How to Look Like a Winner When Running for Hawaii Political Office

Image isn’t everything, but it can help candidates build credibility and likeability.

Photo: Courtesy Tulsi Gabbard

We like to think HONOLULU Magazine readers are smart and savvy voters who pick candidates based on the issues. But how much does “the look” matter when we’re evaluating candidates? Local presentation coach Pam Chambers says it matters more than we might realize.

“Some people will judge a book by its cover and judge every detail,” says Chambers, who has been helping clients, including politicians in Hawaii, hone their communication and presentation skills since 1985. “If a person looks less than attentive to detail, they’ll think, ‘What kind of leader is this person going to be?’ It brings up questions that are really important, even if we think that image is not so important.”

Chambers is currently working with clients running for local office, but of course, we didn’t expect her to divulge names. More candidates should be willing to work on their image, she says. Former Gov. Linda Lingle perfected her look over the years and is a great example of someone willing to work with others to improve, she says.

Here are a few things candidates should pay attention to when preparing to go door-to-door, sign wave or take part in a panel or a televised debate.

Create a consistent brand. This might include wearing the same color shirt or lei when out in public. It’s an opportunity to become memorable, Chambers says. “If people see someone from a distance wearing a hat, they always say, ‘That must be Pam Chambers.’ I always wear a hat of varying kinds. It’s part of my branding,” she says.

Consider the audience. Candidates should think about where they are going and how the rest of us will be dressed. Attending a televised event or the state party’s convention? Probably best to wear a suit, she says. “If you’re walking on the sidewalks, going door-to-door, a suit would be ridiculous. People would think you’re nuts,” Chambers says. She pointed to former state Rep. Lyla Berg of Niu Valley as someone who “always wore just the right thing.” When out meeting voters in her neighborhood, Berg would wear “a short-sleeved, tropical knee-length dress with sandals and a nice pedicure. She always looked great.”

No bed head, please. Chambers suggests that men should trim their hair at least every two to three weeks. Any facial hair needs consistent attention. “Please get it trimmed once a week. When those mustaches start to grow over the lip, it’s sloppy,” she says. Women should avoid playing with their long locks. “It portrays a child-like or sexy image.”

Groom from head to toes. Pants that are too long or shoes that aren’t cleaned and shined can give off an unfinished vibe. “It’s just a terrible lack of attention to detail,” she says. For men, Chambers suggests taking keys and wallets out of pants pockets to prevent a bulky and bulgy look.

Pant suit or skirt? Women have the option to wear a dress or a skirt, but it can be a little tricky finding the right length. (How short is too short? And how long until one enters Puritan territory?) A pantsuit is safer, but if opting for a skirt, do wear hosiery if in a professional setting. “Most women don’t want to be judged by the shape of their legs or the length of their skirt. They want to be judged by what they have to say and what they can do,” Chambers says.

Less is more. Mom’s old adage still applies. Makeup should be moderate and professional, Chambers says. She points to a Harvard Crimson study that showed women who wear moderate makeup are perceived as being more credible than women who wear too much or none at all.

To aloha or not to aloha? Is there conventional wisdom to wearing aloha shirts or not? It depends, Chambers says. If it’s part of one’s branding and it’s appropriate for the audience, go for it. But professional dress shirts work just as well. “It depends on what you want people to think of when they hear your name,” she says.

So who’s look is “on point” in local politics? Chambers (and we do, too) gives a gold star to U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, “She knows how to look professional and feminine, without it being a distraction,” she says. As for the men, she says former Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona has the look. “He really presents himself well,” she says.