Days of ‘a woman can’t do that job’ are long gone, says Mayor Kusaka

LIHU’E — Mayor Maryanne Kusaka recalls vividly what Kaua’i Democratic leaders told her when she was seeking their support in her quest to become mayor of the County of Kaua’i:

“A woman can’t do that job,” she was told quickly in response to her asking for support. Ironically, Mayor JoAnn Yukimura was in the County Building Office of the Mayor at the time.

Kusaka, recipient of the 2001 U.S. Small Business Administration Kaua’i Women in Business Advocate of the Year award, now clearly sees a woman U.S. president, and a female Hawai’i governor, before the decade is over.

In an exclusive and wide-ranging interview last week, Kusaka, who declared this week Small Business Week on Kaua’i, discussed women in business, in her cabinet, her legacy after she leaves office late next year, and many other topics.

“I think women have so much to give,” and are compassionate, fair and organized. A feminine island in Kusaka’s eyes, Kaua’i has a lot of women leaders, including Mamo Cummings, Kaua’i Chamber of Commerce president; Sue Kanoho, executive director of the Kaua’i Visitors Bureau; many of Kusaka’s department heads; owners of businesses; and general managers of hotels and resorts, among other top positions.

“Women network very well together,” something she probably realized long ago but something that became crystal clear for Kusaka while she worked with Shirley Akita and Amy Maeda, the two state Department of Education Kaua’i district superintendents before current Superintendent Danny Hamada.

“And women are doers,” oftentimes having to work harder and follow through more persistently than men, she said. “When women aren’t stepping out front, they are behind successful men,” as the old adage states, Kusaka said.

Cesar Portugal, county engineer, offered that the women in the Kusaka administration, from the mayor on down, “do a great job.” While singing the praises of the women leaders in her administration, she also quickly applauds the work of the males, too.

“I can trust them to work hard and be fair employers and good bosses, and bring me information, and that’s very important,” she said of the administration’s men. The county couldn’t have accomplished all it did without Wally Rezentes, Sr., her current administrative assistant, and Bob Mullins, another administrative assistant during Kusaka’s reign.

“I’m very happy with my cabinet.” They feed off each other, learn from each other, support each other, she continued. “There’s a good balance.”

“There’s just kind of a charisma that women leaders possess,” Kusaka continued. They complement each other. “It’s not to minimize or say men don’t do a great job, but I think it’s women’s time.”

And those who doubted her ability to get elected and perform well as mayor “don’t know the power of women,” she said.

During her terms, Kusaka began the federally funded Family Self-Sufficiency program, which over the years has helped several single working mothers with children get into their own homes.

Kusaka, 65, continues to support the YWCA Women’s Shelter for abused women and children, both with county appropriations and her own donations.

She has pushed hotel owners to re-open their properties after Hurricane ‘Iniki struck, and her travels around the world to promote Kaua’i as a visitor destination are becoming the stuff of legend.

Her legacy includes the Ho’olokahi volunteer program, the under-construction new Kaua’i Police Department and Civil Defense Emergency Operations Center building, and another thing she is proud of: the fact that by December all of the county beach parks from Ha’ena to Kekaha will have county lifeguards patrolling them.

“It’s phenomenal what we’ve been able to do with volunteers,” she said, point especially to the gateway project near Lihu’e Airport. The volunteers love the island and environment, and are willing to help, Kusaka added.

“It’s such a blessing for us,” and a center of pride and ownership for the volunteers, she said of the gateway and other volunteer beautification efforts across the island.

She said the 1998 County Council, which included Billy Swain, was the best one to work with, because it allowed her to seek bond money for design and construction of the new KPD headquarters and EOC.

“It’s criminal. It’s horrible,” she said of the current working conditions KPD officers, administrators and staff must endure in the current, cramped ‘Umi Street headquarters. “As a county, we should be embarrassed about it.”

At the same time, the men and women of the KPD, many of whom were her students when she was a classroom teacher, and many others whom over the years have become her family friends, have continued to provide “excellent service, protection,” she said.

With the problems the island and police face with drugs and other crime, “In some respects it’s frightening” what police encounter on the streets of the island, the Mayor continued.

Kusaka’s award and the nomination papers which preceded it show only a “sliver” of what she has done, remarked Jane Sawyer, assistant district administrator of the Honolulu district of the SBA.

The Mayor’s efforts extend beyond her advocacy for women in business, Sawyer said, to include her efforts to prop the entire island economy. There are more women in county government, and louder voices for single mothers, as a result of Kusaka’s work, Sawyer continued.

County Council Chair Ron Kouchi said he submitted Kusaka’s name and nomination to the National Association of Counties, where Kusaka won one of just 19 national Federal Emergency Management Agency awards for her work in helping to make certain public structures more hurricane-resistant.

Such work is “crucial,” he said, because of the large numbers of visitors (around 1,900 a day) present on the island.

Sam Pratt, Kaua’i Chamber of Commerce board chairman, said the island is lucky to have not only such a strong advocate for women in business, but such a powerful advocate for the entire island.

“We were fortunate to have her for our mayor when we did,” Pratt said.

County Attorney Hartwell Blake, at a ceremony honoring the Kaua’i SBA award winners at the Kaua’i Coconut Beach Resort in Waipouli, admitted to having a crush on his boss when he was a high school senior and she was a teacher.

He said he feels honored to be working in her administration 40 years later. “I appreciate what you’ve done, and I am proud to be working for you,” he said.

If the Mayor blushes, she did when she took the podium to accept the award. “My, my, my. Thank you, Hartwell. I always feel I look so old and awful any more.”

Accepting the award and attending County Council certificate, Kusaka quickly pointed out that her accomplishments weren’t achieved in a vacuum. “No man is an island unto himself, and we couldn’t have done one iota without those surrounding us.”

Kusaka said she never had a thought of declining consideration for the award. Nominated by Curtis Tom and Sonia Topenio of Bank of Hawai’i, Kusaka said she was “very, very honored to be even suggested; humbled, honored.”

Tom approached Beth Tokioka, county public information officer, wishing to nominate Kusaka for the award, the Mayor said.

She speaks with pride of the fact that only two cabinet officials have left her administration during her six years in office, and about the mayor’s office with its eight women (nine counting Kusaka), and “token male” Rezentes.

“I support every one of you in small business,” Kusaka said to a crowd of around 100 people in the hotel’s Paddle Room, including many of her appointees in county government.

“It’s not easy. When you don’t do well, my heart pangs.” She advised small businesses to establish and maintain international networks, and pledged to continue working “very hard for all of you.”

Even beyond her years as mayor, she pledged to continue to be a strong advocate for Kaua’i, for small business, and for children, she said.

A strong supporter of the Kaua’i Chamber of Commerce, she is “delighted” about the way the organization’s membership base has grown during her six years in office.

Kusaka and Bob and Christine French of Lealani Corporation, the Kaua’i Small Business Person(s) of the Year, will be honored along with other county and state winners at a luncheon on O’ahu next Thursday, May 17.

Business Editor Paul C. Curtis can be reached at mailto:pcurtis@pulitzer.net or 245-3681 (ext. 224).

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