His unlikely political career began more than a quarter-century ago as a young environmental scientist on Kaua’i. Jeremy Harris was concerned about over-development and threats to the natural environment, and felt the best way to make himself heard was to jump into elective politics.
From Kaua’i, Harris moved to Honolulu, where he represented the environmentalist ethic in the 1978 Constitutional Convention. From there, he found himself at Honolulu City Hall, when then-Mayor Frank Fasi appointed him as a top aide.
When Fasi quit the mayor’s office to run for governor in 1994, Harris became acting mayor, was elected to fill out Fasi’s term, and then went on to win two terms as mayor in his own right.
Now, those years as mayor and that long unexpected career in politics are coming to an end. On Jan. 2, Harris will step down as mayor and, as he tells it, will end his career in electoral politics. Among his proudest accomplishments is making Honolulu a world-class example of a “sustainable” city, one that preserves and nurtures existing resources, whether environmental, fiscal or social.
Harris recently sat down with The Advertiser’s Jerry Burris to talk about his years as mayor, his disappointments, his proudest achievements and what he believes the next mayor should do to keep the momentum going. Here are excerpts from that interview:
Q: Your term is winding down. You have a lot of things in place, a lot of things that are just launching or will take off in the next few weeks. Wouldn’t you like to stick around?
A: Oh, it’s going to be very hard to walk away from the city. I’ve been either the mayor or the managing director for the last 20 years.
The city is almost like a child. You know every intersection and every tree that is planted and every park and every roadway improvement. And so turning it over to someone is like turning over your child to a foster parent. It’s difficult.
And you’re not sure if the foster parent is going to take good care of your child. My hope is that the next mayor will recognize the value of these programs and recognize the status we’ve attained internationally — because Honolulu really is viewed internationally as a model. I know people here perhaps don’t understand that. But I’m invited to speak all over the world on the Honolulu miracle.
So my hope is that the next mayor is not going to stop the recycling program. The expansion of H-Power, which is vital for us stopping the landfill operation — H-Power is a financial engine for the city, so to stop it would be both financially and environmentally a bad idea.
Q: Do you have some fears that some of these things might be put on the shelf?
A: Well, I’m not hearing that, but I’m just apprehensive about what’s going to happen when there’s a new mayor in this office. And we had an instance just a few days ago with the Natatorium where both candidates pledged they were going to stop the remedial emergency work at the Natatorium. Well, that concerns me because that says to me they must not have read the engineering report. Independent engineering analysts went down there and looked at it and they said there is a real and present danger here.
Announcing a decision before you read the analysis or speak to the experts is alarming. And if you do tear it down, you have to invest about $20 million to rebuild piers out into the water, stone groins, or else the beach will be gone within a month, because the Natatorium created the sandy beach.
Q: What do you think, if you had more time, had another year, is there something that is not going to get where you want it to be by the time you leave?
A: I’d like to have every house serviced with curbside recycling before I leave. And that was my goal, and of course, the council has thrown up roadblock after roadblock, delay after delay, so we’re not going to be able to get that done but we’ll at least have the first phase done by the end of the year.
And I would have liked to have gotten a monorail system built. That’s not going to happen in a year. I think the Bus Rapid Transit system is going to open a lot of people’s eyes as to the capability of hybrid electric rubber-tire system.
I think what we probably need on the island is a monorail system that is a hybrid electric system.
Q: Have you come to the conclusion that whatever happens with transit here in the future, that it’s just smarter to go alone, without federal help?
A: Oh, absolutely. With the pain and the cost and the delays, you can’t do the federal process in anything short of eight years.
Q: So then if you’re talking about a $1 billion to $2 billion system, you’re saying it’s got to be raised right here. Where do you get that kind of money?
A: You have a dedicated tax. And the next mayor has to be willing to say — and the governor, and the Legislature, and the council have to be willing to say — when it comes to transportation, there is no free lunch. No one’s going to come in here and build the system and it’s going to be free, and you only pay a dollar to ride; that’s not real.
The reality is, if we want transportation improvements, we’re going to have to pay for it. But as a political realist, I have my doubts.
Q: What are your political plans?
A: Well, to tell you the truth, I’m really looking forward to getting out of politics right now. A lifetime of political involvement is enough.
It’s time for something else.
Politics is so brutal in today’s world. Both at the national level and at the local level. It’s driving a lot of the good people out, and it’s discouraging promising new political leaders from getting in, even just taking positions within government.
Something is wrong when you can’t get people willing to take the top spots in government because of the negative climate that exists. I think our whole country is going through quite a trauma right now. I’ve never seen our nation so divided; the animosity is so great.
But I think nationally right now, whoever the next president is, the top priority has got to be reuniting this nation. And I don’t think Bush can do it. I think only Kerry can do it.
