hobbies – and he doesn’t enjoy traveling. Will he make a run for Governor in 2010? He says he has no yearning to be Governor. That’s not exactly a definitive answer. As you recall, he also said he didn’t need to be Mayor. And he didn’t seek out his Civil Defense job. I’m glad you could join me for another Long Story Short. Mahalo to you and Harry Kim. Please log on to pbshawaii.org each week to see who’s coming up with their stories. Keep sending us questions and suggestions by email. And please tune in next week for another Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.
Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is produced in HD by PBS Hawaii with Sony technology. High definition. It’s in Sony’s DNA.
Every single day, I touch a flower. Every single day. I need it; I don’t do it because of any other reason than I need it. The staff knows that. They catch me looking at the sky, or you know, takes me sometimes 10 minutes to walk to my car, to my house, because I stop and look at the trees you know, listen to the birds, you know. I need it every day; I need my medicine, and nature is my medicine.