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Monday, January 7, 2019
Remembering Senator Fred Rohlfing, Republican Reformer
By Selected News Articles @ 2:30 PM :: 5857 Views :: Hawaii History, Republican Party

Frederick W. Rohlfing

Frederick W. Rohlfing--November 2, 1928 -- August 10, 2018

Fred Rohlfing, beloved former Hawai'i State Senator, passed away on August 10 from complications due to Parkinson's Disease. He was 89 years old.

Born in the Territory of Hawai'i in 1928, Fred was the son of Hawaiian Pineapple Company (now Dole Foods Company) executive Romayne Raymond "Ted" Rohlfing and Kathryn Coe Rohlfing. Fred grew up in Manoa Valley. While attending Punahou, Fred lettered in varsity baseball playing catcher during his junior and senior years and in varsity football playing guard during his senior year. After graduating from Punahou in 1946, Fred attended Yale University, where he competed in intercollegiate swimming and played junior varsity football. According to Fred's Yale classmate Jim Gault, "Fred often wore aloha shirts and discarded his shoes while our Eastern prep school classmates wore Brooks Brothers suits, button-down shirts and white bucks."

After graduating from Yale and spending a year at Stanford Law School, Fred joined the U.S. Navy and was on active duty at the Pentagon during the Korean War. While in the Navy, Fred attended law school at night at George Washington University. It was during this time that Fred met Joan Halford of Honolulu, who was at that time a student at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland. They married in 1952 and Joan transferred to GW and graduated from there in 1954.

Fred graduated from GW Law with honors in 1955 and Fred and Joan moved back to Honolulu to start their family and Fred's law practice.

Fred began practicing law initially with Moore, Torkildson & Rice. In Rohlfing v. Moses Akiona, Limited, 45 Haw. 373 (1962), Fred successfully argued for application of the Hawai'i survival statute even to cases of instantaneous death. Fred subsequently was a partner at Rohlfing, Nakamura & Low, Hughes, Steiner & Rohlfing, and finally Rohlfing, Smith & Coates. In 1963, Fred began representing the Hawai'i Nurses Association (HNA) in labor negotiations with hospital employers, and continued in that capacity until 1972, when the HNA won the vote for State nurse representation and Fred had to withdraw as counsel because of the appearance of a conflict with his service on the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Following his active duty years in the Navy, Fred remained in the Naval Reserve for 33 years, receiving a Meritorious Service Medal in 1987 for his leadership of the Naval Reserve Intelligence Program units in Hawai'i. He even volunteered for a stint of temporary active duty in Saigon in 1968. Respected Maui journalist Ed Tanji noted that Fred "arrived in country Jan. 27, 1968, two days before Tet, the lunar new year observance that in 1968 marked a major offensive by the communist-led forces of North Vietnam." Fred received a Letter of Commendation from his commanding officer for his engagement in military action during the Tet Offensive.

Fred and Joan had three boys. Despite Fred's busy schedule as a lawyer, an elected official, and as a Navy Reserve officer, he was a committed father to his sons, regularly playing baseball and football with them in the backyard of their 'Aina Haina home, attending their Kalaniana'ole Athletic Club (KAC) baseball and basketball games, and spending many pleasant family weekend outings at Queen's Surf Beach teaching them how to surf. Fred also thoroughly enjoyed Hawaiian music, playing Hawaiian songs on his ukulele at gatherings of family and friends and listening to Hawaiian music recordings by the Sons of Hawai'i, Gabby Pahinui, Eddie Kamae, Emma Veary, Marlene Sai, and the Sunday Manoa. He also frequently took his boys with him to the old Honolulu Stadium in Mo'ili'ili to watch Hawai'i Islanders' baseball and Interscholastic League of Honolulu and University of Hawai'i football.

Beginning in his forties, Fred set an example of maintaining lifelong fitness by becoming an accomplished masters swimmer. He finished in the top 3 of his age group eleven times in the annual Waikiki Roughwater Swim and was first in his age group in the 1986 North Shore Challenge.

