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.

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.


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.”


Pull Rank When You Have To

One afternoon, Frank was on his way to Waialae Country Club for a card game with his longtime pal, Harry Chung, and a few other cronies. As he was traveling up Kapiolani Boulevard, traffic slowed to a crawl. Ever the fixer, Frank pulled his van onto the sidewalk and walked toward the source of the congestion. It proved to be Hawaii 5-0 filming. To get the right angle, the camera had been set up in the street and was blocking the right lane. Two off-duty police officers were letting cars through the one open lane between takes.

Frank stormed up to the director, a 50ish character with a long ponytail. The director had no idea who this irate person was, and announced that he was filming Hawaii 5-0. “I don’t care who you are,” said Frank. “Get this equipment off the street now!”

The director flushed and pointed to the two cops. “See those policemen? They’re working for me, and if you don’t get out of our way, they’ll arrest you.” Frank went chest-to-chest with the man and said, “Listen, buddy, I’m the mayor of this town and they work for me. And if you don’t get that camera off the street right now, they will throw you in jail!” And he turned to the two police officers, both of whom were by now sweating profusely. “Right?” he demanded.

The two cops snapped to attention and barked in unison: “Yes, sir!” Two minutes later, traffic on Kapiolani was flowing smoothly.

A couple of weeks later, a casting director called and invited Frank to appear in the next episode of Hawaii 5-0, playing—who else?—himself.

The Frank Fasi Files

SUBJECT: Frank Fasi

ARRIVAL IN HAWAII: Fasi moved to the Islands as a Marine Corps officer during World War II.  After the war, he settled here, starting a surplus and salvage business.

POLITICAL LIFE: He was elected to the state Senate, ran unsuccessfully for mayor several times, then served on the Honolulu City Council. He was finally elected mayor of Honolulu in 1968, and served for three terms, losing to Eileen Anderson in 1980. Four years later, he won re-election and remained in office until 1994, when he resigned to launch what proved to be his final (and unsuccessful) run for governor.

STAYING POWER: He was Honolulu’s mayor longer than any of his predecessors: a total of 22 years.

After leaving City government, Jim Loomis formed an advertising agency which he ran for some 20 years and which still bears his name. In 2002 he retired to upcountry Maui.