The Aiona name is well known in Hawaii.
None more well known than James "Duke" Aiona, who is running for
the office of Lieutenant Governor on the Republican Ticket. He's
been the Prosecuting Attorney for the City of Honolulu and went on to gain
a seat as a Circuit Court Judge of the 14th Division First Circuit for the
State of Hawaii. Now, for the first time, he's throwing his gavel
into the political court. Hawaii411.com caught up with Duke and
asked this self-made man a few questions.
Hawaii411 – First off, are you related to Jimmy Aiona?
Duke: That’s my father.
Hawaii411: Were you named after Duke Kahanamoku?
Duke: Actually, I was named after Brooklyn Dodger great Duke Synder.
Hawaii411: Who gave you the name “Duke”?
Duke: My dad. He loved the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Hawaii411- Since you were named after Duke Synder, what kind of influence has sports had on your
Duke: Because my Dad was so athletically inclined, sports has always been a big part of my family life. He taught me to appreciate it from “small-kid time”. Through him, I took interest in all sports, if not football, then basketball or baseball. I loved learning about the games, the rules, the mental attitude you needed to achieve, how you prepared, what was needed to get better, and of how to win competitively and fairly.
Hawaii411: What's you favorite UH sport?
Duke: That would definitely have to be football! I’ve had season tickets for over 20 years!
Hawaii411 – Is there any chance of getting box seat tickets for Hawaii411
reporters if you're elected?
(Laughing) I'll try!
Hawaii411 - Your father being so athletically gifted, and your mother being an
educator - Did she provide a sense of balance to your life?
Duke: Oh yeah, she was the balance. She emphasized academics and the sense of getting the work done. I wasn’t allowed to go out until all my schoolwork was completely finished. It was reinforced in me so much, that it became a natural part of my
life. My habit was to always get my schoolwork done before I did anything - before I went out to play, before I could participate in any sport. It also instilled in me an expectation of getting better than passing grades.
Hawaii411: How so?
Duke: You learn real quick that if you get good grades, better than passing grades, you get a little more freedom and a little more rewards
that come with that. So you learn quickly to perform accordingly.
Hawaii411 – So you were a scholar/athlete, huh? That must have been pretty cool.
Well, I never looked at it being “cool”; it was just something that was in me. It wasn’t a goal that I had consciously set for myself. Just like I said, it was just part of my habit, my routine, my lifestyle
- To do the best I could in all areas.
Hawaii411: You’ve been coaching basketball at St. Louis for a while now - do you ever try to show the high school kids that you still got it?
Nah, not now. Maybe 20 years ago. When I first started coaching I had to learn that coaching was not the same as playing - it was actually teaching. We learned that lesson real quick after the
first season of not doing so well. We finally figured out that instead of coaching as if we were playing ball with the boys, we needed to instruct them and develop a solid training program. Let me tell you, we figured that one
out - the hard way!
Hawaii411 - I looked at your webpage and noticed that there is a letter from your oldest son, Makana. He wrote a lot about your coaching him in soccer. It’s my understanding that you don’t really have a soccer background - how did that come about?
Duke: Well, if you’ve seen the game of soccer and I’m sure everybody has, you’ll know that there are 11 players on the team and it’s played on a field. The game strategy is very similar to basketball. When Makana started to play soccer, I wanted to be a part of his life and so I volunteered to coach.
Hawaii411 - Are coaching and sports your first love?
Duke: Faith and my family are #1 on my list of priorities, but I definitely enjoy sports and coaching. If I have the time to do it, I will. However, if I had to choose between family and coaching I’d definitely choose my family.
Hawaii411: What do you get out of coaching?
Duke: Coaching gives me the opportunity to give back to the kids and teach them life lessons the way my father taught me. As a coach, I hope that they have the opportunity to utilize the lessons on teamwork, strategy, and sportsmanship in their own lives. That’s why I enjoy it so much.
Hawaii411 - When did you decide to go to law school and become an attorney?
Duke: That was something that was in response to my father. My dad had always wanted to be an attorney. Like the majority of college freshmen, I entered college not really knowing what I wanted to do.
All those years of him talking about wanting to be attorney must have rubbed off. In some way, I might have wanted to make him proud of me too, so I dove right into it.
I graduated from UH Law School in 1981 and immediately got a clerkship with Judge
Wendell Huddy. I had the opportunity to assist Judge Huddy. The work was really interesting.
There were several high profile cases that I was able to be a part of. It was a great learning experience for me.
Hawaii411 – Did your clerkship with Judge Huddy, inspire you to one day become a judge?
Duke: No, not at that point. Not until later in my legal career when I was selected to be a district court judge.
Hawaii411 - So how did that come about?
