Marilyn Bornhorst, a forward-thinking former Honolulu City Council woman who helped preserve open views along the Ka Iwi coastline, promoted the idea for what today is Kakaako’s largest public green space and helped community organizations navigate the political landscape, has died. She was 93.
Bornhorst died May 13 of a brain aneurysm, said her daughter Mimi Bornhorst Gaddis. She had been living in Arcadia, a retirement home in Makiki.
In 1974 Bornhorst, then a McCully-Makiki community leader, beat an 18-year Honolulu City Council veteran to win the seat representing the Ala Moana-Makiki district. She was only the second woman to be elected to the Council and served for the next 3-1/2 terms to 1988. She was the first woman to chair the Council, from 1977 to 1979 and again in 1986.
A 1979 Honolulu Star- Bulletin news article said Bornhorst’s call for a revolution for uninvolved voters made her the “symbol of the movement” to strengthen the city’s ethics rules in response to “special interest” voting in favor of developers.
Bornhorst Gaddis said her mother was “tough” and stood up to the rest of the Council, who were all male during her first two terms, with many of them pro-development. She fought for issues unpopular with the Council at the time, such as maintaining parks and open green spaces, protecting trees and zoning issues. She also introduced bills to increase affordable housing.
“She wasn’t the sit-down-and-complain-about-it person,” Bornhorst Gaddis said.
In a 1991 Honolulu Advertiser article, then-Gov. John Waihee recalled that Bornhurst was the one who took him down in the early ’80s to a shoreline landfill near Kewalo Basin and suggested the area be turned into a park.
“That’s when I first got the idea,” Waihee said of the space that he transformed into the 30-acre Kakaako Waterfront Park.
In the early ’80s former Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who was a state senator at the time, worked closely with Bornhorst when she was on the Council. He said she lived her philosophy of service to the community and maintaining the values of aloha.
“She was the epitome of public service and a symbol of what good governance was all about and what it should be,” Abercrombie said. “She was totally committed to the public interest.”
He said Bornhorst represented the “true essence of democracy — totally available to everybody, absolutely selfless in her com- mitment,” and looked out for the entire island, not only her district. He said she was heavily involved in environmental issues, from clean water to clean air to parks, but those weren’t her only areas of concern.
When the AIDS epidemic began emerging in the early ’80s and little was known about the disease, Bornhorst was one of the first county politicians in the country to push for public policy to address the disease, Abercrombie said.
The fear was palpable at the time, Abercrombie said, along with the disapproval by some in the public and the desperation by people affected by the disease, which was still a death sentence at the time.
“AIDS was attacking people,” Abercrombie said. Information was still limited, and people were getting infected not only by sexual activities, but also through blood transfusions and exchanging drug needles.
In 1987 at least one scientist called for quarantining the nation’s 2 million people with AIDS on Molokai and called the disease the “greatest plague ever to hit the world.”
“In this atmosphere of fear and loathing and anxiety and anger, Marilyn Bornhorst stood out for saying, ‘OK, this is something that is affecting our community up to the point of death, and we’re going to come to grips with it,” Abercrombie said.
Bornhorst and Aberecrombie worked to support the Life Foundation, the first nonprofit in Hawaii to address the AIDS epidemic. Now called the Hawaii Health &Harm Reduction Center, the organization continues to address HIV, homelessness, mental illness and poverty.
Dr. David McEwan, a retired family medicine physician and co-founder of the Life Foundation, said both Abercrombie and Bornhorst supported him with starting the nonprofit in 1982, to educate the community and create policies to slow the disease. Bornhorst offered her home as a place for meetings and served on the foundation’s advisory council, offering advice for how to navigate the political landscape.
“I always considered her as one of our philosophers who was wise and could teach us things,” McEwan said. She helped the Life Foundation with creating anti-discrimination laws and introducing controversial programs such as testing, school education and needle exchange to reduce the spread of HIV among intravenous drug users.
Phil Estermann, a co-founder of the Save Sandy Beach Initiative Coalition, a community-led conservation effort to protect the coast from development, said Bornhorst was a “tireless” leader who brought attention to stopping development along the Ka Iwi coastline in East Oahu.
“She was an early advocate for keeping the area open space,” Estermann said.
In the early ’80s Bornhorst was one of those who led the effort to downgrade the zoning from resort to preservation for the Queen’s Beach area near Makapuu, now known as Awawamalu beach, Estermann said.
Then when Kaiser Development Co. wanted to build about 170 homes across from Sandy Beach, Bornhorst invited the public to get involved, and the public voted overwhelmingly against the development. Estermann said Bornhorst’s call for public engagement inspired him to get involved and gave “energy” to the community to start the coalition.
“She was the inspiration for all of us that got involved,” he said. She “led the fight” on the Council and in the public by seeking participation. The state Supreme Court eventually ruled that the public vote did not count because only the City Council can make land use decisions, but eventually the state purchased the land to preserve it.
Estermann said Bornhorst set the standard for “honesty and ethics” in politics and helped those opposed members of the community navigate the political maze.
“She was compassionate and sensitive, but very direct and matter of fact about what you’re talking about and who you would be doing battle with if you brought an issue to the Council,” Estermann said.
Bornhorst also co-f0unded Hawaii’s Thousand Friends in the early ’80s. The nonprofit continues today to work on ensuring land use decisions protect the environment and resources.
Bornhorst was born in Dearborn, Mich., in 1927. Her father moved to California as part of the federal work program after losing his job at the Ford Motor Co. during the Great Depression. The rest of the family, including Bornhorst, soon followed.
She attended the University of California, Los Angeles, where she graduated with a political science degree and met her future husband, Karl Bornhorst. The couple moved to Waikiki where they married in the 1950s.
She was executive director of the National Association of Social Workers before being elected to the Honolulu City Council. After 13 years on the Council, she resigned to run for mayor against then-Mayor Frank Fasi. After coming in second, she retired and later started her own real estate company.
“I do a really good job of getting people into homes,” Bornhorst told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 2003. “It’s like a continuation of the City Council.”
Her daughter said she continued bodyboarding into her 80s.
Bornhorst is survived by daughters Heidi Leianuenue Bornhorst and Mimi Bornhorst Gaddis, brother Kenneth, nieces and nephews, and extended family.
Services are pending.