Rod Tam — among the more colorful and controversial figures in Hawaii politics during a career that spanned three decades — died Wednesday due to complications from leukemia.
He was 65.
Tam earned a reputation for making his constituents his top priority during three decades at the state Capitol and then across the street at Honolulu Hale. He was first elected to the state House of Representatives in 1982 and served 12 years there before jumping to the Senate where he served two, four-year terms. He then won two consecutive terms to the City Council.
But in November 2011, Tam was sentenced to two nights in jail and 338 hours of community service after pleading guilty to stealing money from the city and violating campaign spending laws. Among the charges was that he falsified documents related to overcharging the city $8 to $267 for meals not related to city business at Honolulu restaurants from 2007 to 2009.
In March 2010 when the Council voted to censure him, Tam joined in the vote. He admitted to no wrongdoing at the time, acknowledging only that he had made several “math errors” and it was time for the Council to “move on with business.”
The censure came after the Ethics Commission fined Tam $2,000 and ordered him to pay $11,700 in restitution for using city funds to buy “hundreds” of meals unrelated to his city work totaling more than $22,000.
At his sentencing, he apologized to the court and stating that he regretted what happened. “I’ve made mistakes and I’ve learned from it,” he said.
In 2012 the Ethics Commission also fined Tam $813.53 for misusing city funds to buy city employees appreciation lunches and for a Chinese dinner for foreign delegates. Those cases dated back to 2009 and 2010.
His criminal record was expunged after five years under the state’s deferred acceptance of guilty plea law.
A fifth-generation Chinese- American, he was born and raised in Honolulu and grew up on Jack Lane in Nuuanu. He attended Kawananakoa Intermediate School and Roosevelt High School. A longtime Pauoa Valley resident, his political base included Liliha and Alewa Heights. He was also popular in the Chinese community and was one-time president of the United Chinese Society.
He first cut his teeth in politics as a member of the Nuuanu Neighborhood Board where he served for two years.
Tam also was known for his trademark moustache and light-blue, collared long-sleeve shirts — and for some eye-raising proposals. In the Legislature, he introduced a bill to give government workers time to nap and snack. At the Council, he proposed fining people who smelled bad on TheBus.
He tried to make a political comeback in 2016, running for the state Senate as a Republican but was defeated by Karl Rhoads. In the years after that, he appeared on occasion at City Hall urging his former colleagues to be cautious in dealing with the city’s troubled rail project.
Neighborhood Board Executive Director Shawn Hamamoto, Tam’s aide for nine years, said his former boss should be remembered for working tirelessly for his community. Tam told reporters he slept very little each night, something Hamamoto said was true. “He worked night and day and would give his cellphone number to literally anyone,” he said.
“The guy really had a big heart,” Hamamoto said. “He was Mr. Grassroots. He took great joy from empowering people.”
Former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann echoed Hamamoto’s comments and said he had a good working relationship with Tam.
“This guy really embraced the community,” Hannemann said. “Grass roots was what he was all about.”
Hannemann said he recalled stories of people saying that Tam would jump out of his car to help them clean their yards.
“As he was going through his neighborhood, that’s what he would do,” Hannemann said.
Hannemann said that when he visited with Tam at the hospital recently, he tried to get Hannemann to help someone in the community who needed assistance. “I said ‘Rod, ‘nuff already. Just relax!’” But Tam insisted that he had promised to help out that person, he said.
Hannemann said he also remembers that in the political realm, Tam was honest and a man of his word. “When we approached him for help, when he could help, he would say ‘yes’ and never wavered. When he couldn’t, he said ‘I cannot.’ Folks I don’t think understood that about him as I did having been a mayor and having Council members I had to deal with.”
He said it was unfortunate that people may remember his troubles with the law and the Ethics Commission first. “I would hope they not think of him in that fashion,” Hannemann said. “There was a lot of good in him. It’s unfortunate that his memory might be marred by the incidents that occurred. My memory of him will always be of a guy always trying to do good. He took his punishment and he paid a big price for what he did. But at the end of the day, in totality, he was a good and decent man.”
Tam is survived by wife Lynnette; son Gregg; daughter Laurie; father Bob; sister Noreen Clement; and brother Stanley.
“Rod worked very hard for over 30 years to help his community,” Tam’s family said in a statement. The family also thanked those who supported him since he was diagnosed in January.
Services are pending.