Quote Unquote: Ben Villaflor, Pro Boxer Turned Senate Sergeant at Arms

The Hawai‘i State Legislature’s 2015 session begins on the third Wednesday of this month, marking the 37th opening-day ceremony for Ben Villaflor as Senate sergeant at arms.
Photo: David Croxford

Ben Villaflor’s career as a professional boxer—he was world junior lightweight champion in the 1970s—prepared him well for the tough-guy role he plays as sergeant at arms of the Hawai‘i State Senate. For 36 years, he’s been responsible for maintaining decorum in the Senate chambers, where he enforces bans on eating, cell phones and placards. And when an unruly member of the public, or even of the Senate itself, is ejected from a meeting, it’s Villaflor who calmly but firmly walks him or her out the door. 


When I was 13, I worked on a rubber plantation in the Philippines. I woke up at 5 o’clock in the morning, walked two miles to work, and only earned 15 pesos per month. When I started boxing, I scored a knockout in my first fight. I earned 20 pesos. Twenty pesos for three minutes of work! I decided, I like this job!


I was forced to retire from boxing when I was 24 because of my elbow. It shattered from hitting too hard. The doctor told me, “If you keep fighting, later you will have no elbow.” It was a hard decision to quit.


My first job after boxing was selling cars. It was a hard job because I couldn’t lie. I would say, “This car is no good!”


When I started as sergeant at arms in 1979, there was a hearing in the auditorium about restoring the death penalty. The head lady of the Communist Party wanted to bring a placard into the auditorium. I said, “Sorry, you can’t bring in placards.” And this lady just punched me, right in front of everybody. The sheriff said, “You want to file charges?” I said, “Nah, let it go.” If a man had done that, it might be a different story.


When someone is making an outburst at a meeting, I tell them, “Excuse me, sir, when you’re called to testify you can talk, but not now.” Mostly they sit down then and be quiet. But when it’s a hot topic, like marijuana or gay marriage, they will not stop.


The first senator I had to remove was Charles Toguchi in 1983. He was one of the seven dissident senators who wanted to filibuster the budget bill. Once you stand up to filibuster a bill, you have to keep talking about that bill. As soon as he diverted to another topic, the Senate president hit the gavel and said, “You are out of order! Sergeant at arms, please remove Sen. Toguchi!” Another time I had to remove [Sen.] Bob Hogue because he was out of order. I also had to remove [Sen.] Gordon Trimble. Again, out of order.


The senators are always nice when I have to remove them. They understand. They go to the caucus room to cool down. I consider all of them my bosses. I have 25 bosses.


I lead a boxercise class two or three times a week for our wellness program. Five or 10 people usually show up. Some of the senators come. A lot of the staff come. But most of the participants are from the House of Representatives.


I turned 62 in November. I’ll keep working until they tell me not to come to work anymore.