Frederick W. Rohlfing, a lawyer and moderate Republican leader who served in the Hawaii Legislature for 21 years and made two unsuccessful bids for U.S. Congress, died Aug. 10 at The Queen’s Medical Center of complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 89.
Services are pending.
Rohlfing was born Nov. 2, 1928, in Honolulu and grew up in Manoa. He attended Punahou School, Yale University and George Washington University Law School. His career in Hawaii politics spanned an era in which the influence of the “Big Five” sugar industry oligarchy faded.
In his 2010 memoir, “Island Son: The Life and Times of Hawaii’s Republican Reformer,” Rohlfing observed with some concern the increasing power of Hawaii’s public worker unions and the growing influence of what he described as “single issue” citizen groups that he believed led to an unhealthy fragmentation of Hawaii politics.
He also wrote critically of the “aggressive environmental interest lobby that I believe has overstepped its appropriate role,” citing the failure of the Hawaii Superferry as “a classic case of the frustration of public goals.”
Rohlfing’s own brand of Republican politics led him to vote for the landmark Prepaid Health Care Act in 1974 that required Hawaii employers to provide health insurance to full-time workers.
He was also a supporter of a rail system for Oahu — introducing a measure seeking a study of rail in 1961 — and supported the “liberal” program of land reform in Hawaii. Although working in the mid-1950s for a law firm that represented management interests, Rohlfing by the 1960s was representing the Hawaii Nurses Association in negotiations with four Oahu hospitals.
First elected to the state House in 1959 in his first campaign for office, Rohlfing moved up to the state Senate in 1966. He ran unsuccessfully against U.S. Rep. Spark Matsunaga for the U.S. House in 1972, and against Cecil Heftel for the same congressional seat in 1976.
During the 1980s, Rohlfing served as attorney general for American Samoa and as corporation counsel for Maui County.
His son, Frederick “Fritz” Rohlfing, said his father “could develop a rapport with just about anybody. That was his strength. He was a retail politician and he went door to door in places like Kaimuki and Palolo and those areas where Republicans don’t do very well and managed to come out on top in his Senate races. That was a key to his success.”
As a Republican serving in a state dominated by Democrats, “he wanted a seat at the table, but he was not somebody that would give very much on matters of principle, so that was always a tension and challenge in his political career because he had a lot of integrity,” Fritz Rohlfing said. “He wouldn’t just adopt a position because there were contributors or large entities that wanted something.”
Rohlfing was a commissioned Navy officer during the Korean War and continued to serve in the Reserves. He volunteered for a stint of temporary active duty that put him in Saigon when the Tet Offensive erupted in Vietnam in 1968.
Fritz Rohlfing described his father as an accomplished athlete and a fan of University of Hawaii athletics. An avid outdoorsman, he took his grown sons for a six-day backpacking trip in New Zealand when he was in his late 60s.
Rohlfing is also survived by son Karl Rohlfing of Haiku, Maui; stepdaughters Alice Newkirk and Michele Bond; six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. His second wife, Patty, died in 2011.