Known alternately as “Big Bill,” “Silent Bill,” and “Quiet Bill” to his constituents, soft-spoken William (Bill) Paul Jarrett became the first Democratic Delegate from Hawaii in the U.S. Congress. Elected in 1923, he devoted his time in the House to securing more autonomy and infrastructure for the Hawaiian Islands. A low-key, but productive, legislator, Bill Jarrett sponsored several bills during his tenure that sailed to passage. One of a handful of prominent Hawaiian Democrats, Jarrett lost re-election to a third term in 1926 to one of the islands’ rising Republican stars.
William P. Jarrett was born on August 22, 1877, in Honolulu, in the Kingdom of Hawaii, to William
Haalilio Jarrett and Emma Kaoo Stevens Jarrett. His father worked as a mechanic and foreman for the public works department and served as superintendent of the wharves in Honolulu.1 The younger Jarrett received his education at the Saint Louis preparatory school in Honolulu before pursuing a career in law enforcement. In 1908 Jarrett married Mary H. K. Clark, with whom he had six children. Jarrett’s home life endured its share of tragedy. Their first child, Mary, was barely a year old when she died in 1910. Jarrett’s wife died giving birth to the couple’s sixth child on December 4, 1919; the baby passed away four days later.2 He remarried in 1921 to Elizabeth (Bessie) Neal, widow of civil engineer John W. Neal.3
Jarrett first ran for deputy sheriff of Honolulu as a Democrat in 1906, seeking office against an established assistant sheriff when Democrats were relatively unpopular across Hawaii. When reviewing candidates across the political spectrum during the lead-up to the race, the Evening Bulletin labeled Jarrett “The Fearless Deputy.”4 He was a shoo-in as sheriff of Honolulu in 1908 and was nominated by acclamation. Republicans labeled him as too soft, which his Democratic cohorts reveled in, saying,
“It’s an awful charge against a man to say that he is kind hearted, isn’t it?”5 Jarrett admitted he was a poor speaker early in his campaigns but “when it came to action he believed he could say he was there with the goods.”6 Jarrett served as the popular sheriff of Honolulu for three terms.
In 1914, during Jarrett’s third term as sheriff, Democrat Lucius E. Pinkham was appointed territorial governor of Hawaii by President Woodrow Wilson. Pinkham, the first Democratic governor, hurried to sweep Democrats into administrative positions across the island. Caught up in that wave was Jarrett, who received an appointment to the position of high sheriff, the head of law enforcement for the territory and warden of Oahu Prison. Jarrett’s appointment came as part of Pinkham’s effort to recognize and incorporate Native Hawaiians in his administration.7
Jarrett immediately set about reforming prison life. He instituted an honor system, created a central committee of inmates organized to make their own laws, and set prisoners to work mostly unguarded. Under his direction, the prisoners built their own new prison to replace the decrepit jailhouse known as the “Reef.”8 Jarrett served two four-year terms as high sheriff, during which his popularity soared across the islands. Inmates reportedly wept when Jarrett resigned his position at the end of his two terms.9
Jarrett’s popularity outside Oahu helped him secure a position as a Democratic national committeeman from Hawaii over a rival subset of Democrats led by island party co-founders Lincoln McCandless and John H. Wilson. In the 1916 race for committeeman, McCandless’s group originally declared victory for their candidate, Wilson, based on his strong support in Oahu. They were shocked to receive a letter from Jarrett demanding they issue his certificate of nomination after results poured in from
the other islands handing him landslide victories. Jarrett accused his opponents of fraud in the initial results and labeled the Oahu and Maui returns “a huge joke.”10 However, when Jarrett joined Wilson on the trip to plead their respective cases before the national committee, the two got along famously and Jarrett readily conceded to Wilson when faced with his connections on the mainland. This congeniality only endeared Jarrett to Democrats in general and Wilson in particular.11
This rapport paid dividends for Jarrett in 1922, when incumbent Republican Delegate Henry Baldwin
quickly tired of Washington and perennial candidate and Democratic Party leader McCandless suddenly decided he had had enough of politics and dropped out of the race. John Wilson, remembering his 1916 traveling companion, recruited Jarrett. Voters found Jarrett’s quiet, responsible nature refreshing in the wake of the wealthy, verbose McCandless. Wilson’s biographer noted, “The less Silent Bill said, the more people cheered.”12 He opened his speeches simply, “I’m Bill Jarrett” and inevitably paused for a lengthy standing ovation.13 The pro-Republican Maui News criticized the former high sheriff for his lack of experience compared to Republican candidate and territorial senator John Wise, urging Hawaii not to send a “green horn” to Washington.14 Republicans, confident right up through Election Day in a very GOP-friendly environment, were shocked when returns showed Jarrett with an approximately 3,000-vote majority. His election marked him as the first Democrat to represent Hawaii nationally since its annexation, and mainland papers repeatedly referred to him as “the most popular man of Hawaiian blood in the Territory,” gleefully reporting big pake dinners held in his honor.15 At one of these dinners, Jarrett urged constituents only half-jokingly to write down what his goals should be and “not to expect him to remember thousands of things he is asked to work for.”16
Upon arrival at the Capitol, Jarrett was assigned to four committees: Agriculture; Public Lands; Post Office and Post Roads; and the Territories. He left the first two in the 69th Congress (1925–1927) and joined the Committee on Military Affairs instead.17 During his two terms in Congress, Jarrett upheld his tight-lipped reputation, preferring to extend his remarks in the Congressional Record rather than make speeches either on the floor or in committee. Despite his inexperience and minority status in the Republican-controlled House, Jarrett took to legislating quickly, making friends with fellow Representatives of both parties and testifying regularly before committees, though he remained soft-spoken even then.
