News: Transparency in Office

Cincinnati gets a taste of revolutionary politics, Hawaii-style

Nov 2, 2005 at 2:06 pm
Matt Borgerding

(L-R) Hawaii State Sen. Les Ihara Jr., Peter Block and Roxanne Qualls discuss idealism in politics on Oct. 26.

The trim man wearing the Hawaiian shirt didn't look or sound like any successful local politician. He sounded more like the handful of starry-eyed idealists who every two years lose their bids for Cincinnati City Council seats — the kind with good hearts and maybe some great ideas but not enough clout or bite to survive campaign season.

But this gentle and eerily calm man, Hawaii State Sen. Les Ihara Jr., somehow has survived 19 years in that state's legislature.

So when Peter Block learned that his friend Ihara was flying to Cincinnati on business, he asked the senator to speak to a few local friends and activists. Block is a management consultant-turned-philosopher who works internationally but donates his energy locally (see "Peter's Principles," issue of Sept. 3-9, 2003).

Ihara "stands for a transparent way of being rather than a back-room, let's-make-a-deal way of being," Block said as he introduced Ihara to the 60-some people who crowded into the Library Room of Old St. George the morning of Oct. 26. The trick to healthier politics is to change the nature of the game, not to get better at it, Block said.

His e-mail invitation had included this quote from Ihara explaining his approach to public office: "I had a basic plan of staying away from moneyed-interests, power brokers and other political power centers ... and slowly building my own grassroots power base strong enough to withstand attempts to bump me off it. I became a threat to the powerful."

But one of the first things Ihara explained is that he hadn't meant to be derogatory toward anyone — not even the moneyed interests.

"To me, there's no inherent evil in politics," he said.

Definitely not the words of a wannabe-revolutionary.

How to succeed in politics by really trying
This is how Ihara said he's survived in politics without selling out or going under: Make a promise that's hard to break — ideally to young, impressionable family members.

"I promised my nieces that when I die I would have used the time here to contribute toward public life as a source of empowerment, as a source of inspiration," Ihara said.

Then don't promise anything else.

"I don't trade my vote," Ihara said. "The ends don't justify the means."

Next, make a long-range plan.

When he first entered politics in 1986, Ihara drew up a 40-year plan. The advantage to that approach is that it allows a lot of time for lying low and gathering strength, he said.

"I decided to stay under cover for a while to build up a political base," Ihara said.

Then he unleashed. Ihara led the effort to eliminate what he called a "fiefdom" that gave each Hawaii House committee chair complete control and replaced it with a co-chair system.

"Before you didn't have to talk to anyone," Ihara said. "This put a premium on collaboration."

He also eradicated some unconstitutional practices and really irked his fellow Democrats, who accused him of being disloyal to the club. But Ihara stuck to his belief that it's possible to be loyal to everyone.

"Six years later my colleagues know I'm not out to get anyone," he said. "I'm not embroiled in political warfare with any of my colleagues. So I have that reputation now of, 'That's just him.' "

Another step, Ihara said, is to embrace opposition. One year, five freshman senators banded together and did Ihara some political damage. In the next election, four of those five were voted out.

Still, competition has faded away over Ihara's 19 years in office. So he rustles some up to keep himself honest.

"I seek out competitors, and we collaborate together," he said.

Ihara said he doesn't separate the personal from the political. His own public and private well-being are connected, he said, yet he recognizes a growing knowledge that the political system and what the public wants at large aren't in sync.

"In the last several years, more and more people are seeing they're not as well and alive when the public part of themselves is estranged from leaders," he said. "To me every issue, every vote is a matter of public integrity — how to be true to yourself in a political arena. Sometimes I don't know how I'm gonna vote 'til the very end."

A city of skeptics
Maybe it was the cold wind of early fall tapping at the windows, but not everyone in the room was buying Ihara's sunny talk.

After Ihara spoke, Block asked the audience to break into small groups to answer the questions "What did you hear?" and "How do you feel about what you heard?" Ihara got an earful from people wanting to know how all his talk of collaboration and positivity works in the real world and especially how it could work in Cincinnati.

"This is a very pragmatic community," Block told Ihara. "I think that's part of the frustration."

"It's important to focus on possibilities, not problems," ex-Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls said. "That doesn't mean being naíve or Pollyanna-ish."

At the end Block asked Ihara how he felt about the last hour. Unruffled, Ihara praised the "generosity of spirit" in the room.

"To me your hearts are exposed," he said.

Before leaving, Block asked the groups to reassemble to answer the question "What did you take away from this?"

Five minutes later, no one had left, and Block had to shout over the hubbub for final announcements. ©