Bob Awana, a veteran political strategist who preferred the back channels to the spotlight and served as administrative director for the first female mayor of Honolulu and later as chief of staff for the first woman to serve as Hawaii’s governor, has died at the age of 74.
Robert “Bob” Awana was found unresponsive in his car Thursday on the hills of Kalaepohaku, the mountain home of his beloved alma mater, Saint Louis School, where he would still go to watch football practice. He planned to attend the Crusaders’ practice Thursday.
Awana started out in public service as administrative director to Honolulu Mayor Eileen Anderson, the first and only woman to serve as mayor of Honolulu. Nearly two decades later, in 1997, while working as a lobbyist on Maui for a landfill and waste disposal company, he met then-Mayor Linda Lingle.
A year later Lingle tapped Awana to work as her campaign chairman.
“I didn’t know Bob Awana well when I asked him to be my campaign manager during my first run for governor in 1998. I t became clear very quickly that Bob was an ‘all-in’ kind of person once he committed. We lost that race by 1%, but Bob was all-in again when I ran in 2002 and 2006,” Lingle told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “We won both of those races, and it is doubtful we would have won without Bob’s driven leadership. My heartfelt condolences go out to his wife Lee and his son Russ. I’m deeply grateful for having known Bob and his family.”
Miriam Hellreich, former finance director for Lingle’s campaign, told the Star-Advertiser that Awana was the most “can do” person she had ever met. She fondly remembered a time when the campaign needed two Mack trucks for the Kailua Fourth of July parade. Awana found them in a couple of hours.
“He had a huge network of friends. Bob Awana was a strong leader who brought a diverse group of volunteers together for the Linda Lingle Gubernatorial Campaigns and we all became lifelong friends,” Hellreich said. “I am very sad to hear of his passing and he will be missed in our community.”
The Honolulu Medical Examiner did not take jurisdiction of the case, and it appears Awana died from natural causes. His death was classified as attended, meaning his physician signed the certificate.
Former colleagues and Republican Party leaders remembered Awana as a man who strategized and worked tirelessly behind the scenes, preferring to keep a low profile during his relentless pursuit of political victory and advocacy on behalf of his candidate.
Sam Aiona, a former Republican and a member of the state House of Representatives, credited Awana for reinventing the Hawaii GOP in the late 1990s. There were years when the GOP convention attracted maybe 200 people, Aiona said, and with Awana spearheading the Lingle effort, there were 1,200 people showing up.
“In 1998 when the Republican Party needed a change, he was the change. He was smart enough to know that by working with Linda Lingle he could change the Republican Party and they did,” Aiona said. “He was the engineer.”
Eliza Talbot, a former executive director of the Hawaii Republican Party and Lingle staff member, called Awana a mentor who helped her develop as a young political professional in Honolulu.
“Bob was a mentor for me, and even though I was a young female, he saw potential in me 20 years ago,” Talbot said. “He was kind and truly a brilliant political strategist. I still quote him when I’m strategizing on campaigns. He also was the only person I ever knew that ate potato chips with chopsticks.”
Travis Thompson, the national committee member for the Republican Party of Hawaii during Awana’s days with the Lingle administration, described Awana as a hard worker who was totally dedicated to electing Lingle.
“His agenda was always supporting the governor. I respected him,” Thompson said. “Bob was a very good guy.”
During his time in politics, Awana also worked on the 1994 lieutenant governor campaign of former GOP state Sen. Stan Koki. He later founded a political consulting firm in 2012, Resource Partners Hawaii LLC.
Awana resigned from the Lingle administration after he was extorted by an Indian national who threatened to reveal damaging personal and professional information if Awana did not pay him $35,000. The man, Rajdatta Patkar, pleaded guilty to one charge of extortion in U.S. District Court.
At Patkar’s sentencing in July 2007, U.S. District Judge J. Michael Seabright said, without naming Awana, “In the eyes of the court, R.A. is the victim. I want everyone to understand that.”