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Takayama: From Observer To Participant

Gregg Takayama seems both too old and too traveled to be a freshman state legislator. Yet there he was last week, sitting in the State House on opening day, beginning his second session as the representative from Oahu’s 34th District (Pearl City, Waimalu, Pacific Palisades).

He is, in fact, 61 years old, and he has indeed been around.

I first met Takayama when he was a young reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, I a newly minted assistant professor at the University of Hawaii-West Oahu.

In 1978, it was announced that he’d been offered the job of press secretary to Sen. Daniel K. Inouye. I good-naturedly kidded Takayama about exchanging the noble practice of journalism for a job as a politician’s flack.

“You know, you professors get sabbatical years abroad,” he countered. “That’s how I see going to Washington for a year or two. It’ll broaden me.”

So the Takayamas packed up and left for Gregg’s sabbatical in Washington.

They came back 12 years later. Over the next 30-plus years, Takayama continued to wend his way between journalism and its fringes: press secretary for Lt. Gov. Ben Cayetano, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, KHON-TV news reporter, and spokesman for John A. Burns School of Medicine and later for the Manoa Chancellor’s Office.

In 2012, Takayama ran for the state House of Representatives.

“When the 2012 reapportionment took place, I found our Pearl City house sat right in the middle of a new district,” says Takayama.

He won easily, and in January 2013, Takayama was sworn in along with 11 other freshmen.

So what did his first legislative session teach him?

“Many of the issues, policies and procedures were all new to me,” says Takayama. “But I believe the adage that everything you need to learn, the important stuff, you learn in kindergarten. I went to school with Sen. Inouye. I think about him all the time, and I learned a lot of lessons from him.

“He taught that it was better to be a workhorse than a showhorse, that you’re only as good as your word, and that if you do keep it, you’ll gain respect even if others disagree with you.

“He also advised not to be afraid of your constituents.

Trust them, vote your conscience, and then explain why you voted the way you did. They’ll listen.”

Takayama admits that becoming a legislator requires a “change in mindset from a passive observer to being actively involved.” He cites the successful transitions of the late Barbara Marshall, who moved from the KHON newsroom to the Honolulu City Council, and state Sen. Glenn Wakai, who also went from a television station to the Legislature.

“As a journalist and as spokesman for state agencies, I was an observer,” says Takayama. “I saw experts doing things. I wanted to see if I could meet the challenge. I’m still not sure that I can.”

But hasn’t 40 years of observing the often self-serving mix of politics and ever-needy state agencies made him cynical?

“No,” says Takayama, “I think realistic is a better word. If I were entirely cynical, I’d be sitting at home watching television.”

Instead, he’s chairing the kupuna caucus in the House of Representatives, wrestling with the “perfect storm” Hawaii faces in a rapidly aging population.

And he’s admiring the “enthusiasm and idealism” of fellow freshmen such as 24-year-old Kaniela Ing: “We need a mix of the new and the seasoned in the Legislature. We need different eyes.”