Fred became a member of the first Hawai'i State Legislature in 1959 upon his election to the House of Representatives in his first campaign for office. Fred was one of 18 House Republicans and 33 House Democrats. The 1959 statehood elections resulted in a brief revival of the Republican Party as a governing party in Hawai'i following the Democratic Revolution of 1954, with GOP candidates winning their races for Governor (Bill Quinn), Lieutenant Governor (James Kealoha), United States Senator (Hiram Fong), and a Republican majority elected to the State Senate. Republicans were even competitive in the 1960 U.S. Presidential election, with John F. Kennedy beating Richard M. Nixon by only 115 votes in Hawai'i.

The first statehood Legislature met at 'Iolani Palace. During the first Legislature, Fred developed life-long friendships with his fellow freshman GOP colleagues Ambrose Rosehill, Percy Mirikitani, Wadsworth Yee, and Dick Kennedy, two of whom (Mirikitani and Yee) later served in the State Senate with him. Fred wrote: "Being a part of the first State Legislature was exciting. We were poised to lay the legislative groundwork for a new State government establishing the nature and scope of all the departments of the State as well as the State's relationship with the various County governments. We were to set the overall direction of the state, which continues both good and bad."

Fred quickly rose to leadership in the Republican House caucus, becoming Minority Floor Leader in 1963, and Minority Leader in 1964. Fred always held the view that the Republican Party should be a dynamic opposition party always working toward becoming the majority party in Hawai'i. Yet he also believed in progressive policy and supported worthy bills regardless of whether they were introduced by Democrats or Republicans.

Fred agreed with Otto von Bismarck's maxim that "politics is not an exact science but rather the art of the possible." Thus, Fred supported a House Democratic caucus bill known as the Maryland Land Law that had been adapted from a Maryland statute giving long-term renters (lessees) an option to buy the fee-simple title to their real property interest. Fred spoke in favor of the bill on the floor of the House and the bill easily passed, but failed to pass the State Senate.

With the failure of the Maryland bill, Fred decided to prepare a House bill that would regulate the residential leasehold process rather than try to resolve it by the purchase option provided in the Maryland proposal. He called it the "Lessees' Bill of Rights" and provided for arbitration of rent increases and payment to lessees for the value of their homes if leases were not renewed, as well as other controls on the process to make it fair and balanced.

Fred succeeded in moving up to the State Senate in 1966, where he became the Senate Republican Policy Leader.

A notable success Fred accomplished for his district in working across the aisle with Democratic Senator Walter Heen was the return of the Coast Guard beach-front property in Wailupe to the State. That parcel is now a City & County of Honolulu beach park. Fred credited Republican U.S. Senator Hiram Fong for the final success of this bi-partisan effort.

Fred's re-drafted "Lessee's Bill of Rights" bill from his House years was introduced in the Senate in 1967. His bill was later incorporated into the Senate Democrats' land reform bill passed that year providing for State powers of eminent domain to effectuate conversions from leasehold to fee-simple ownership for former lessees.

In 1969, Fred gave a passionate speech after his former Punahou football teammate and Senate Republican colleague James Kalaeone Clark chose to switch parties. Fred told the Young Republican State Convention that year: "I am deeply saddened both emotionally and intellectually by Jim's decision. Those who would be quick to throw verbal brickbats and those who would gloat have missed the underlying message of this event. . . . Our problem [as Republicans] today is an intolerant, loud, and abusive dissident but minority element that is either unwilling or unable to really understand the people of these islands or their needs. . . . There is a need for legitimate, responsible conservatism. . . . A political party loses the reason for its existence if it doesn't seek to win elections in as many a district as it can find candidates. . . . We can't just stay in our friendly areas of Kahala and Lanikai. And if we fail to make our party representative of our diverse population (and of people like Jimmy Clark), it will be . . . years before a two-party system comes back to Hawai'i."

