Afterthoughts: We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Visions

Some people are asking when Mayor Mufi Hannemann will develop a vision for Honolulu. Don’t we have our own dreams?

illustration: michael austin

It was great reading Mayor Mufi Hannemann’s state of the city address. Yes, the speech in which he revealed that the City and County of Honolulu was $3 billion in debt, “about $3,000 for every man, woman and child in the City and County of Honolulu.” All throughout the Harris administration, critics were saying that Jeremy Harris was building expensive set pieces—the Waipio Soccer Complex, Ala Wai Boulevard landscaping, etc.—while saddling the city with debt. Hearing Hannemann’s speech was kind of like getting that first credit card statement after the holidays.

The whole city seemed to breathe a sigh of resigned relief to finally see the bill. The editorials, the sentiments expressed around town, all praised Hannemann for his candor, for his nuts-and-bolts focus on potholes and sewers. People seemed glad to have a mayor willing to focus on the infrastructure we all take for granted—until it starts to crumble, the way Honolulu’s has. When Hannemann declared “a war on potholes,” I was ready to enlist, eager to kill a crater in retaliation for the $700 worth of suspension work the family car needed last winter.

Yet in the midst of this refreshing focus on the needs of the city, a few voices were already calling for Hannemann to express some larger goal for the city. “Residents expect local government to competently handle sewers and roads as a matter of course,” wrote David Shapiro in his Honolulu Advertiser column. “[T]his can’t be the main topic of conversation for long. The more important issue is what kind of community Hannemann and his City Council allies plan to build on top of their infrastructure.” Or, as a friend of mine put it, “Hannemann still hasn’t presented a vision for the city.”

I’ve heard this said about politicians all my life. They need to have a vision. Remember when the senior George Bush derided this sentiment as “the vision thing” in the 1988 presidential election? He, in turn, was derided for not taking “the vision thing” seriously. But I think his skepticism was well placed. It’s taken me years to refine the wording, but I think I can finally express my reaction to this insistence that politicians have a “vision:”

What the hell for?

Isn’t the whole point of our system that we have the visions, the dreams, the aspirations, which we then elect representatives to protect? When did Americans become a nation of dreamless people, just waiting for some megalomaniacal politician to fill their empty heads with visions?

Don’t fault Hannemann for sticking to the nitty-gritty. Applaud him. Personally, I want the mayor to be a competent technocrat, who keeps city government strumming like a well-tuned guitar.

What we need is not some leader’s vision, but freedom to make our own moves, to take our own chances, as we pursue our own happiness.

Representatives would serve us better if they thought their jobs were to meet our expectations, rather than serve up visions. As a citizen, I have expectations for the City and County of Honolulu, but entirely different desires for Honolulu, the city. I expect the City and County of Honolulu to be well-run, responsive and efficient, the sewers unclogged, the roads smooth, the DMV cooperative, the cops honest and effective, the firefighters always a phone call away. I’m pretty sure most of you expect the same. Our mayor is the person to deliver these things.

I want Honolulu, the city, to be alive with prosperity, art, hard work, culture, entertainment, accomplishments, greatness, romance. But these things don’t flow from the mayor, or from county departments, or civil servants. They can’t be conjured up with a council resolution, procured with a Request For Proposals. These things are our responsibility—they come from us. The mayor’s role in this, as our elected representative, is to make sure city government isn’t standing in the way of our dreams.

So, Mayor Hannemann, thank you for the candor. Keep it up. Fix the potholes. But, please, resist the urge to tell us where to go on those shiny, new roads.