Maui Mayor Richard Bissen: He Kupa ʻĀina o Maui

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Photo: Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen
Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen is integrating his Hawaiian cultural upbringing and values with his work on behalf of Maui Nui. – Courtesy Photo

Newly elected Maui Mayor Richard T. Bissen, Jr., is the kind of modern Hawaiian leader who is able to skillfully navigate both the Hawaiian and western worlds – and he has already begun integrating his Hawaiian cultural upbringing and core values into his work on behalf of Maui Nui.

Upon assuming his new kuleana at the start of 2023, Bissen gathered his administration on the lawn of Kalana o Maui (where Maui County’s government is seated) for an ʻawa ceremony. Assisted by the men of Hale Mua, an organization of which he is a member, Bissen said that the ʻawa ceremony was the process of “making a verbal contract with each other to work collaboratively and a personal commitment to do their very best as servant leaders” for the people of Maui.

“Since day one, our team has focused on identifying and defining where opportunities end and possibilities lie,” Bissen said. “What are the short-, medium- and long-term solutions?”

He keiki hānau o ka ʻāina (a child born of the land), Bissen’s Maui roots go deep. He is a Nakoa from Kahakuloa on his mother’s side, and a Pahukoa from Keʻanae on his father’s side. His formative years were spent in Piʻihana, deep in Wailuku, where his grandpa’s pig farm and catering business were located, in Kahakuloa where he worked with his dad and grandfather in their loʻi kalo, and in Pāʻia. Today, he and his wife, Isabella, reside in Kahului.

A proud graduate of St. Anthony High School in Wailuku, Bissen went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Santa Clara in 1983, and a juris doctorate from UH Mānoa’s William S. Richardson School of Law in 1986.

Bissen retired as a Maui County judge in December 2021 after 17 years on the bench. Prior to his appointment to the judiciary, he served as Maui County Prosecuting Attorney, First Deputy Hawaiʻi Attorney General, and was appointed to serve as acting director of the Hawaiʻi Department of Public Safety.

Bissen’s cultural grounding is equally impressive. As a member of Hale Mua, he learned the rituals, protocols and customs of a warrior, including the shaping of mea kaua (weapons), but notes that a warrior “always hopes to avoid battle.” Bissen is also a member of the Royal Order of Kamehameha I, and has served on the advisory committee of Pūnana Leo o Maui. Bissen is the first Maui County mayor to ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, having studied the language with ʻEkela and Pōmaikaʻi Kaniaupio-Crozier.

As an attorney, Bissen produced a series of crime prevention videos and, in 2000, helped found the Maui Drug Court. Over the years he has been a speaker at schools, community organizations, conferences and conventions on the importance of parenting. Bissen was named Lawyer of the Year by the Maui County Bar Association in 2001, inducted into St. Anthony High School’s Alumni Hall of Fame in 2001, received an Outstanding Alumnus Award from Richardson School of Law in 2013, and in 2021 he received the Jurist of the Year Award, the highest award received in the judiciary, by Hawaiʻi Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald.

To Bissen, ʻohana is core to who he is and how he operates. “I have 55 first cousins. My mom was one of nine, my dad was one of 11,” said Bissen. “And I married into a large family. Family is everything.”

This value of ʻohana informs his approach to building a strong work environment among county agencies and operations. The Maui County Council’s confirmation of his 12 cabinet appointees, recommended to him by a diverse group of Maui residents, allows him “to move forward with the important work ahead.”

The diversity of his charges – the people of Maui County – is top of mind for the mayor.

“Every community, including ours, reflects how different its people are,” he notes. “Our priorities, our views, our perspectives and our experiences are not always going to be aligned.”

But Bissen does not seem particularly challenged by potential alignment issues.

“We value many of the same things,” he emphasized in his State of the County remarks a few weeks ago. “We cherish ʻohana. We seek a better life for our families, our keiki, and those yet to be born. We help others. We face medical challenges with our kūpuna, while honoring their service and sacrifice. We work hard to put food on the table. We celebrate together as we hold our traditions and lifestyles close to us. We are not that different,” he said.

Bissen’s philosophy of leadership can be likened to that of the aliʻi of old, who were judged by their behavior. He tries to live out his core values, is respectful, balanced and stays focused on the positive.

He said he ran for the office of mayor because of his desire to make things better.

“Rather than grumble about stuff, I thought I could make a difference on behalf of my three grandsons,” Bissen said. “I was concerned about their future, and I thought I could set some policies and have some impact that would help them as they grow older, and for the Maui that they would come to inherit.”

Bissen believes that, as mayor, he is better able to help Native Hawaiians of Maui Nui.

“The number one thing I want to do is to keep Hawaiians in Hawaiʻi,” Bissen said. “Whatever we can do to help our local people remain on-island would be an accomplishment in itself. I call that kamaʻāina prosperity – to not just survive, but thrive.”

In so many ways, the heart and soul of Maui Nui is reflected in its new mayor.