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Editorial | On Politics

Sign waving seems crazy but it also seems to work

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I have a theory about why we get the political leaders we get.

It is because of sign waving.

What is it that takes the normal, akamai, pleasant Hawaii citizen and turns him or her into the perennial lei-wearing, egomaniacal, self-promoting politician capable of raising your taxes, sewer fees and bus rates while cutting government services, shutting schools on Fridays and skulking around the state Capitol and City Hall?

It’s those hours out in the sun and traffic, I tell you.

First they have not the sense to stand back from the traffic. The sign wavers are right on the curb, the signs are out into the traffic and they are waving frantically.

Some have adopted it into an aerobic art. I have to admire Sen. Carol Fukunaga, because she bends down to look every driver in the eye and then stands back up to wave. Back down, smile; back up, wave. How good can this be for you? Although … Fukunaga has been doing it for years and she still seems coherent.

Lobbyist and inveterate campaigner John Radcliffe says people sign-wave because it works.

"You need to make eye contact with people, you need to wave vigorously enough but not with so much vigor that they think you are nuts," Radcliffe recommends.

He reports that while most drivers appear to like sign wavers, there are exceptions.

"Sometimes someone will give you the finger; we mark them down as undecided," says Radcliffe.

A veteran legislative staffer admits she has been waving signs for candidates for 25 years — a quarter century baking in the sun, inhaling traffic fumes and still not hallucinating.

Hawaii has a strict sign-waving protocol that all politicians must observe, she advises. Supporters assemble wearing their candidate’s T-shirt. The candidate wears a red carnation lei. There has been some deviation in recent years away from red carnations, but the pros stick with what works.

"The bigger and redder, the better," she counsels.

Sign-waving is believed to have started with the late Charles Campbell, who needed an inexpensive way to let people know he was campaigning, although the family of the late Tom Gill says the Gill clan used to hold vertical banners for even-earlier Gill campaigns.

Perhaps the most over-the-top sign waver was former state Sen. Steve Cobb, who would start sign-waving in the early morning darkness. To be seen, Cobb would wrap himself up in Christmas tree lights and plug himself into a portable generator.

An arrest involving a prostitute in Waikiki, and not an arc-producing sudden rain shower, put the end to Cobb’s political career.

Candidates say Hawaii sign waving is the political economic leveler. From U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye to the Council candidate in Makawao, all must pay homage to the sign-waving gods. It is up to the voters to decide at what cost to the body politic.

Richard Borreca writes on politics on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Reach him at


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