State Sen. Breene Harimoto is being remembered as a dedicated statesman whose soft-spoken and humble nature masked his penchant to pick a side and stick to it regardless of the consequences.
Harimoto, 66, died Thursday night after a long battle with pancreatic cancer that did not keep him from continuing to serve his Pearl Harbor-Pearl City-Aiea district up through the first part of this year’s session.
“Breene Harimoto was one of the kindest people I have ever known, a man who truly cared about others,” said Senate President Ron Kouchi in a statement. “He served his constituents with honor and treated everyone around him with kindness and respect. His legacy of public service will continue to benefit the people of Hawaii for many years to come. On behalf of the Hawaii Senate ohana, we offer our deepest condolences to his wife Cheryl, and his children and grandchildren.”
Harimoto, a Democrat and life-long Pearl City resident, was first elected to the Senate in 2014 after serving four years on the Honolulu City Council. Prior to that, he was a member and one-time chairman of the state Board of Education, whose members at the time were elected.
Under state law, the Hawaii Democrat Party is to submit to the governor a list of three prospective successors to fill his seat. Gov. David Ige then will have 60 days to select from the list someone to fill the remaining two years of Harimoto’s four-year term.
“Breene was the most gentle man I ever met,” said Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, with whom Harimoto was often politically allied. “I have not seen anyone with the standards that he lived his life by — a very spiritual person, a very ethical person.”
Councilman Brandon Elefante, who worked as his aide from 2011 to 2014 before replacing Harimoto as the Council District 8 representative at Honolulu Hale, called Harimoto his hero and mentor. He credited Harimoto as the reason he sought public office.
“He gave me hope and faith in government,” Elefante said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for him. He always showed me that you display service from the heart and work hard … ; his light will never dim.”
Council Chairman Ikaika Anderson called Harimoto “an exceptional public servant and an even better human being.”
Hawaii Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald praised Harimoto for supporting an independent Judiciary.
“Even while undergoing treatment, he welcomed visitors to his office and always listened thoughtfully to all sides of an issue,” Recktenwald said. “He was a strong supporter of an independent Judiciary and successfully advocated for funding to improve our facilities.”
During the 2020 session, Harimoto sponsored a bill to prohibit government employees found guilty of a felony from receiving their pensions.
Despite his soft-spoken demeanor, Harimoto wasn’t shy to speak his mind, even if it would make him publicly unpopular or put him in the political doghouse.
He unapologetically supported the Thirty Meter Telescope at Mauna Kea, the Honolulu rail project and the ban on plastic bags at retail businesses.
In 2018, he was one of only two lawmakers in the 25-member Senate to vote against medically assisted death, citing his faith as he faced a second bout with cancer.
Harimoto had been diagnosed in 2015 with an aggressive form of pancreatic cancer, which went into remission after eight months of radiation and chemotherapy. But during debate on the issue, Harimoto disclosed he had just found out he had lung cancer and was to begin chemotherapy.
Continually at odds with former City Council Chairman Ernie Martin, Harimoto would often be the lone “no” on votes he argued were being done for political expediency.
In 2013, Harimoto insisted the city follow the recommendations of a newly formed Grants In Aid Advisory Commission when distributing funds to nonprofit agencies when a number of colleagues argued it was OK for the city to dole out additional funding for their favorite organizations despite not being fully vetted.
In 2014, he was one of two Council members who voted against the first sit-lie ban targeting the homeless in Waikiki when it was trumpeted by Caldwell and Martin.
Elefante said that while on the Council, Harimoto helped make the city’s Complete Streets policy reality.
Harimoto was also among the hardest-working politicians. Reporters would see him sitting quietly in a corner taking in discussions at night-time neighborhood board meetings outside his district.
Harimoto worked the beginning part of this year’s legislative session but was too ill to participate by videoconferencing when lawmakers reconvened last month.
Ige, in a statement, said: “Breene was a true dedicated public servant who worked tirelessly and selflessly for the community he loved, even while fighting his illness. We worked together to make my hometown of Pearl City a better place. Dawn and I offer our deepest condolences to Breene’s ohana and loved ones.”
Leaders on both sides of the aisle in the state House of Representatives also voiced their condolences.
“Many of us considered him a good friend and we will miss him greatly,” said House Speaker Scott Saiki.
House Minority Leader Gene Ward called Harimoto one of Hawaii’s “greatest statesmen.” Harimoto “exemplified unwavering resilience in the midst of adversity and always fought for what he believed was best for his community and the State of Hawaii,” Ward said.
Outside of work, the one-time information technology professional was executive director of the nonprofit Pearl City Foundation/Momilani Community Center.
Harimoto, who was born May 6, 1954, is survived by his wife, Cheryl. Both graduated from Waipahu High School and the University of Hawaii at Manoa. They have three children and three grandchildren.
Services are pending.