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Editorial | On Politics

Big Isle’s George Yokoyama makes big ripples in pond

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The give-away was the aloha shirt hanging two inches below the bottom of the faded "Members Only" jacket.

It was during my first trip to Washington as a reporter.

Next to me in the U.S. Capitol elevator was a tiny man wearing a ball cap so big it rested on his ears.

"You from Hawaii," I asked.

"Yup, I’m George," answered George Yokoyama.

"Got to see Akaka," he explained as he scurried out of the elevator, cupping a cigarette.

Yokoyama, 84, is one of those improbable delights that makes Hawaii politics such a good story.

"George Yokoyama is one of the most real, interesting and unique people I ever met in Hawaii politics or, for that matter, anywhere," says former U.S. Rep. Ed Case.

Case won Yokoyama’s endorsement and support in campaigns for both governor and Congress, although when Case ran against Yokoyama’s good friend U.S. Sen. Dan Akaka, Yokoyama went with the senator. Today Yokoyama is Neil Abercrombie’s biggest Big Island supporter.

To his critics, Yokoyama as the 40-year head of the Hawaii County Economic Opportunity Council is one of the most flagrant Democratic Party ward heelers funneling government dollars into questionable projects.

His many supporters, who last night were to hold a roast honoring the retiring Yokoyama, point to more than $75 million in grant money that Yokoyama brought to the Big Island to develop projects ranging from raising bull frogs to teaching seniors to use computers.

"He’s the Pied Piper of economic development in the war against poverty," says Rep. Clift Tsuji, whom Yokoyama convinced to leave his job to run for a state representative seat in Hilo.

Politics and economic opportunity are all the same to Yokoyama and he approaches both with the verve and style of Hilo’s version of Peter Falk playing Lt. Columbo.

"I first thought it had to be an act, but after you come to know him, you realize that he is doing it all from the heart. A lot of people believe George is one of the pivotal people on the Big Island," state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa says.

Noting that Yokoyama convinced Hawaiian activist Mililani Trask to endorse Case’s run for governor, Hanabusa says, "When George calls out the troops, they come. He is an institution in Hilo."

While Hawaii politicians are racing to embrace Twitter and Facebook to campaign, Case says that what they really need is the support of a grizzled veteran like Yokoyama.

"Voters are still getting most of the information on which they rely to make their voting decisions through traditional media and old-fashioned talk story at the poke counter at KTA Hilo," says Case.

"George is just one of those people whose ripples in the pond are larger and broader than most."

Richard Borreca writes on politics every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday. Reach him at
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