In 1972, Fred aspired to higher office, losing a vigorously contested challenge to incumbent U.S. Rep. Spark Matsunaga for the First Congressional District seat (73,800 votes to 61,100 votes). That race was described by Matsunaga's biographer Richard Halloran as "the closest in Sparky's career."

Fred was again re-elected to the State Senate in 1974, but he resigned before the 1976 Legislative session to devote himself to running full-time for the same First Congressional District seat Rep. Matsunaga was vacating to run for the open U.S. Senate occasioned by Senator Fong's retirement. The 1976 Congressional race was held in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's fateful decision in Buckley v. Valeo, which struck down Federal Election Campaign Act restrictions on political campaign spending as well as limits on expenditures of a candidate's own personal funds. Fred's wealthier Democratic opponent was thus able to largely self-finance his campaign and spend three times the money Fred was able to raise and spend. To his credit, Fred succeeded in garnering stunning array of labor union endorsements, including endorsements from the ILWU, Hawai'i Government Employees Association, Hawai'i State Teachers Association, United Public Workers, Service Employees International Union, Hawai'i State Federation of Labor AFL-CIO, United Brotherhood of Carpenters, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Hawai'i Teamsters and Allied Workers, Fire Fighters Association, and the Hawai'i maritime unions. The final election result, however, was a close loss of 59,690 votes to 53,406 votes.

After Fred's narrow 1976 Congressional seat loss, he served as Attorney General for American Samoa and two terms as U.S. Alternate Representative to the South Pacific Commission (New Caledonia).

Fred and Joan were divorced in 1982, and he married Patty Bond in 1983. After Fred and Patty moved to Maui in 1984, Fred became Maui County Corporation Counsel in Mayor Hannibal Tavares's Administration. Retiring from the County in 1988, Fred subsequently served as a part-time U.S. Magistrate Judge from 1991 to 1996 handling federal cases primarily on Maui, and later served as a member of the Maui Apportionment Advisory Council, the Maui Salary Commission, and the Statewide Health Coordinating Council.

Fred's autobiography, Island Son: The Life and Times of Hawai'i's Republican Reformer, was published in 2010 by Legacy Isle Publishing and is the source of many of the quotations in this tribute.

Ed Tanji said: "Island Son offers insights on political infights won and lost, the failures and successes of a local boy, a Yale grad who earned his law degree at night school while serving in the Navy, and minority party underdog who held to personal principles rather than compromise to political ambition." (Copies of Island Son may be purchased on the Legacy Isle Publishing website at

Following Fred's passing, former President George W. Bush wrote: "Fred was a good man who worked tirelessly to promote the ideals of the Republican Party. I am deeply grateful for his service to Hawai'i and to our Nation. He will be missed." Hawai'i Governor David Ige wrote: "Honored and highly respected for his integrity by both Democrats and Republicans, Fred Rohlfing was a committed public servant who served in the Hawai'i State Legislature for 21 years."

Fred was preceded in death by his youngest son Brad (1961-1986) and his wife Patty (1941-2011). Fred is survived by his sons Fritz (Deon) and Karl (Tricia), stepdaughters Alice Newkirk and Michele Bond, grandchildren Renate Rohlfing, Navy Lieutenant Frederick Rohlfing, M.D., Markus Rohlfing, Marissa Rohlfing, Rachel Newkirk, and Rebecca Newkirk, two great-grandsons, sister-in-law Pam Wong, and cousins Ann Reynolds of Piedmont, Janet Juhl of Westlake Village, and Warren Palmer of Palos Verde Estates.

No public service is planned. Private interment with full military honors courtesy of the United States Navy took place in September at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl.

Donations in Fred's honor may be made to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, Grand Central Station, PO Box 4777, New York, NY 10163-4777.


Related: Fred Rohlfing’s Island Son Presents an Alternative View of Hawaii Politics


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