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Big Island's Wild About Harry, Hero-Turned-Mayor

Legendary civil defense director has been a savior at times of natural disaster. The political novice must now tackle man-made upheavals.


HILO, Hawaii — For more than two decades as Hawaii County's redoubtable civil defense director, Harry Kim was ever present during disasters: directing the placement of sandbags during floods, calming fears during hurricanes, keeping round-the-clock vigils to prevent lava flows from damaging homes.

After so many years of staving off ruin on the Big Island, some residents came to believe that Kim had the ability to tame nature.

Now the island's residents are turning to Kim to save them again as the newly installed mayor of Hawaii County. This time the problems he faces are man-made: a flagging economy, a social disconnect from the posh West side to the working-class East, drugs, unemployment and crummy roads.

As always, the 61-year-old Kim is calm and relishes the challenge.

A Political Novice With Urgent Notion

In his first stint as an elected public official, Kim has created havoc of his own--reinvigorating the island's dormant political landscape with an unorthodox campaign and invoking his humble beginnings to bring people of all backgrounds to his side.

"People talk about 'those in power,' " he said. "I don't even like to put my name with that word. In this country, we treat our people in power differently. We make them feel they are special and different from the rest of us. I shake my head at that. No wonder they think they walk on water. You can forget where you are from. I don't want to do that."

Until last year, Kim had never run for public office. But he had been so sought after as a candidate, and so reluctant to be selected, that for years he planned his family vacation during the election season.

When he finally decided to run for mayor, Kim filed two days before the application deadline. It was only when he filed as a Republican candidate that he was informed that he also must be registered as a Republican. Kim had been registered as an independent.

He ran his campaign from home, forgoing fund-raising dinners, and accepted contributions of only $10 or less.

To save money, he ran his "ads" in the newspaper's classifieds. His campaign materials consisted of bumper stickers reading, "Harry Kim Applicant for Mayor."

Kim now occupies the mayor's wood-paneled office, the office he won after a landslide in November. He is one of the nation's first Korean American mayors, presiding over a complex island with a population of 142,000 and growing. Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano calls Kim the "luckiest man in politics" because he's beholden to no one.

Despite his low-key campaign, Kim's name recognition was a huge advantage. Generations of residents remember him as the man who saved their homes.

"The people saw him as 'Harry's here to protect you when you are in danger,' " said Bobby Jean Leithead-Todd, a Democrat on the Hawaii County Council.

So familiar is Kim that many people here call him, simply, Harry.

Said Kim's mayoral opponent in his concession speech: "I lost this race because I'm running against a demigod."

The mayor will need all of that goodwill if he hopes to cure the ills of this island--Hawaii's largest, poorest and perhaps most drug-plagued.

The island's infrastructure--its roads, sewage plants and landfills need immediate attention--and its lava-rich land are poised between a fading legacy of sugar plantations and the promise of a golden economic future with resort development.

"I tell my staff all the time, we are so lucky to be in the position of doing some good," he said. "There ain't going to be many people who have that opportunity. I feel the urgency of time to do it."

Kim is one of nine children born to a South Korean mother and a North Korean father, and to many here he embodies Hawaii's voyage from ethnic intolerance to the nation's most culturally diverse state.

He remembers Japanese American families being taken away to internment camps during World War II. He can't forget the way the children cried. He remembers the Korean War and the taunting. His older brother served in the U.S. Army, yet Kim remembers his sisters surrounded by other children calling them "commie" and "gook."

D-Class Student in Hawaii Schools

Kim's two best friends, both native Hawaiians, are vivid reminders of his past. One lives in low-income housing and the other in a van parked behind a bowling alley.

The three men grew up together near Hilo. They were labeled as stupid and cast out of their school's mainstream. Kim was placed in the D class, reserved for slow or problem students. The D students used different books, so he made book covers to hide them.

Some Hawaiian children scored low on IQ tests because many of the test's expressions and images were unfamiliar to them. "How can you recognize a fireplace tool when you've never seen a fireplace?" he asked.

Their traditional foods were not acceptable at a time when teachers were emphasizing the four basic food groups. Harry and his friends hid during lunch so no one would see their meals of a single rice ball.

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