Earlier this year, the Civic Center was renamed to honor former mayor Frank Fasi. Here’s an insider’s look at the lessons to be learned from this local political legend.
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I first met Frank Fasi in 1962, two days after I arrived in Honolulu. Like me, Frank was originally from Hartford, Conn., and several people there had given me his name as a contact. If anyone ever needed a contact, I did—5,000 miles from home with no job, and a wife and baby to support. So I called Frank, and to my surprise, he invited us to dinner the following night. We had a delightful time, but he said nothing about helping me find a job. That was a Saturday night.
On Monday morning, the phone in our little hotel room rang; it was Frank, with the names of two local businessmen who had agreed to meet with me. Almost every morning for the next two weeks, Frank called with one or two more names. It was typical of Frank’s generosity; most of the men and women who worked for him over the years have similar stories to tell, and it explains why most of them were so loyal to him.
In 1970, after he had been mayor for two years, I joined Frank’s Cabinet as head of the Office of Information and Complaint, a job I held for eight years. During that time Frank created the city bus system, the Satellite City Halls and the Peoples’ Open Markets. We went through four political campaigns, two for Frank’s re-election as mayor and two when he ran for governor. And, of course, there were continuing conflicts with the media, the City Council and other assorted politicians.
Few will deny that Frank left a bigger positive impact on the face of Honolulu than any other political figure in recent memory. Maybe ever. For good reason, he’s already the stuff of legends. If today’s politicians want to go down in history, they should take a few lessons from Frank.
Demand a recount
In 1972, Frank ran for re-election against then state Sen. D. G. “Andy” Anderson, his Republican opponent. Political insiders knew that this was really just a practice run for Frank, who would almost certainly run for governor in 1974 against George Ariyoshi. The polls all said Frank would defeat Anderson handily, and he did, but the results were much closer than anyone expected. Frank, in fact, was convinced that someone working for Ariyoshi had tampered with the ballots to make him appear vulnerable for the upcoming governor’s race. Who else but Frank Fasi would have won an election by 7,500 votes and then demand a recount? (No formal recount was done, but random checks of a number of precincts confirmed that the election results were accurate.)
According to Anne Pulfrey, of the City and County archives, Fasi loved posing for photos. Here he’s with an RCA TV camera.
Watch your opponents closely
Ariyoshi proved to be a political nemesis for Frank, who ran against him twice for governor, both times unsuccessfully. The two were almost polar opposites in most respects: Frank’s style was flamboyant, creative and innovative; Ariyoshi’s was predictable, stolid, even dull. Day-to-day media coverage couldn’t help but highlight these differences and Frank took great delight in regularly tweaking Ariyoshi. At the end of most days, it was my habit to wander into Frank’s office, where the two of us would watch the local TV newscasts. On one such occasion, we were watching a clip of the governor indignantly responding to something Frank had said earlier in the day. In the middle of the clip, Frank gleefully pointed at the screen. “Look at his eyebrows,” he said. “I can always tell when I really get to George because his eyebrows start bouncing up and down.” I had never made the connection before, but from that moment on, the twitching eyebrows would clue me to whenever Ariyoshi was agitated.
Fight for Your Turf
Frank was always looking for ways to annoy Ariyoshi, and once noticed that “Keep off the Grass” signs had appeared on the lawn surrounding the State Capitol, which he acknowledged was Ariyoshi’s turf. Delightedly proclaiming that it was wrong for the public to be denied access to public property, Frank immediately had signs put up all around City Hall, his turf. The signs read, “Please Walk on the Grass.”
Once in a while, Ariyoshi would get back at Frank. When Emperor Hirohito of Japan visited Honolulu in 1975, Ariyoshi had a luncheon in the emperor’s honor at Washington Place. Protocol dictated that the mayor be invited, but Frank was seated in the far corner, facing the kitchen, with his back to the head table. It was the worst seat in the room.