I got up late this morning and saw the announcement of Frank Fasi’s death in the Advertiser’s Breaking News section.
A friend of ours once observed that you can judge a person by the stature of their enemies. If that’s true, then Frank Fasi was a great politician. He shook the party establishments from the populist outside. We can thank Fasi for the “resign to run” law, which was meant to take his city hall base away if he wanted to run for governor. We have Fasi to thank for the green space that surrounds the city complex of buildings downtown. I vividly remember the news photos of Fasi taking part in the midnight raid to execute his plan to dig up the parking lot behind city hall and replace it with grass. He took direct action while the city council debated, green before its time. We can thank Fasi for putting the “shaka” into campaigns. And if Honolulu’s all evevated rail system is eventually built, part of the credit will have to go to Fasi, since the current plans are little changed from those developed during his administration. The train will be considered either Fasi’s triumph or Fasi’s revenge, depending on how the public reacts to it.
Frank Fasi was part of my life. During the fall of 1960, I had my first taste of political excitment with JFK’s run for president. That excitement trickled down the political chain, and I asked my parents to put up a sign for then-Democrat Fasi in front of our house in heavily Republican Kahala. I can’t even remember if that was a run for mayor or what may have still been the Board of Supervisors. He lost, but he kept trying until he became mayor.
Then there was the lesson I got while working for Neil Abercrombie when Neil was on the City Council. I recall sitting in on a meeting between Neil, Fasi, and corporation counsel Richard Wurdeman. I think the meeting was to discuss Neil’s attempt to find a way to fund a senior housing project in Manoa. There was resistance from some other council members and community groups, and at some point Neil asked Fasi if they could produce a legal opinion. Fasi turned to Wurdeman, who said something along these lines. “Sure. What do you want it to say?”
Aha. A lesson in how things really work. Legal opinions on request. It’s something I think about every time someone holds up a handful of papers and announces, “but we’ve got a legal opinion.”
I was sued by the mayor in 1991 over comments about the appearance of corruption that were broadcast by a local news station. He withdrew the lawsuit later under pressure from the Republican Party.
Fasi was old school in some ways. He wasn’t shy to describe his approach. Reward your friends and punish your enemies. Other pols tend to believe that but not say it out loud. Fasi wasn’t shy.
But while rewarding his friend, Frank was a master of the small stuff. Voters might not understand city contracting and how it could be used to reward political friends, but Fasi knew voters remember the small stuff. Fill the pothole on their street, or send a crew to clean their neighborhood park, just respond directly to their minor, everyday complaints, and the votes would follow.
Fasi also knew something about image and action. Flooding? Hurricane? Fasi would be there on a truck, or in a civil defense jeep, hard hat and slicker, rain pouring, inspecting the scene. Not behind a desk back downtown waiting for reports to come in, not in a helicopter flying over days later. You’ve got to admire the guy for that impulse.
And there was Fasi the accessible. Remember those early mornings at Heidi’s, the little bakery and coffee place in Bishop Square where Fasi and his cronies used to gather every morning?
Several years ago, a reader submitted this classic Fasi story dating from 1989:
I will never forget a moment from Fasi: I’d lived in Hawaii only a month or so, and I was walking up Alapai Street where it meets Kinau. As I approached the top of the street, I could see a guy sweeping the street. Someone had smashed beer bottles on the street and a man in a white jumpsuit was sweeping it up, broom and dustpan in hand. No press. No truck. No anything.
Just me and Fasi. I said, Mayor Fasi, cleaning up a little? And he said, Yeah, there’s glass all over the street. Someone needs to clean it up. Why not me?
Apparently, he had gone down to the Board of Water Supply, grabbed a broom and dust pan and came back up to sweep.
He had my vote, right there.