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The Thomas P. Gill Papers

About Tom Gill (1922- )

Tom Gill

Born in Honolulu on April 21, 1922, Thomas Ponce Gill served just one term in the U.S. House of Representatives--but his long career as an elected official, civil servant and private attorney advocating social, political, economic and environmental reform places him in the forefront of those most responsible for creating the Hawaii we know today.

Gill's father, an architect, moved to Hawaii in 1896, but unlike most members of his ethnicity and class, he sent his son to the Territorial public schools--Lincoln Elementary, Roosevelt High and the University of Hawaii--encouraging an independent social consciousness that has been one of the hallmarks of Gill's political life. The Territorial newspapers first mention Tom Gill in 1945, when Tech Sgt. Gill, newly returned from the 24th Infantry campaigns in New Guinea and the Philippines (where he earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart), is quoted as remarking, "The doughboys don't get the same publicity as the fliers and some of the others. All they generally get is a row of white crosses." This early interview is indicative of some of the qualities that sustained Gill throughout his career: a concern for equity and the underdog expressed in a concise, telling phrase. In the 1960s, when he was widely regarded as the most articulate and literate Hawaii politician, Gill's appearance, youth, war record--and seemingly effortless ability to produce an apt phrase--drew comparisons with John Fitzgerald Kennedy. But in 1946, when the returning veteran first expressed an interest in politics, it was by approaching Republican Party chairman Roy Vitousek. Told "the Republican Party didn't need anybody," Gill went to California to attend the University of California School of Law.

Returning to Hawaii in 1951, the young attorney already possessed a strong sense of independence and self-assurance, strikingly revealed in an anecdote told by longtime Democratic Party organizer Dan Aoki, who approached Gill in 1952 about joining the group John Burns was assembling in his campaign to revitalize the Democratic Party. "Join you guys … ," Gill replied, "how about you guys joining me?" Although clearly not a member of Burns' inner circle, Gill served as the Oahu County Democratic campaign chair for the elections of 1952 and 1954, when the "Democratic Revolution" ended decades of Republican political control in the Territory. Gill was also chair of the Oahu County Democratic Committee from 1954 to 1958. In the mid-1950s, while serving as Territorial Senate council and administrative aide to the Speaker of the House, he played a key role in drafting social, economic and environmental legislation considered so liberal that Republican governor Sam King vetoed 71 out of some 80 or 90 pieces of legislation--leading to King's defeat in the next election.

Gill was first elected to office as Fifteenth District representative to the Thirtieth Territorial Legislature, and in 1959 was elected to the first State of Hawaii Legislature, where he served as majority floor leader. Then in 1962 Gill was elected to the US House of Representatives, Hawaii's last at-large representative before the state was divided into two congressional districts. Choosing not to run for re-election in 1964, Gill instead unsuccessfully challenged Hiram Fong for a Senate seat. Gov. John Burns then appointed Gill director of the Hawaii Office of Economic Opportunity, where he was able to influence social and economic policy.

Although not the candidate preferred by Burns, and despite opposition from both business, who distrusted Gill's liberalism, and from labor--and in particular the ILWU--who distrusted Gill's independence, he was elected Lieutenant Governor in 1966. Following losing campaigns for governor in 1970 and 1974, Gill resumed the practice of law.

Widely recognized throughout his career for his intellectual energy and acumen, expressed with a directness and cogency often perceived as impatience and arrogance, Gill's independence caused his political career to founder often in controversy. But his legacy as a progressive and tireless worker for a more just, open and sustainable society continues to inspire subsequent generations--including Gary Gill, politician, activist and youngest of the six Gill children, who once described his father as a "a reform-minded person who always attempted to represent the interests of labor and the working people, and to struggle for social and economic justice."

Compiled by Stan Schab
Center for Biographical Research
University of Hawaii
Jan. 13, 2003

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