Oshiro Balances The Guv’s Bluster
Blake Oshiro has found that his new job of three months as deputy chief of staff in the governor’s office differs little from his last, as majority leader in the state House of Representatives.
“Instead of taking my cues from the speaker of the House, I’m taking them from the governor,” says Oshiro. “It’s like a football team. In the House, the speaker was the coach, and as majority leader I was the quarterback. In the governor’s office, the team of quarterbacks is bigger. It’s a team effort.”
While Oshiro quarterbacks the House for Coach Abercrombie, former legislator and longtime Democratic activist Kate Stanley works the Senate. Chief of staff Bruce Coppa serves, if you will, as offensive coordinator, calling the plays. “It’s what I did as majority leader,” says Oshiro. “I meet with the key legislative players let them know the governor’s priorities, listen to their concerns, offer them help.”
Oshiro also works for the directors of 16 state departments, helping them move their priorities through the Legislature. “Then there’s the day-to-day fires that have to be put out,” Oshiro says with a shake of the head and a smile.
Oshiro’s quiet, self-effacing style couldn’t differ more from that of his boss. “Neil was a fighter and an advocate when he was in the Legislature,” says Oshiro. “He had to be, and it took courage. But he realizes that the Legislature today is a different animal from when he served.
“If I’ve learned anything in the House, it’s that you have to pick and choose your battles carefully. You have a fixed amount of political capital to expend. You can’t go all in all the time.”
A Pearl City High School graduate, English literature major at the University of Southern California and 1996 J.D. recipient from Manoa’s Richardson School of Law, Oshiro harbored no political ambitions. But as a young lawyer, he occasionally gave testimony at the Legislature on behalf of the Sierra Club. After one such hearing, two state representatives suggested that Oshiro run for office.
“A few days later I was drinking beer with friends,” Oshiro remembers. “I told them what had been said. They immediately pulled out their checkbooks and maxed me out with contributions of $1,000 each. I doubt that I would have run had they not done that.”
Oshiro is gay, and in the Legislature he quickly became a proponent of liberal legislation, including civil unions for gay and lesbian couples. In January 2010, the Senate passed a bill, but in the House, where Oshiro was in his second session as majority leader, his colleagues voted to postpone the civil unions bill indefinitely. “One of the most disappointing days of my life,” he admits.
On the last day of the session he persuaded the Democratic caucus plus two Republican members to pass the civil unions bill. “That was an up-and-down year for me. Senate passage, the House’s postponement, House passage, Gov. Lingle’s veto of the bill.”
In the fall elections, Okino beat his Republican challenger while Abercrombie won the governorship, in part on his promise to sign a civil unions bill, which he did.
“I believe in this governor,” says Oshiro. “I believe in his values. He’ll make the right value-based decisions.”