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Governor's press secretary keeps calm in face of chaos

By Lee Cataluna

LAST UPDATED: 2:02 a.m. HST, Nov 21, 2011

For the past year, Donalyn Dela Cruz has been in the most high-profile and possibly most challenging media relations job in the state, serving as press secretary for Neil Abercrombie, a governor struggling with low voter-approval ratings and a brutal economy. She is the voice of a man who himself is very vocal and is on the front line for critical questions lobbed at his administration.

"A good day for me is when I've read stories that tell both sides and when the public can gain from that information," she said.

A bad day, though, has her every bit as fiery, though perhaps not as loud, as her famously fire-breathing boss.

It is a fascinating role for a woman with small-town sensibilities and a love of performing arts who could have chosen a career that wouldn't have made her a target of so much hostility, much of it in the form of anonymous online snark.

Dela Cruz, 36, was raised in Wahiawa, a community she describes as two bridges away and "total country" with pigs and chickens and a goat named Billy in the yard. "Born on the third floor of Wahiawa General, lived on the east range by the gulch, walked to school with my brother every day," she said. (Her brother Donovan, her elder by two years, is the former City Council chairman and current state senator.)

She started working when she was 8 or 9 years old, delivering the Sun Press newspaper. Later she cleaned classrooms at Wahiawa Intermediate and Leilehua High School for extra money, working after school and between sports.

She was in track and field, played soccer, softball and even basketball, competing in tall-girl sports though she is tiny.

"I thought I was too short to run hurdles," she said, "But I had speed."

There was also JPO, band, years of dancing with Hokulani De Rego's halau, summers working at a lychee farm, and various student government positions, including senior class president of Leilehua in 1993.

"In high school, a teacher took me aside and said, 'Donalyn, you can't do it all.' That was the first time I heard the word 'burnout.'" Dela Cruz's mother told her to ignore the teacher's warnings. "She said, 'Only you can decide what's right for you. There is no limit. The only limit is what you put on yourself.'"

She graduated from UH-Manoa and from 1997-2003 was a reporter at KHON-TV.

"I came from a newsroom background where Leslie Wilcox was my mentor and Barbara Marshall was my supervisor. Accuracy and integrity was everything."

She served as press secretary to U.S. Sen. Dan Akaka in D.C. for two years and worked in communications for Bishop Museum and the Hawaii Democratic Party.

As her career has led to positions of greater influence and, it can be said, more conflict, Dela Cruz has maintained her creative outlets as well. She has acted in indie films and music videos, written for television shows and has, for several years, brought down the house with a dead-on impersonation of Colleen Hanabusa at the annual Gridiron show. In that event, put on by Hawaii journalists, Dela Cruz rehearses alongside former colleagues and some of the very same reporters she tangles with at her current job.

As the governor's press secretary for his turbulent first year in office, she's been at the forefront of stories ranging from Obama's birth certificate to the recent exodus of key staff members to his beef with the teachers union, answering questions that seemingly have no boundaries, being attacked in online comments, and trying to get the governor's point across to a community tired of talk.

"It wouldn't affect me if I didn't believe in what I was doing," she said. "But at the same time, I feel sorry for the people who never have anything good to say, that it's so quick for some people to see everything negative."

On tough days, she thinks of her family, how her immigrant grandfather had to work hard and prove himself to finally win a job as a truck driver, how her grandmother worked as a janitor for as long as she was able to work.

"One time when I was working at KHON, I was having a hard time. I turned to my brother for advice, and he told me, 'You think this is hard? Think about grandma and grandpa.' And I did. And I shut up."

Lee Cataluna can be reached at

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