Dinengdeng & Pinakbet

Sports and Public Service

Gilbert S.C. Keith-Agaran

Emmanuel Dapidran Pacquiao Sr. recently confirmed he is running for President of the Philippines. He currently is a Philippine Senator (Senators are elected nationally) after several terms as a Representative. He is known for his song Para Sayo Ang Laban Na ‘To and previously was a professional boxer, fighting under the name “Manny Pacquiao.”

All joking aside, certainly Manny’s boxing career boosted all his other interests (although his pro basketball cameo might be better forgotten). Undoubtedly he threw his hat in the political arena with strong name recognition. Even while limited in his attendance at legislative sessions—some would say rare is the better description—Manny’s popularity has remained strong.

While we often celebrate Hawai‘i kids doing well in sports—appearances at the Little League World Series, Shane Victorino winning Major League Baseball titles with the Phillies and Red Sox, and Kurt Suzuki for the Nationals—with some notable exceptions it’s been rare for anyone to parlay athletic celebrity alone into elected office.

Barack Obama played prep basketball at Punahou School but his political career was buoyed more by his speech making eloquence than his sweet jump shot. Current U.S. Congressman Kaiali‘i Kahele was a backup on UH Mānoa’s NCAA volleyball champions but followed his father Gil’s example in entering public service.

Gil S.C. Keith-Agaran poses with “life-size” Manny Pacquiao—senator, retired boxer and now, a presidential nominee of the Philippine’s upcoming election.
Photo: Gilbert S.C. Keith Agaran

The only competitive collegiate athlete elected to the State’s top office was Linda Lingle who swam for Cal. State-Northridge. But her athletic career did not come up often in her elections. David Ige led his Pearl City High School tennis team to a title but that has not played a role in his successful elections.

Muluifi Francis Hannemann made his mark at ‘Iolani School in basketball and football and went on to play varsity basketball at Harvard. But Mufi’s entry into politics was fostered as much through contacts with local elected officials (appointed to the Governor’s Cabinet) and working with prominent businesses (C. Brewer). And remember he lost his initial campaigns for Congress before winning a seat on the Honolulu City Council and then serving as Mayor.

Rick Blangiardi, the current Mayor of Honolulu, played football at UH Mānoa. But think about it, he likely built name recognition from his long career managing local television stations with strong ties to the local sports mafia. He beat Keith Amemiya who successfully recreated local high school championship tournaments.

Then there was Fred Hemmings. A Punahou football player on its 1964 title team, he made his mark as a champion surfer. Credited with helping found the pro surfing circuit, he was elected as Republican member of the legislature. He would later be the losing GOP nominee for Governor in 1990.

Arnold Morgado, another Punahou football player, traded good looks and his NFL career with the Kansas City Chiefs into the Legislature and then the City Council. He would later lose the Democratic nomination for Mayor but would run a memorable longform television ad highlighting his martial arts skills.

Perhaps the best local NFL player Russ Francis, a standout tight end with the Patriots and 49ers, also tried his hand at politics, losing to U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink in 2000.

In the current Legislature you wouldn’t know the athletes from the lawyers, accountants, small business owners or former legislative staffers unless they tell you. Big Island Senator Dru Kanuha played collegiate tennis while Kāne‘ohe Senator Jarrett Keohokalole played football for St. Louis Crusaders, and Moili‘ili Representative Scott Nishimoto played for Pac-5. Rep. John Mizuno played running back for UH and Senator Karl Rhoads was on the basketball team while getting a Masters from the University of London. Senate President Ron Kouchi lettered at Waimea High in several sports.

When the Hawai‘i House and Senate still held annual athletic competitions between the chambers, the Senate basketball team included Matt Matsunaga, Bob Hogue and Avery Chumbley, while Eric Hamakawa and Brian Schatz anchored the House. And in the favored sport of elected officials and the business community, Donna Mercado Kim and Romy Cachola have reputations as ace golfers (don’t bet with them).

Gilbert S.C. Keith-Agaran has represented Central Maui in the Hawai‘i State Legislature since 2009. He had an undistinguished career as a member of Club Bengoshi in the Lawyers Softball League for Carlsmith Ball LLP but has increasingly fond (reworked) memories of glory years with the Dead Freddies intramural football team at UC Berkeley Law School.