Blake Oshiro was used to talking politics in Times Aiea. For the last 10 years as the area’s representative in the state House, he knew whenever he was in his neighborhood supermarket, people would recognize him and want to bend his ear about potholes or crosswalks. Outside of his district, he was fairly anonymous.
That changed dramatically this year as Oshiro, 40, became one of the most watched, most talked-about members of the Legislature.
"People recognize me downtown now," he says. "It catches me off guard. I didn’t necessarily want that."
Oshiro, an attorney with Alston Hunt Floyd and Ing who works on government contracts and employment law, rose to the fore as the author of the civil unions bill. He was the one who, on the last day of the session, made the motion to revive the tabled bill. It was a remarkably bold move in an election year.
"Democracy really only works when people are willing to stand up and take a vote," Oshiro said. "Heading into an election, our constituents need to know where we stand."
As it turned out, the civil unions bill was vetoed by Gov. Linda Lingle, but Oshiro handily beat his opponent, Gary Okino, a vehement opponent of same-sex marriage, in the primary. If people were looking at the District 33 race as a referendum on civil unions, Oshiro’s victory spoke loudly.
It has been reported that Oshiro came out as gay in this past legislative session, which isn’t the case.
"I had never hid it," he said. It was, however, the first time a reporter ever asked him about it. He answered truthfully but worried that people would become fixated on that answer.
"I didn’t want that to be the first adjective used to describe me," he said. "It is just one of many things I am, both good and bad."
The prominence that came with this past session translated to unexpected financial support in Oshiro’s campaign.
"I don’t like to fund-raise," he said. "I’m so shame to ask for money. But as it turned out, I didn’t even have to do a fundraiser this year. I could concentrate on the basics."
That means walking house to house in his district, knocking on 3,000 doors equipped with notes to remind him who called him about what issue, and sign-waving early in the morning with his father.
"My dad comes every time," Oshiro said. "He has a bunch of his friends, four or five guys who are all retired, too. They beat me there. If I say 6 a.m. they show up at 5:15."
Oshiro tries to see his mom and dad once or twice a week, often for dinner at Zippy’s. "I have the menu memorized," he says. "My area must have the highest quota of Zippy’s restaurants in a 2-mile radius."
He describes his childhood in a Pearl City cul-de-sac as "idyllic" and "Beaver Cleaver land." He and all of his friends came from stable, loving homes where there was no divorce, no drug problems, no upheaval.
"Square, square, square," he says.
His mother was a first-grade teacher at Momilani Elementary. His dad was an electrician for Hawaiian Tel.
But there was a lesson from that idyllic cul-de-sac that he carries to this day.
He was the youngest of three brothers and the littlest kid in the neighborhood of local Japanese families.
"We would play football in the cul-de-sac and the older boys would give me respect, they would let me run with the ball while they blocked everybody," he remembers.
But then a new family moved on to the street, a haole family with a boy around Oshiro’s age, who wasn’t made welcome on the tiny athletic field of the cul-de-sac.
"My mother took me aside and made it clear that wasn’t right. She said, ‘You have to treat people the way you want to be treated.’"
He knew what it was like to be different but still be included. His mother told him he had to do that for other people who were different, too.
Oshiro’s opponent on Nov. 2 is Republican Sam Kong, a neighborhood small businessman who once appeared in Oshiro’s campaign flier.
"He’s the nicest guy," Oshiro said. "I see him on the road and he waves enthusiastically. We’re worlds apart in terms of political views, but he called me on election night to wish me good luck."
Oshiro was a class representative in Pearl City High School student government and was student body president in elementary school. He’s always preferred being part of a group. Even now, he doesn’t entertain thoughts of higher office.
"I never liked being the main person or the central figure. As long as I feel I’m effective, I like the House. I like my colleagues," he says. Though he’s been in office 10 years and hopes to continue, he doesn’t see himself being a career politician. "If I ever find myself just taking up space, I have better things to do with my life."