Fellow lawmakers, friends and family gathered to honor the life of the late state Rep. Clift Tsuji on Friday, remembering his booming voice, fairness as a committee chairman tackling divisive topics, and deep love for his family and district.
Tsuji’s son, Ryan Kalei Tsuji, at a service in the packed House chamber, remembered his father as the “coqui frog legislator” who fought for resources to combat the noisy critters.
“We have lost a real gentleman, one who has worked tirelessly for the state,” said House Speaker Joe Souki. “Small in stature but tall in heart, he was never afraid of confrontation. … He would stand his ground.”
Tsuji, who died unexpectedly at age 75, suffered a heart attack and did not survive a procedure to repair his heart, his son said. “It’s hard to imagine that his heart wasn’t strong enough, because he was a man that was so generous, so caring and so loving,” he said.
A safe opened after Tsuji’s death held not money, but letters, postcards and articles about his sons, Ryan Tsuji said.
Clift Tsuji, a Democrat, was first elected to represent parts of the Big Island in the House in 2004.
As chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Tsuji made decisions on bills pushed by those who wanted to curtail the agriculture industry’s use of pesticides and the cultivation of genetically modified food in Hawaii, issues that have drawn thousands of activists to the state Capitol in recent years.
Former state Rep. Pono Chong, who began his service at the Capitol the same year as Tsuji, recalled a time when hundreds of such protesters gathered in the Capitol rotunda chanting, “Clift Tsuji, hear our bill,” and Tsuji calmly went out to talk with them. When there were rumblings that some might stage a sit-in in Tsuji’s office, Chong said he and Tsuji decided to join them in the office, thinking that if things got heated they could leave through the back door, but found out “Clift doesn’t have a back door to his office.”
Even so, “he was not going to walk away from it,” Chong said. “He didn’t want to run.”
Chong recalled a less known chapter of Tsuji’s life as host of a radio show on Hawaii island. “We used to joke with him and ask him, ‘Is that where you got your very distinct, very deep style and booming voice?’ and he would just smile and look at us and say, ‘Absolutely,’” Chong said.
Tsuji was raised in the Big Island plantation town of Papaikou. He graduated from Hilo High School in 1959 and completed postsecondary degrees at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the University of Washington, Pacific Coast Banking School.
He served in the U.S. Army Reserve from 1959 to 1965.
To fill Tsuji’s seat the Democratic Party will submit a list of three prospective appointees, and Gov. David Ige will choose from the three within 60 days of Nov. 15. The party has not yet submitted those names, party spokesman Alexander Wheeler said Friday.
Flags at the Capitol were flying at half-staff from sunrise to sunset.