Q: Have you voted already?
A: No, I was going to do it this afternoon, but I didn’t get back in time.
Q: Have you said anything as mayor as to who you’d prefer as a successor?
A: No, and to tell you the absolute truth, I was going to decide as I walked into the booth today. I don’t know which of the two to support. I know both of them, and I think both have their pluses and minuses, and I can’t yet decide which one is going to be better to lead the city.
I’m disappointed in the campaign. I don’t think the campaign’s been a very elucidating campaign at all. I don’t think it’s clear what either one of them stands for, or where they want to take the city.
I think that is a shame that there hasn’t been a higher level of political discourse. I think people want and need to be able to vote their hopes and aspirations, and when public discourse in a public campaign doesn’t enter that level at all, then people end up voting their prejudices. And that’s sad.
I think we need to spend more time thinking about the big picture and developing dreams for our community and for our kids and thinking big.
Q: If you’re through with elective politics, as you just said, what do you plan on doing?
A: I haven’t decided. Ramona and I were talking about that. I want to find some way to make a contribution. I would like it to be (one) that uses my background in management and in sustainability.
Q: You got into City Hall because you got a job with (Mayor) Frank Fasi, and then that relationship got worse over time. Was it just a difference of opinion or was it more than that?
A: Well, I have to say, Frank and I have had our differences. and despite all the personal hard feelings and all the nasty things that have been said, when you look back over his tenure, he did a lot of good things for this city.
I think what his greatest strength was that he wasn’t afraid to try the unorthodox. And sometimes the ideas didn’t pan out. But sometimes they ended up being brilliant. So despite the personal animosity, I think that needs to be recognized.
Our falling out really came during that (first campaign for mayor in 1994). He basically didn’t want me to run, because he thought that would take away resources from his gubernatorial effort. And we disagreed on that.
I had been managing director for nine or 10 years and had paid my dues and knew the city better than anyone and was, I thought, better capable to become mayor than any other candidate, and I thought that I had a right to run.
Q: Was it always in your mind that you would move up from mayor to governor, or were we all just assuming that?
A: Oh, no, I was considering it but — and this may surprise you: Everyone has assumed I’ve had this enormous overriding ambition to be governor. The fact is, the best job, the very best job, on the island, is managing director of the City and County of Honolulu.
The second-best job is mayor of Honolulu. Where I get my personal satisfaction is not from the politics. I hate politics. I don’t get pleasure from political interchange and all the political intrigue or the acquisition of power and the wielding of power.
What I get pleasure from is the physical accomplishment. It’s building the park or putting in the tree or building the affordable-housing project. That’s where I get my reward.
Q: So, you did at least seriously think about running for governor that first time. Is it because you felt there was a leadership vacuum out there? If you enjoy this gig, what pulled you in another direction?
A: Well, a lot of it is the career path. You get into this career of politics. And there is a progression: mayor, governor, senator, president of the United States.
But ultimately, what I decided was to stay here, because this is what I enjoy doing, and this is where I thought I could make a difference, and this is where I had the knowledge and skills.
Q: The second time you considered running for governor, it was a little different, wasn’t it? It wasn’t a matter of choosing between two possible jobs. You got hit with a two-by-four this last time around.
A: I would have gone last time, if I thought I could have won.
Q: To me, that’s a perplexing statement. In politics, if the person feels that they’re right for the job, doesn’t that drive you? Not a poll at any given time saying that you can win or not win?
A: Yeah, but put it in context. I was in a position where I had another two and a half years as mayor — or run for governor with polls that showed it was a long shot for me to win.
I think I made the right decision. I mean, I don’t think I would’ve won. I think I would’ve won the primary, but I don’t think I would’ve won the general.
Q: How much do you think that campaign spending commission charges about illegal contributions factored in this?
A: In the polls that we did, that wasn’t the biggest factor in bringing down my numbers. Actually, the thing that brought my numbers down was the four-month battle with the City Council over the budget.
As you recall, a new budget chair came in, and it was a daily almost front-page story about city budget and all the rest. That’s what knocked the numbers way down. The biggest thing that hurt me was that the daily drumbeat of problems with the city budget — you remember there was all the talk that the city was going to go bankrupt
And of course, the campaign spending stuff didn’t help. That was on top of it.
Q: And the voters are not analyzing who’s right or wrong, they’re just reading the headlines?
A: Yes. The biggest mistake I’ve made in the last 10 years has been my poor relationship with the media. I mean, that was an enormous mistake on my part. I think that instead of building a positive relationship with the media, I ended up with a confrontational relationship with the media.
I think when I first started out, we were sending press releases out on a daily basis: You know, the mayor was cutting this ribbon, and digging that sewer, and riding on the back of that garbage truck and all the rest.
