Lee Donohue found himself back in uniform on Wednesday, six years after his retirement as chief of Honolulu’s police, though this time the official attire consisted of suit, tie and lei.
At 67, he had just won the unanimous selection by his eight new peers on the Honolulu City Council to serve the rest of Charles Djou’s term, a period of about six months.
The morning drama surprised some. While Donohue had the edge in terms of name recognition, he didn’t have the endorsement of Djou who, as he headed off for his own temporary stint in Congress, had endorsed his friend, attorney Jonathan Lai. But behind-the-scenes lobbying shifted the landscape enough that ultimately the dominoes all fell in Donohue’s direction.
The new councilman actually had contemplated entering politics through the front door, just after he left the police force in 2004 and just before opening his security business. Friends approached him to run for the Democratic nomination to challenge Gov. Linda Lingle in 2006, and later he was urged to campaign for a Council seat. He demurred then, and last year, after tragedy – the death of his son in a motorcycle accident – he found he had no stomach for campaigning. Even now, he still pledges he won’t run for a full term.
In other ways, however, Donahue has earned his political stripes, and doesn’t mind wearing them. Though he says Mayor Mufi Hannemann didn’t push him toward this job, the former chief acknowledges that the two have been "friends."
Question: During the Council meeting, Ann Kobayashi said the rumor was that you were the mayor’s pick. What do you say to that?
Answer: It’s well known that I have supported the mayor in the past. In his campaign as mayor, when I just retired as chief, I supported him. But I can be independent, too. The mayor and I have had differences, let me tell you.
Q: For example?
A: Soon after I retired, some people said I should run for governor. One told me, "You’re the guy we need – a nontraditional politician, with name recognition and public trust. You’re the guy." I said, "No, I’m not."
But I thought about it, and when I was doing my due diligence, I asked the mayor if he’d support me. And he said no.
Q: Why not?
A: Because of his nonpartisan stance, he couldn’t afford to. A few months later, maybe May, he came to me and said, "Would you consider running for Council?" And I said no. I was just building my business, and other things, and that was enough hot water.
Q: Tell us about your decision to seek this appointment.
A: I had some friends who were police officers, with friends on the City Council. I got an e-mail: "You should consider this. You could really help the city."
Q: What was your family’s reaction?
A: My wife said, "OK, only if you promise you’re not running later on." And I said OK.
Q: You’ve already said in interviews that you can help the city with a fireworks ban. Tell us about that.
A: If we were to try to enforce the fireworks law the way it is now, we wouldn’t have any police officers out on the street. They’d all be booking people all night. It’s not palatable. It’s a law that nobody obeys. It’s been part of the culture in the islands, and to change culture is hard.
I could support safe types of fireworks, not aerials, but we have to be able to shut down the importing of fireworks because the entrepreneurs have found loopholes to bring the aerials in. Right now I support a total ban, but I’m open to ideas.
Q: Any other priorities in the coming months?
A: For me, it’s APEC (the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit), in November 2011. It’s going to be all over Waikiki, and that’s my district. I plan to be very active working with the community preparing for that.
Q: Some point out that you are replacing someone who was elected as a fiscal conservative. How would you say your political views are different?
A: I think Charles did a good job representing the district on budgetary matters, keeping down spending. But when I look at it, there are costs we have no control over, union raises that come in, we have to pay. And look at the services we get from the city. I looked at it, and it was a balanced budget. We don’t want to burden the taxpayers too much when times are tight, but the city needs money to run.