Dwight Takamine’s effort to help rebuild the job market on the Hamakua Coast after the collapse of the Big Island’s sugar industry is indicative of the passion he will bring to his new job as head of the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, his supporters say.
The former lawmaker will be able to draw on that experience as he explores ways to help the state’s labor market emerge from a two-year slump brought on by the worst recession in decades.
Takamine, who served 26 years in the state Senate and House, was a key player in helping displaced sugar industry workers find new jobs in the 1980s and 1990s. He also worked with employers and employees on programs to put back to work people who lost their jobs in the latest economic downturn. Takamine chaired the Senate Labor Committee before joining the Abercrombie administration and is considered a union ally. He declined to be interviewed for this article.
"He was instrumental in setting up programs to help get displaced workers back to work with educational programs during the downturn," said Allan Onishi, past president of the Kanoelehua Industrial Area Association, a Big Island business group.
"I worked with him very closely on getting positive legislation passed to support workers. He was able to get funding for programs to retrain unemployed workers instead of having them collect unemployment," said Onishi, a sales representative for food broker L.H. Gamble Co.
One of Takamine’s responsibilities in his new job will be to oversee the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund, which recently ran out of money and had to borrow $17 million from the federal government to pay benefits to Hawaii’s jobless.
Sen. Sam Slom, the lone Republican in the state Senate, says he fears the unemployment insurance program will be expanded under Takamine to the detriment of employers, who pay into the fund on behalf of their workers. Slom also predicted that Takamine, whose father was an ILWU leader on the Big Island, would support legislation that favored unions over management.
"That’s a shame because we need to be building a more business-friendly environment in Hawaii," Slom said.
"Too many times businesses have had to pay the lion’s share of costs like unemployment insurance," Slom said. "I’ve never begrudged anyone getting unemployment compensation who lost their job through no fault of their own, but Hawaii has one of the most liberal and generous unemployment insurance laws in the country."
Slom said that is one reason the fund became insolvent and had to borrow from the federal government.
Randy Perreira, executive director of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, said he felt Takamine will bring a "balanced" approach to employer-employee issues. He noted that Takamine’s deputy in the department is Audrey Hidano, who previously headed a construction company.
Perreira said he expects Takamine will place an emphasis on work-force development, which has been "largely forgotten" in recent years.
"Granted he is a labor guy, but he brings a passion to the job that many of his predecessors haven’t had. He has the passion to put a lot of energy into the department to ensure that there are improvements made," Perreira said.
Onishi said Takamine earned a reputation as being even-handed as a lawmaker. "Dwight looks at issues from the point of the sustainability of businesses. He is very balanced," Onishi said.
Takamine was first elected to the state House in 1984, filling a vacancy left by his father, Yoshito, who had represented the Hamakua-Hilo district for 26 years before retiring. Living in the tight-knit plantation community helped shape the younger Takamine’s approach to public service.
"He was always getting groups together and having community meetings so he would know what’s going on," Onishi said. "Working with different organizations, he was really open to listening to new ideas and meeting with different people."