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Old School

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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Frank Fasi (right) conducts a top-level meeting with his cabinet, in an undated photo.


During one Cabinet meeting, Fasi was brainstorming his latest idea—and started around the room asking for comments. Predictably, everyone professed to support the plan; everyone, that is, except Barry Chung, the city’s corporation counsel at the time. Chung took his role as the mayor’s lawyer very seriously and began reeling off an impressive list of possible pitfalls. He didn’t get very far before Frank interrupted him impatiently.

“Dammit, Barry,” Frank said. “How long have you been working for me?”

“Seven years, sir.”

“Seven years,” repeated Frank. Then, in a tone of mock wonderment, “And you still don’t understand what your role is around here.”

Grins began to blossom around the room.

“For your information,” said Frank, “your role is not to keep me from getting into trouble. Your role is to sit there quietly and wait until I get into trouble … and then get me out of trouble!”

Bargain Hard

Frank occasionally took breathtaking gambles. In May 1972, Honolulu’s refuse collectors walked off the job in an unauthorized wildcat strike. Because the strike violated the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, Frank refused to discuss their supposed grievances until the men returned to work. They refused and Frank fired more than 400 of them. Trash was beginning to accumulate, of course, and every day the public became more impatient.

Frank remembered that a California firm had earlier approached the city with a proposal to privatize Honolulu’s trash collection.

Acompanied by his wife, Fasi signs up to run for governor, in August 1974.

“Tell them to get on a plane,” said Frank, “and to bring a proposal and a contract with them.” Two mornings later, four men fresh off a jet from California trooped into the mayor’s office, ready to do business. Essentially, their proposal was to lease the city’s refuse trucks and hire their own employees to pick up Oahu’s trash twice a week. Typically, Frank cut right to the chase. “How much will you charge us per ton?”

“Thirty-two dollars a ton,” they replied.

Frank shook his head and stood up. “I’m sorry,” he said. “That’s too much. I’m afraid you wasted your time, but thanks for coming on such short notice.” I was horrified. Frank had just rejected Plan A, and, as far as I knew, there was no Plan B.

The men from the refuse company were startled, but asked Frank if he had a dollar amount in mind.

“Sixteen dollars a ton,” Frank said, without the slightest hesitation. That brought a collective gasp from the California contingency, but before they could respond, Frank began rattling off facts and figures to substantiate his proposal.

“OK,” said Frank. “Sharpen your pencils and come back at 4:30 with your best offer.” The men were back late that afternoon with a new proposal: $19 a ton for once-a-week collection. Frank thanked them, put the revised contract in his desk drawer, and said he would get back to them in 48 hours.

As soon as they left the office, Frank arranged a meeting with the United Public Workers, the union representing the strikers. The union representatives were obviously confident when they walked into the mayor’s office the next morning. With trash piling up, they assumed he was ready to negotiate.

One of them started to say something, but Frank held up his hand. He pulled open the desk drawer and took out the California contract. “Before we talk,” he said, “read this.”

In 1971, Fasi created a public bus system after a strike took place.

Clearly taken aback, the two UPW men retreated to a far corner of the office and spent the next several minutes poring over the document and whispering to each other. Meanwhile, Frank carried on a conversation with me about the day’s activities, appearing for all the world as though he had completely forgotten they were there. Finally, he looked up. “Have you read it?,” he snapped. They nodded.

“Good,” said Frank. “Now go back and tell those sons-of-bitches that if they’re not back at work tomorrow morning, I’m going to sign that contract!” The next morning, every one of Honolulu’s refuse workers reported for duty.

A few mornings later, a city refuse truck came down Makiki Street on its normal run. Frank had forgotten to put his trash out the night before and came running out of the house in his bathrobe, dragging a couple of plastic bags. The truck was just starting to pull away from his house when the driver spotted him and stopped. Frank called out, “Am I too late?” The driver, obviously still smarting from the failed strike, yelled back, “No problem, Mistah Mayor. Jump right in.”

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Honolulu Magazine June 2018
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