And after a few months, that wore very thin. So most news directors told their reporters: don’t include Harris in the story. We could walk on water, and we were cut out of the story. When you get to the point that you have so alienated the media that they are only going to run a negative spin if they include you at all in a story, then it’s very difficult to communicate positive things with the public.
Q: One the least-happy times for you has been ‘Ewa Villages (in which a city official was convicted of siphoning off as much as $6 million in public money in a phony relocation scam). How did that happen?
A: I think it was a combination of factors. It was internal control procedures that were not nearly as refined as they should’ve been. But on top of that, it was someone who was very cagey in knowing how to circumvent the internal control procedures that were in place, and how to satisfy all the bureaucratic requirements that were necessary in order to get reimbursements, and do the bidding and all the rest.
To their credit, the Finance Department has gone back and I think plugged every loophole and tightened up every review procedure.
I am proud of the way we handled ‘Ewa Villages. Because the second that any hint that there might be something wrong came to my desk, I picked up the phone and called the authorities and called the investigators, and they went in, and so there wasn’t any delay.
Q: Are you comfortable that you got as far as you needed to go in determining responsibility for the ‘Ewa Villages scam?
A: Oh yeah.
Q: I know this is going to be frustrating for you also, because, every day there’s a story about a contractor or engineer pleading or paying a fine (for illegal campaign contributions) Somehow your name is usually mentioned. Is there anything you’ve tried to do, or can do, or have done to break this thing?
A: Over the last three years, there have probably been a thousand times in the newspapers and TV news when the innuendo is out there: that you trade contracts for political contributions to City Hall. And that is an outrage, because we don’t do that. And we have never done that. The people that decide who get contracts have nothing to do with the politics, and don’t know who contribute or who doesn’t contribute.
And yet there is no way for us to defend ourselves. We just get the innuendo that so-and-so contributed, and oh, they have a contract. Thousands of people have city contracts. Thousands and thousands of companies do business with the city.
I’m sure there’s not a person on the street who doesn’t believe that you trade contracts for contributions in Honolulu. And that is terrible, not only to do it, to me and to my reputation, but to all the people that are involved, who actually do the contracting for the city. They are honest, hard-working professionals, most of them civil servants, and they don’t deserve that, to be tarred with that brush.
And after three years and millions of dollars of investigation, there’s no showing that there’s any relationship between contracts and contributions. And there won’t be. Why? Because there hasn’t been. At least in my administration. Now, I can’t speak for state government for the last 40 years or any of my predecessors, but I know darn well that our people haven’t done that. And yet there’s nothing that can be done. You just sit back and have to bear the smear.
Q: What do you suppose drives these guys to bundle contributions and do things when they know it’s not kosher, it’s not legal?
A: I don’t know. But why does anybody contribute to these campaigns? Why do people contribute $200 million to Bush and $200 million to Kerry and millions of dollars to Lingle? Why? Obviously, because they want to get those people elected.
Obviously, nobody should violate the law, but to presuppose that because someone violates a campaign-spending law, that there is some corruption at City Hall, is unfair. First of all, it’s not true, and it’s unfair.
Q: But when someone reads the paper and he learns that some guy managed to over-contribute to Jeremy Harris, isn’t it reasonable that the person would say: Well, why did he do that? He must be trying to buy something something. Wouldn’t that be a natural human reaction?
A: Well that’s the innuendo that goes in the story. I mean, why is someone contributing in the first place? Whether they contribute $4,000 or $5,000, why are they contributing in the first place? Why are people contributing millions of dollars for the president and millions of dollars for the governor?
The most expensive mayor’s race in history — we’re seeing that right now. Why are they doing that? Well, it’s obviously because they think they’re going to be better off with their guy in.
There’s such cynicism today. If you read any newspaper in the country or turn on any news report, the underlying assumption of the story is, if someone is in public service, if someone works for public government, they are either inept, incompetent or corrupt.
Q: What’s the first thing you’re going do when you step out of here?
A: Actually, In January, I have speaking engagements in Australia, Abu Dhabi, the Mainland. I’ve got six or seven international speaking engagements. There’s an enormous demand to hear Honolulu’s story. So I probably have 40 speaking engagements committed to for next year already.
Q: How will you keep body and soul together?
A: Well, I can retire … I’ve been in the state retirement system for 30 years.
Q: What do you see yourself doing? Consulting? Environmental work?
A: Environmental work. And I think it depends on what happens in Washington on Nov. 2. But I’m really going to wait till January to see where the opportunities lie.
Q: You really will put a lid on it for a little while right now?
A: Yeah, I mean, I’ll continue to talk about it and think about it, but there’s no rush to walk into a job on January second or first or whatever it is.
Q: So, you’re through with elective politics?
A: Well, right now, yes. Well, never say never, but that’s not where I see myself going.