Duke: I was with the city's attorney office for about five years, and my wife and I just had our third child. I was at a crossroads in my profession and my wife and I were starting to explore the possibility of moving the Big Island to raise the family. At that time a few judges were either retiring or vacating their benches and that is when I had begun considering becoming a judge. I submitted my name and soon thereafter, I was appointed to the Family Court bench.
Hawaii411 - How did that change your life?
Duke: It changed my life tremendously. Being appointed to the Family Court Bench was one of the greatest things that had happened to me. Not only in terms of my career but also in terms of appreciating my family and life in general. I have seen the destructive effects of illegal substance abuse and how it destroys families. It was a sad and pivotal experience for me, and it gave me a greater appreciation of my family and how I was raising my kids.
Hawaii411: You've prosecuted and ruled over some very high profile cases, did you ever get nervous?
Duke: Oh definitely! There's a huge sense of responsibility that comes with being in the legal profession
- even more so as a judge. Your decisions have far reaching consequences for the life of the person you're presiding over and everyone related to that person. It's a feeling that fills you with this urgency for balance. On one hand, the sentences I sought to impose ultimately were handed down in a fair and impartial manner. It is imperative to ensure the ability to make decisions that are based strictly on the facts of the case in front of you and what's best for the community in accordance with the law.
On the other hand it was important to rule with some degree of compassion. I have always tried to think the best of people and hold out the highest hopes for their rehabilitation. I try to afford those convicted the opportunity to realize their mistakes, pay their dues to society, and learn to help themselves with the assistance of their family and friends.
You know, it wasn't only the big cases that gave me this sense of
responsibility - It was every single case. You learn that right out of the box when you become a judge. Every case was an important case.
Hawaii411: You’ve decided to throw your hat into the ring for the first time. Three questions: Why now? Why at such a high level rather than getting your “feet wet” at the state senate, state house, or city council first? And finally, how does your experience as judge translate to Lt. Governor?
Okay, you asked for it…
Why now? Because it seems this is what I feel I need to do, this is a decision that my
wife Vivian and I made together. It is something that has evolved over time.
You may laugh, but I also believe that I’ve been pulled in this direction by a higher
power... by God. I believe that this is a calling that I need to answer. The years of experience that I just talked about combined with my previous public service makes the run for Lieutenant Governor seem like a logical progression.
Hawaii411: What about this point in time? What do you mean?
Duke: At this point in time, in state government, the general public has a distrust of elected officials; we have poor leadership, and a lack of integrity. This is a time when we need
it. Hawaii is heading into a period of economic uncertainty, our country is at war facing the constant threats from outside and within, and we need leadership.
Why am I running for Lieutenant Governor? The position I'm running for is a natural and logical step. I've served in the judiciary as a judge and as the lead administrator for the Drug Court for over twelve years. One of my greatest assets is my administrative skill and that's what I would bring to the executive office from my previous experience.
Everything that I've done in the past twenty years has broadened my perspective and demonstrated the fact that that I'm able to make the difficult decisions. I feel that I have the ability to face the hard questions and to find fair and equitable solutions. I know how to listen to both sides of a case, evaluate them on their merits, and
make well informed decisions. That, I really believe, is another one of my strong points.
Hawaii411: It's been noted that, by running for Lt. Gov., you're adding diversity to the Republican ballot. Did the Republicans recruit you?
Duke: Am I adding diversity? Of course. The more people you have running for the same office, the more diversity you’re going to have in terms of offering a variety of candidates. But, no, I wasn't recruited by the Republican Party, or any other political party for that matter. No one wined and dined me to coax me to run – (laughing) though I wouldn’t have minded it!
Many people asked if I was interested in running for office, and initially I wasn’t even phased. Later however, as more and more people kept saying that I should run, my wife and I began to seriously discuss a bid for public office. I decided that the Republican Party is more in line with my values, my goals, and my political ideology than the Democratic Party. So I chose to enter the ring as a Republican.
Hawaii411: What are Hawaii's most pressing needs?
Duke: Even though there are many serious issues that are facing Hawaii at this point, there are a lot of good things that are happening here too. A lot of people concentrate on all the negative issues surrounding Hawaii in their campaigns, but I like to focus on strengths that we can build on.
So, you ask what's the most important thing? There are many things that are important and they are all interdependent. Our economy, integrity in government, education, drugs,
crime.... But when you look at all those issues, it seems that the one big thing that can assist in improving other areas is education. So if I needed to address something immediately it would be education. Education in the past hasn't been treated as the priority. It’s been treated more like an option. We need from our elected officers to make education a priority and commit to it. If we get that commitment, I’m positive that education will improve tremendously. If we can establish that, education of our island people will make a measurable difference on other issues like the economy, drug abuse, crime, etc.
