A lasting legacy: Kaua‘i mourns loss of mayor

Shock. Surprise. Sadness.

These are just a few of the sentiments residents expressed yesterday after the sudden and unexpected death of Kaua‘i Mayor Bryan Baptiste on Sunday.

Baptiste, 52, died at Wilcox Memorial Hospital after an apparent cardiac arrest at his home in Wailua.

But there was another word used to describe the mayor: Legacy.

“He really had the concern of the people at heart,” Lihu‘e attorney Warren Perry said. “He balanced the law with the local and Hawaiian community.”

Perry said the mayor worked hard on one of his pet projects, the 16-mile multi-use path that will stretch from Anahola to Nawiliwili. The first two phases have been completed.

“He said to me, ‘I want to make sure the people of Kaua‘i, in perpetuity, have access to the beach,’” Perry said. “That was the type of legacy for Kaua‘i he wanted.”

As mayor, Baptiste championed the building of more affordable housing, garnered community members’ support to fight drug use, supported legislation to protect public access and backed programs to prepare youths for future careers.

“I feel he truly enjoyed serving the public,” said state Rep. Mina Morita, D-14th District. “He was truly trying to make it better for Kaua‘i from shoreline access to affordable housing.”

Morita said Baptiste will be missed for championing those initiatives.

State Sen. Gary Hooser, D-Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau, called Baptiste “the people’s mayor.”

“He put community first above all else — he was genuine in that,” Hooser said. “He served with a lot of passion and he had genuine feelings for the people.”

Hooser remembered campaigning alongside Baptiste years ago and said the mayor was tireless in his work.

“He was the first guy out in the morning and the last guy in at night,” Hooser said. “The slogan from his (first mayoral) campaign was ‘Leadership from the Heart.’ He certainly gave his heart 100 percent to the community.”

Randall Francisco, Kaua‘i Chamber of Commerce president, said Baptiste led the people of Kaua‘i with local style.

“He celebrated Kaua‘i by how much he lived Kaua‘i,” Francisco said. “He embodied the values of the people of Kaua‘i in his leadership.”

Francisco said the mayor focused on the youth of Kaua‘i, looking at the bigger picture for their future benefit.

“His investment in the community via the kids was his heart and soul,” he said. “To me, that was the humble, human, local Bryan.”

Baptiste is also remembered for his eternal aloha spirit.

“Bryan was a constant source of inspiration and insight who touched countless lives and exuded the aloha spirit in everything he did,” Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona said in a statement. “His enthusiasm and passion for helping others was contagious and he made Kaua‘i a better place as a result. Bryan will be dearly missed.”

Baptiste began his political career in the mid-1990s when he worked as an appointee of Mayor Maryanne Kusaka. In 1996, Baptiste was elected to the Kaua‘i County Council for the first of three consecutive two-year terms.

“Mayor Baptiste was a compassionate leader who loved Kaua‘i and gave his all in service to our community,” County Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura said. “It is fitting that we take the time to grieve, to rally around his family and to remember and honor Mayor Baptiste. Many of us have personal memories of the mayor that we will hold close in our hearts always.”

The Republican was first elected as mayor in 2002. He was re-elected to another four-year term in 2006.

Prior to his political career, Baptiste worked at the Kaua‘i War Memorial Convention Hall and was a small businessman on Kaua‘i.

“It’s unfortunate about his death,” said Leon Gonsalves, vice chair of the Kaua‘i Police Commission. “It’s real sad — he had two more years left in his term.”

Gonsalves said he had known the mayor since his days at the convention hall. Gonsalves would go to the convention hall to exercise and would often end up talking story with Baptiste.

Lei Nakayama, co-owner of Kaua‘i Bakery and Cinnamon, said she remembered Baptiste from a small business he used to own in Wailua years ago.

“He used to own this store — I don’t remember the name — and I won a gift certificate to his shop,” Nakayama said. “I got these smooth stones there that I still treasure today.”

Nakayama said she was shocked when she read about Baptiste’s death.

“He was such a very nice man, so cordial and friendly,” she said.

The mayor had heart bypass surgery on June 13 at The Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu after routine medical testing June 9. Baptiste was released from the hospital on Friday and returned to Kaua‘i Saturday evening.

Baptiste is survived by his wife Annette and four children: Brandon, Heather, Lauren and Preston.

The Baptiste family is requesting privacy during this difficult time, a county news release states.

Formal funeral arrangements have not yet been completed.

Gov. Linda Lingle, a close friend of the mayor, ordered state flags to fly at half staff on the day of his interment. That date has not yet been announced.

Gary Heu, the mayor’s administrative assistant, is serving as acting mayor.

• Rachel Gehrlein, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) or rgehrlein@kauaipubco.com

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