The Rev. Bob Nakata, who served single terms in both the state House and Senate and helped lead the fight for affordable housing on Oahu, died Monday at the age of 80 after suffering a stroke two years ago.
Nakata was a soft-spoken but often stubborn advocate on a wide range of issues, including opposition to the H-3 Freeway, support for the city’s troubled rail project, same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights, and his calls for the city to reinstate its Office of Housing.
In 2018, the Legislature approved the “Bob Nakata Act” in honor of his advocacy to appropriate $200 million into the Rental Housing Trust Fund.
“My father was such a contradiction,” said his eldest daughter, Michelle Takemoto. “He was so shy and so awkward. And he had that soft voice where people couldn’t hear him and yet he was in these extraordinary public roles. Once he started exercising that leadership muscle he became more comfortable in it.
“He loved meetings. … He would call people on Christmas, on Thanksgiving and on New Year’s, and we would say, ‘Dad, you can’t do that.’”
The Rev. David Gierlach of St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church on King Street called Nakata “the father of affordable housing.”
“Bob has been active almost his whole life for issues important to the community,” Gierlach said. “He always cared about people at their core.”
It wasn’t always easy to hear what Nakata had to say, according to Gierlach. “You had to lean in to listen because he did speak softly,” he said, but legislators “listened to Bob because he had a lot of credibility with them because of his years of community service. He didn’t have an axe to grind. He did his homework and he understood how things work in our government.”
Marc Alexander, the city’s former director of the Office of Housing and a former Catholic priest, did not always agree with Nakata on progressive issues. But they shared a common urgency to help the homeless and create more affordable housing.
“He was always so nice and respectful,” Alexander said. “He was a really good human being and his core values advocated for the poor. He fought for affordable housing and made sure that affordable housing was not forgotten, that it was front and center.
“Affordable housing is not sexy, but the people who need it don’t have political power.”
In 2009, Nakata led a demonstration at Honolulu Hale calling on former Mayor Mufi Hannemann’s administration to reinstate funds for the Office of Housing, which is now the city’s lead agency dealing with homelessness across Oahu.
Hannemann said that while they did not always agree, “it was always a civil conversation and I’ve always respected the fact that he did his homework and was passionate about the things he believed in. He had a very quiet way about him. But when he spoke, people would tune in and listen to what he had to say.”
Nakata’s death, Hannemann said, “leaves a big void in our community. He had a particular interest in helping the poor and the needy, and he was there for them. He got his hands dirty, he was in the weeds and he led by example.”
Robert Susumu Nakata was born April 2, 1941. He was the fourth of six children of Seiyu and Shizuko Nakata, who ran a family pig farm near what is now Aina Haina Elementary School.
When Nakata was about a year old, the family moved to Waihee Valley in Kahaluu to grow kalo and apple bananas and to raise cattle.
“My dad’s family moved to Waihe‘e/Kahalu‘u because of the curfews during WWII,” Takemoto wrote in a subsequent email. “It was hard for my grandfather to collect slop for the pigs at the end of the day without breaking curfew. The wet weather on the windward side is not so conducive for raising pigs, and a lot of the land there was already kalo farms.”
Lumber for the family’s three-bedroom house was recycled from a Japanese school in the area that was torn down during the war.
Into the 1960s there was no electricity in the family’s farm house and “they were dirt poor,” Takemoto said. “My grandfather valued education above everything else. He would spend money on books and my grandmother would get mad because they needed money for food for the six kids.”
Nakata’s rural upbringing on the Windward side would affect him for the rest of his life and influence his work to help the needy.
He graduated from Castle High School, where he participated in 4-H, track and baseball. He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. While at UH, he joined the Wesley Foundation, the United Methodist campus ministry, but was so shy that he would eat lunch alone in his car, Takemoto said.
But the Rev. Robert McCullough saw something special in Nakata and encouraged him to assume leadership roles and join the seminary, which turned into a lifelong involvement in the church and future alliances with faith-based groups to work on a range of social service issues, especially affordable housing.
Nakata went on to teach math and physics at UH-Hilo from 1965 to 1967 before enrolling at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he earned a master’s of divinity. During his time there, from 1967 to 1972, he also taught math and science to disadvantaged adults in Syracuse, N.Y.
After returning to Kahaluu in 1972, Nakata worked as a VISTA volunteer until 1975, when he became executive director of the KEY (Kualoa-Heeia Ecumenical Youth) Project.
Nakata was elected to the state House in 1982 at the age of 41, representing Windward Oahu. But he lost reelection after opposing the H-3 project. At the time, some advocates pushed the freeway as a way to turn the Windward Oahu into the island’s “second city,” which Nakata fiercely opposed.
“People literally begged him to change his position,” Takemoto said. Instead, population growth on Oahu pivoted toward Kapolei and Ewa.
When Nakata was elected to the state Senate in 1998, he failed to win a second term after opposing the nomination of Margery Bronster to a second term as state attorney general and, to a lesser degree, for opposing the nomination of Earl Anzai to a second term as director of the state Office of Budget and Finance.
Takemoto said her father’s opposition to the H-3 Freeway, which opened in 1997, and support for rail were consistent because they were both about helping people who do not have a political voice: rural residents in Windward Oahu and low-income residents from the Leeward side who commute to jobs in town and in Waikiki.
“For him, building rail was about having affordable housing around the rail stops,” Takemoto said. “It was to make life easier for people who don’t have the money to get from Leeward Oahu to town. That’s a quality-of-life issue for people trying to get to work in Waikiki.”
In addition to Takemoto, Nakata is survived by his wife, Jo-anna of Kaneohe; daughter Sarah Angelina of Falls Church, Va.; his sisters, Frances Kushino of Monterey Park, Calif., Jean Nakata of Kaneohe and Marion Sasamura of Aiea; and three grandchildren.
Services are planned for sometime in late November or early December at Harris United Methodist Church on South Vineyard Boulevard.