Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023|
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He was a hotelier, a police commissioner, a County Council member, a state senator, a state representative and, more recently, a member of the Hawaii Tourism Authority. But most of all, Robert “Bob” Herkes was a dogged fighter for the people.
Herkes, 83, of Volcano, died unexpectedly Thursday morning at Hilo Medical Center, leaving family and friends in shock and some in tears.
“Bob loved this island, and was a determined advocate for our communities and our people for decades,” said Mayor Billy Kenoi in a statement. “He was a caring and committed leader on the Hawaii County Council and at the state Legislature, and his efforts helped to build a better future for our entire island. I am proud to have called him my friend. We all offer our aloha, our prayers and our condolences to Jo-Anna, his sons Bob, Ken and Doug, and his entire family.”
“In my first few years in the Legislature, Bob was a very kind mentor to me,” said Sen. Josh Green, D-Kona, Ka‘u. “He cared deeply about his Big Island constituents and always fought hard to bring resources home to our community. I’ll miss him and his colorful personality.”
“Bob loved his work at the Legislature,” said Jerry Chang, a former Hilo Representative who served with Herkes in the House. “He was hardworking, knowledgeable, passionate and cared deeply about making life easier for all of the people of our state.”
“Bob Herkes, what a guy. He’ll be sorely missed,” said Sen. Gil Kahele, D-Hilo. “He was focused and he was driven. He contributed so much to Hawaii and Hawaii’s people.”
Services will be held Sept. 27 at Dodo Mortuary in Hilo, with visitation at 9:30 a.m. and service at 11:00 a.m.
From his earliest campaigns for local seats until he left the state House 28 years later in 2012, Herkes would often be seen with his stuffed duck, “Quack,” tucked under his arm. The duck started as an attention-getting gimmick during sign-waving, and later became a tradition.
Herkes, a Democrat representing Puna, Ka‘u, South Kona and North Kona, served 18 years in the House, giving up his seat in 2012 in an unsuccessful bid for Senate. He lost the Democratic primary to Sen. Russell Ruderman.
Friends and former colleagues praised Herkes’ passion, his business acumen and also his cunning.
Herkes battled for a gym for Ka‘u High School and Pahala Elementary School, and after five years of unsuccessful appeals for $10.9 million from the state Board of Education, he renamed it a civil defense shelter, asked for $18.1 million and got the money transferred to the county to get it built more quickly.
As Herkes told Stephens Media in January 2010, “The DOE would never spend the money because it’s a low priority and not for classrooms. So, I suppose the health and safety of the community doesn’t mean a damn. So, the hell with it. We’re just going to transfer the money to the county.”
The combination gym and shelter was dedicated in 2012.
Ten years of persistence also paid off for another Herkes project: a mobile medical van for rural South Kona and Ka‘u, where medical facilities are many miles away. The van, managed by Kona Community Hospital, was to include an advanced practice registered nurse and emergency medical services technicians and be linked by video conference to the hospital for help with diagnoses and treatment.
Seed money of $350,000 came in 2010, and then a more permanent system was put into place in 2011 after Kahele sponsored a companion bill.
Perhaps Herkes’ crowning achievement was the strongest mortgage foreclosure protection law in the nation, signed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie in 2011.
Herkes said foreclosures were getting out of control, so he did something about them. The measure reformed the state’s nonjudicial foreclosure law.
“We want a level playing field between lenders and borrowers,” Herkes said at the time.
To create that equal footing, his law established a mediation program, administered by the state’s Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, that would work out disputes between lenders and borrowers.
His concerns about housing affordability also drove him to sponsor a bill to give counties more leeway in building code standards, rather than adhering to strict international codes.
“A house with four walls and a roof is still better than living in caves, lava tubes and packing crates,” Herkes told West Hawaii Today at the time.
The bill cleared the House, but then died in the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
Herkes waged letter-writing campaigns on another housing affordability issue. He pushed to get water catchment systems approved for Veterans Affairs loans, telling the federal agency he was a vet and on water catchment himself, having suffered no ill effects.
Not much can be done about vog, which is created naturally by the volcano. But Herkes’ concerns for public health pushed him to create the Interagency Task Force on Vog, to at least try to mitigate the harmful effects.
He sponsored “Breakfast with Bob” and raised money for victims of the 2011 tsunami in Japan.
He brought $6.4 million into Hawaiian Ocean View Estates for a water well, and when constituents began questioning how the money was being spent, he formed a House investigative committee to find out.
Trains were on Herkes’ mind in 2005. He pushed for a Big Island train system, but his bill for a feasibility study of a fixed-rail system that would have produced cost estimates died in the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
Bikes were the mode of transportation Herkes was pushing for, at least in 1984, when as a police commissioner, he said the bikes are essential in the patrol of Kailua Village where police have had a problem with public drinking and the selling or use of illegal drugs.
Among many other accomplishments, Herkes is credited with legislation to eliminate telephone party lines on the Big Island — there were more than 5,000 at the time his legislation was introduced.
He also was responsible for relocating Ironman from Oahu to Kona and founded the Hawaii Hospitality Hall of Fame.
Herkes’ tenure in the Legislature was not without its controversy. He garnered negative headlines in 2006, when, as chairman of the House Consumer Protection &Commerce Committee, he took on as an intern the executive administrator for HMSA Foundation, a health-care research and grantmaking arm of the Hawaii Medical Service Association, the state’s largest private health insurer.
Loaning staff to legislators, known as “embedded lobbyists” among detractors, was a long-standing practice of private-sector companies, and Herkes said the intern didn’t work on anything related to his employer. But the Legislature ended the practice after the Herkes controversy.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie said flags will be at half-staff in Herkes’ honor on the day of his services.
“Bob had a solid record of getting things done for the people of Hawaii,” Abercrombie said in a statement. “His fierce dedication to the people of the Big Island and our entire state will be remembered. Our thoughts and aloha are with his wife, Jo-Anna; sons, Bob, Ken and Doug; and the rest of the Herkes ohana.”
House Speaker Joe Souki called Herkes a”dedicated and passionate public servant who championed protecting consumer rights.”
“He was an early and strong advocate of natural disaster preparedness and was one of the first to call attention to the health effects of vog,” Souki said in a statement. “He was a good legislator, highly respected by his colleagues and a great friend. I will miss him.”
Herkes was a third generation Hawaii Island resident, born in Iloilo, Philipines.
His political career began in 1982 when he served on the Hawaii County Police Commission. Then in 1994, he was elected to the Hawaii County Council. In 1988, he was appointed to the state Senate to fill the seat vacated by former Hawaii Island Senator Richard Henderson.
He was elected to the state House in 1992, ran unsuccessfully for Hawaii County mayor in 2000, and was re-elected to the state House in 2002. A retired hotel executive, Herkes graduated with honors from Cornell Hotel School and worked in the hospitality industry for 40 years. He was a U.S. Army veteran.
He is survived by his wife Jo-Anna, sons Bobby (Lynn), Ken (Beverly), Doug (Ann Cobb), granddaughter Sara, brother John Herkes and sister Jana Herkes.
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