Born to Politics
She had to go away to school to realize how special Kaua’i is, and ever since JoAnn Yukimura s been working to make sure it stays that way
You could say JoAnn Yukimura was born to politics. “I grew up tagging along at rallies,” says Yukimura, whose parents Jiro and Jennie were active Democrats and still are. So it was no surprise when she was elected class president of the Kaua’i High class of ’67.
It would not be the last time she received the majority of votes in a Kaua’i election.
After graduation, she attended
Standford University and later the University of Washington law school.
“I never realized what we had here until I left,” she says.
As with many people at the time, her awareness of ecological matters was growing, which led her to run Tony Hodges’ statewide campaign for the U.S. Senate her junior year of college.
Hodges, who headed the ecological group Life of the Land, was an attorney who regularly fought for the environment, including filing suit against dumping which was happening on Kaua’i at the time where debris would simply fall into the ocean.
“He was filing lawsuits and I felt it was a tool for environmental work,” says Yukimura, explaining why she chose to enter the field of law.
With unsustainable changes rapidly taking place on Kaua’i, Yukimura began to realize “my work might be at home,” she says.
After law school, she returned home in 1974 and went to work for the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii. It didn’t take long for her political activism to take root.
“For a large part of my generation, we were drawn into the political issues of the day, and I’m proud that we took a stand,” she says regarding events such as marching against the Vietnam War. “I think it’s the responsibility of a citizen in a democratic society, because the premise of our country is that the consent of the governed rules. So we have to make sure that whoever acts in our name and whatever systems are being set up for our community need to be just, sustainable and pono.”
At the age of 26, Yukimura was elected to the County Council after feeling frustrated by the way various community groups she represented were treated at public hearings.
“I got really tired and angry. We were treated very poorly,” says Yukimura, who is married to filmmaker, photographer and writer John Wehrheim. “We weren’t really being respected and so I wanted to be on the other side of the banister.”
And she made it there by 1976, the first time she ran for a County Council seat.
“It was terrifying,” Yukimura says regarding the election process, admitting that she didn’t think she would win.
Yukimura continued on the Council until 1980, when she decided she wanted to do more, and ran for mayor.
“The Council can do wonderful things, but all I could do was speak for an alternative,” Yukimura says, noting that she was often the lone person to oppose of legislation, especially if she felt it served no sustainable benefit.
Nonetheless, she was able to open alternative possibilities to the status quo by pushing laws through such as requiring solar water heater installation in new multi-unit developments.
Yukimura didn’t find her way into the executive branch of the administration until 1988 when she was elected mayor.
After serving as a councilwoman for another two terms prior to taking her mayoral seat, Yukimura was excited for the change.
“There was a certain power in just being able to speak,” says the 1967 Kauai High School graduate who still lives in the same house she grew up in.
Being so active, however, can come at a cost.
Missing out on time with her family and rarely being able to go places without someone approaching her are some of the pitfalls.
“In a small community, your time is not your own,” she says.
Daughter Maile, 27, a yoga instructor, was only 4 years old when Yukimura was elected mayor. In an attempt to maintain balance, one afternoon a week was devoted entirely to her daughter.
“But no matter where we went, whether it was to the beach or to the mall, people would come up to me, and she would shake my hands and say, ‘Mommy, Mommy, it’s my day,'” she says. “It’s part of the job, but it was hard on my family.”
Yukimura’s most vivid memory of her six years as mayor was when Hurricane Iniki ravaged the island.
“It was very traumatic for all of us,” says Yukimura, whose grandparents on her father’s side and great-grandparents on her mother’s side were the first generations to arrive in Hawaii from Japan. “Our community suffered what I call a near-death experience.”
She especially remembers the helicopter ride she took the day after the devastation occurred.
“I couldn’t even recognize the coastline,” she says about Poipu. “It was like these huge hands just grabbed the shoreline.”
Still, Yukimura witnessed people working together and already rebuilding their lives as she passed by overhead, causing her heart to swell.
“The stories just abound of what people did for one another,” she says.
She continues to stay politically busy as a councilwoman (elected in 2010), attempting to implement various changes like getting a materials recovery facility started, extending the bus system’s schedule and frequency, as well as increasing drug prevention and affordable housing.
It’s hard for Yukimura to not participate in community-based movements. She also works closely with organizations including Apollo Kaua’i, Zero Waste Kaua’i, Save Kapaia Swinging Bridge, Central District Drug Prevention Coalition and the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust.
“There’s still so much work to do,” says Yukimura, who will likely run again for County Council next term.
“We have such a special place here in terms of the natural environment, the people and the culture. There are very few places like this, and we’re small enough to make a difference in how we become.”
Yukimura, an avid yoga practitioner, still strives to spend as much time with her family and friends as possible.
She even hopes to get more involved in the Orchid Club and take up bicycling again.
“I swore I would never own a car back in my Stanford days,” she laughs.
As for her parents, who generated her interest in politics, even though they have such a rich history Jiro is a war veteran who was on the USS Missouri during World War II when the treaty with Japan was signed Yukimura jokes that their “most amazing feat was raising five children and sending them off to college.”