Like many teenagers, when he first learned how to drive, Rod Tam borrowed his parents’ car.
That’s when he really took notice of the condition of the roads in his Nuuanu community, particularly Jack Lane.
"I started inquiring about getting the road resurfaced," he recalls.
And thus began his foray into politics.
While he was attending the University of Hawaii, he would periodically do research into the road — who owned it, who was responsible for the maintenance, how to go about getting it resurfaced.
By the time he finished college in 1977, the road was resurfaced. And while the issue that sparked his examination of politics had been taken care of, his interest in public service and government was only just beginning.
"I enjoy helping people," he says. "I enjoy being out in the community. I have this thirst for learning what’s happening."
For almost three decades, Tam has served in some form of elected office, starting off on the neighborhood board before moving onto the state House, the state Senate and now to the City Council, where he has represented the Downtown-Punchbowl-Liliha district since 2002.
With his time on the Council up due to term limits, Tam has set his sights on a higher office: the executive branch. He is among the four major candidates seeking to fill the final two years in the mayoral term vacated by Mufi Hannemann, who resigned in July to run for governor.
"I’m a public service-oriented person. I love to provide help to the public — especially at the city," he says. "I’ve gone through the state as a representative and senator.
PROFILE | Rod Tam
» Age: 56
» Family: Wife; two children, ages 18 and 17.
» Education: University of Hawaii-Manoa (1977)
» Elected experience: State House of Representatives (1982-1994); state Senate (1994-2002); Honolulu City Council (2002-present).
» Other experience: State Senate Ways and Means committee, budget analyst; State Community Cancer Program of Hawaii, fiscal officer; Hawaii Transportation Association, research analyst; State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, business agent and financial planner.
"Now with the city, I find it more hands-on — in the community. That’s why I enjoy it."
His campaign is not without some significant baggage, his background as a public servant blemished.
Tam is the subject of a criminal investigation stemming from his use of Council funds for hundreds of meals and other expenses not related to his city work.
In March, he was censured by the Council in a 9-0 vote that included himself, and reached an agreement to settle an ethics complaint. He agreed to pay $11,700 in restitution and a $2,000 civil fine, but admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement.
The Ethics Commission turned over its findings to the state attorney general’s office to review and determine whether to file criminal charges. The attorney general’s office has not commented on the matter.
Tam acknowledged poor record-keeping and faulty math, and argued that rules covering discretionary expenses need clarification.
He previously deflected questions about the investigation, saying it all focuses on speculation.
"Basically it was an unfortunate incident — a learning experience," he says now. "It’s a matter of how people perceive things."
He has declined to talk about it in detail, but says people do not bring it up to him while he is out campaigning.
To those who question whether he has the character to be mayor, Tam explains his approach as trying to make people feel comfortable.
"Basically, I express to them who I am: I’m a caring person," he says. "It’s a grass-roots approach."
Despite the controversy, Tam plans to continue with his style of service and campaigning — meeting with constituents personally to discuss issues.
"I tend to be one who’s out in the community, not behind a desk," he says.
That was true from his very first campaign. Even though it was only for a seat on the neighborhood board, Tam, fresh out of college, said he was among the most enthusiastic candidates.
As he recalls, he was likely the first neighborhood board candidate who bothered to wave signs.
"Usually people just put their name in the hat and hope for the best," he says. "I actually walked door-to-door, twice, around the whole neighborhood and got elected."
Then it was a matter of calling up other board members to see where they stood on certain issues.
"They said they just wanted to be involved in the community," Tam says. "I said, ‘To be honest, I have an agenda. I want to get involved in the community in a general way, but I also want to resurface all the roads.’
"That was my goal. So I became chairman."
From there, he launched his first campaign for the state House.
Longtime friend Edwina Lee was among his first campaign volunteers. They did community service together with the Junior Chamber of Commerce, better known as the Jaycees.
"When he first told me, a long time ago, that he wanted to run for office, I thought he was crazy," she says with a laugh. "I asked him, ‘Why do you want to run for office?’ He told me he wanted to help people."
Tam faces perhaps the toughest road on the way to Honolulu Hale. In a recent Star-Advertiser/Hawaii News Now poll, Tam was last among the four major candidates, pulling just 4 percent of the vote. His favorability rating also was the lowest, at just 9 percent.
Still, Tam believes his message is resonating with voters, based on some of the comments he gets from constituents.
"Exposure as a candidate has brought in people from all the different communities," he says. "Not only have they come from the Council district, but islandwide."
He bills himself as a mayor who can stimulate the economy by pursuing foreign investors, cultivating the various relationships he has forged through visits to Asia, particularly one in the 1984 with then-Gov. John Waihee to China. The visit resulted in a Sister City relationship with Guangdong province.
"He has these ties with business and government leaders in these various countries," Lee says. "His vision is to do international trade and bring in business from the Orient."
Other campaign themes include increasing the productivity and efficiency of government services and finding solutions for increased affordable housing while understanding the needs of senior citizens.
"He does have over 28 years of experience in government," Lee says. "He knows the ins and outs. He knows the structure and the process. One of his goals is to educate the public on how to go about doing things."
Tam pledges to be a collaborator and consensus builder, too, traits he learned from his father.
"My father is my role model," he says. "He provided for the family. I have a brother and sister, and he always was one to communicate the differences within the family. You’ve got to build consensus and common goals. That’s why I’m goal-oriented."
He adds: "My leadership style is working with people. The common goal is public service — providing those public service needs."
Despite the odds of pulling off an upset, Tam knows one thing about his future is for certain.
"I will still do community service because I love community service," he says. "I love helping people."