Hawaii411: You won three strong polls already, two on the radio, one more that I know of. Do you feel like a frontrunner?
Duke: No, I don't put much energy into worrying about things like that. I don't consider polls and statistics as a forecast of the final score. I’ve seen too many instances where the favored team is defeated by a determined underdog. I remind myself of the classic children’s fable The Tortoise vs. The Hare. It’s not my style to become too complacent in anything I undertake.
As a coach, I’ve learned very early that in athletics or any situation that you're in, you focus on the basics. Know what you're doing, concentrate on what you're about, keep things as simple as possible, and get to be good at it. What you try not to do is worry about what your opponent is doing. My focus is strictly on our campaign, we know what we want to do, and we want to do it well.
I know for a fact that our campaign is growing every day. We're getting more and more volunteers, and we've got endorsements from various organizations like SHOPO. I think people can see for themselves what kind of campaign we are running and they want to become a part of it based on the principles that we stand on. We're on target with what our objectives are, and how we're playing the game.
Hawaii411: In some of the polls a lot of people have called in commenting, "You're so handsome, Duke." Any comments?
Duke: (laughing) What can I say? You can blame that on my parents!
Hawaii411: Assuming that you win the primary election, it appears that your likely running
mate in the general election would be Linda Lingle? How do you think you would work with Linda Lingle?
Duke: It would be an excellent team - the kind of balance our state needs. Look at my experience, look at her experience, and look at my background, my personal background, as well as my professional background. Look at the people I've dealt with, and those that she's dealt with, and look at the expansive community network that I have in Hawaii, especially where I've been for the last twenty years, and you'll know that this is the balance that the Republicans need to bring home.
Hawaii411: Bottom line, why should we vote for Duke Aiona?
Duke: I don’t know how to further drive the point in about my commitment to this state and our people. I’ve lived and worked here in Hawaii all of my life and for over two decades have worked in many levels of service for the people of Hawaii. I have the experience and the integrity to make difficult decisions, and I truly want to play a role in bringing back a faith in leadership and a new prosperity for our future.
Hawaii411: Vivian, Duke has mentioned that you basically both made the decision for him to run for Lt. Governor. Are you ready to be in the spotlight?
Vivian: It was a long decision, we actually contemplated for eleven months, from the time we first discussed it until we attended our first republican convention on Maui last April. It was a decision that took a lot of prayer, a lot of support from our family. It was a difficult decision, but we feel that we have stepped out in faith and that we hope to serve the people of Hawaii in a way that we so uniquely can because of his experience and understanding of the state.
Hawaii411: How hard is it for you to have four kids and balance that with your busy schedule now?
Vivian: It has taken some orchestration. We owe a lot to our second oldest, who has really filled in with the driving and picking up of the two youngest ones. Our oldest child just finished his first year of college. We are happy that he came home this last month before the primary to see what this campaign is like. It's been a sacrifice on everyone's part, and I know that we couldn't have done it a few years ago. We are blessed that the timing of this campaign and the ages of the kids are compatible.
Hawaii411: Tell us a little bit about Duke, the husband and family man.
Vivian: When I had to introduce him at the Republican convention, I purposely mentioned some things about him that I didn't think the public knew. For example, he wakes up in the morning and makes breakfast. He doesn't just make the frozen waffle breakfast though. He makes real pancakes, and
omelettes and fried rice! He carpools our kids and other children through traffic, through the zipper lane, through H-1, H-2, and all that jazz. I have to credit his mom for training Duke in the more domestic arts when he was younger because he's always been a great helper at home.
Thanks to this interview, people will also know that Duke has been a soccer coach for AYSO, and he's been coaching the varsity basketball at St. Louis High School. I think they need to also understand what being a coach means,
and how much he personally gets involved with these kids, sets examples, and encourages them to do their best.
Duke: And before I forget, I really have to thank my wife for her strength and support over the past several months. Vivian been there for me throughout the trials and hardships of running for office and I truly appreciate the sacrifices that she and the rest of my family have made for me during this campaign. Let me tell you, if you thought raising four kids was tough, try running for Lieutenant Governor!
HAWAII411 Conclusion: Judge James Aiona has been well known locally for
years as a firm, but always fair decision-maker. He has commanded
the highest respect thru his efforts as Circuit Court Judge, yet he talked
with us as if he were a close friend. One of his obvious gifts is
the ability to relate to people, which he most probably honed during his
stint as Judge in Family Court. We wish Duke well in his bid for
Lieutenant Governor. It doesn't matter if it's sports, career,
politics... or just life in general - Duke seems to rise to the top of his
goals like the tofu in miso soup.. As a final note, at this
moment Duke is leading the Lt. Governor's poll on the Hawaii411 home page
(which we know is always the voice of Hawaii's people).