By Keli’i Akina
It’s a rare man who enters politics and leaves this world mourned as much by his political adversaries as his friends and allies.
Sam Slom was a rare man.
A former chief economist at Bank of Hawaii, president of Small Business Hawaii, member of the Grassroot Institute’s board of advisers and epitome of the citizen-legislator, Slom passed away on Sunday at the age of 81.
To those who knew him only by reputation, Sam’s main claim to fame was as the sole Republican senator in the Hawaii Legislature from 2010 to 2016, which were the last six years of his 20-year tenure representing East Oahu.
It was a role he filled with grace and good humor, making light of his solitary status even as he continued to advance principled arguments for fiscal restraint and small government.
To those who worked with him, Sam was all that and more. In fact, he was the rarest kind of man — one who was exactly what he appeared to be.
If he came across to you as someone who was fiercely patriotic, yet respectful and welcoming of all views, that’s because he was.
If you were impressed by his deep intellect, lightened by his strong sense of humor, you were seeing the authentic Sam.
If you were touched by his generosity and willingness to mentor others, then you knew the side of Sam that believed deeply in sharing and helping those around him.
Sam was famously accessible to all, and known for treating everyone with respect. During his on-air tribute to Sam on Monday, radio host Rick Hamada noted that anyone who wanted to talk to Sam could go to the Hawaii Kai Safeway or the Koko Head Zippy’s and be sure of getting a meeting. As one caller to Hamada’s show said of Sam, “What a gentleman. What a servant-leader he was.”
Despite being part of the “loyal opposition,” Sam was deeply respected for the way he represented his principles in the Legislature.
State Sen. Donna Kim told Hawaii News Now that Sam even persuaded people to change their votes on occasion, adding, “He did bring up really good points, and really, I think, made us think about things.”
Mayor Rick Blangiardi said of Sam: “Even if you disagreed with him, that’s what you wanted. To have somebody there, somebody who saw the other side of it.”
Former U.S. Rep. and Hawaii Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, who appeared regularly on a radio program with Sam years ago, reminisced with Hamada about how the three of them could engage in fierce debates, then go out to breakfast and enjoy each other’s company.
She remembered Sam saying, “You can disagree without being disagreeable,” and credited him with cherishing diversity as a main reason for America’s greatness.
Sam may have grown up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, but he reflected the spirit of our islands like few others. In his work, he epitomized the ethos of “E hana kākou” (“Let’s work together”), always finding common ground and ways to work with others, regardless of any differences.
In his opening remarks at the start of the 2015 Legislature, Sam first drew on his sense of humor.
“On behalf of the entire Senate minority: Aloha!” he said.
Then he pledged to continue to represent the “loyal but responsible opposition to harmful legislation while advocating reasonable alternative legislation to solve problems and ease the economic burdens on our citizens.”
He said his job and the job of his fellow legislators was to “restore and encourage the public’s confidence in our process, and to be more transparent and accountable ourselves, while empowering our citizens. We have to do more than just talk or make speeches; we need appropriate action. We can do this.”
After highlighting many of the problems facing Hawaii — and what he would like to do about them — he again made a pledge:
“On behalf of the Senate minority, I pledge our continued efforts to support good legislation regardless of who introduces it, to examine and report honestly on the impact of all bills, and to work toward ending legislative exemptions for ourselves for laws we pass on to others.
“We celebrate our God-given liberty and our ability to change,” he continued. “Our goal should not just be a ‘New Day’ but a ‘Better Day.’ This is not a partisan issue. Together we must navigate a different course with a vision of how much greater Hawaii can be.”
That was Sam — principled but reasonable, loyal and responsible, a patriot, a defender of liberty and a wonderful friend.
Aloha ‘oe, Sam. I will miss you. Hawaii will miss you.
Keli‘i Akina is president and CEO of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.