Jarrett broke from his typical demeanor in one of the very few speeches he gave on the floor on January 21, 1924, a lengthy lecture on Hawaii’s history and the islands’ interaction with the American mainland. He emphasized Hawaii’s self-sufficiency, which had become difficult to maintain under the restrictions of the Organic Act. He insisted, “Hawaii is an integral part of the United States, not acquired by conquest, but annexed by treaty.” Jarrett launched into this uncharacteristic speech immediately following the passage of his first piece of legislation in the House (H.R. 4121), which extended several appropriations aid laws applicable to states to the Hawaiian Territory, including the Federal Farm Loan Act and the Sheppard–Towner Maternity and Infancy Act. It also included disbursement of funds for the construction of roads and vocational rehabilitation. The bill passed by voice vote and became law only two months later.18
Emboldened by his legislative success, Jarrett soon introduced another bill (H.R. 6070) providing for federal support and approval of a territorial law providing a nonexclusive franchise to develop infrastructure—particularly electrical utilities—in the district of Hamakua. All franchises had to be approved by Congress under the Organic Act. Jarrett testified before the House Committee on the Territories, emphasizing the need for federal approval despite completion of territorial legislation, but he kept his remarks brief and focused on the mechanical aspects of the bill and its process, letting longtime Washington secretary Bertram Rivenburgh hammer out the details.19 Jarrett secured more funds to bolster Hawaiian infrastructure in the 69th Congress, when he worked closely with Louis Cramton of Michigan and Fiorello La Guardia of New York to approve a territorial act that provided a franchise to establish electrical power on the island.20
Jarrett spent much of his tenure struggling with the bureaucracy imposed by the Organic Act. He introduced a bill allowing the governor of Hawaii, a federally appointed official, to issue patents of residence to homesteaders in Hawaii, bypassing individual congressional approval. Jarrett defended the right of the residents to retain their homes and said, “These people went in there in good faith and got those lots and built homes, and thought they were doing right, and now they come to find out they have not got title and this is the only way they can get it.”21 Jarrett then drew up the report for a bill (H.R. 4985) to repeal a proviso that limited expenditures for “maintenance, supervision, and improvement” in an area of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park that contains active volcanoes. Safe roads around the volcanoes were projected to cost roughly 10 times more than the previously allotted funds. Both bills breezed through the House and Senate and became Private Law 127 and Public Law 68-198, respectively.22
His ability to pass legislation waned in the 69th Congress as House Republican opposition to his bills increased. Despite having Republican territorial governor Wallace Farrington’s support, joint resolutions (H.J. Res. 240 and H.J. Res. 267) asking the President to call a Pan Pacific Conference on Education, Rehabilitation, Reclamation, and Recreation at Honolulu, Hawaii, went nowhere. Republican Representative James Begg of Ohio called the proposed $20,000 appropriation for travel merely recreational and “a free trip to Honolulu.” Jarrett argued the conference held educational benefits similar to the Pan-American Union, but he ultimately received little support.23 He also attempted an alliance with Delegate Daniel Sutherland of Alaska to introduce a bill (H.R. 10432) that exempted Hawaiian public school teachers and territorial officials from federal income tax. Testifying before a subcommittee of the Committee on Ways and Means, Jarrett argued teachers were being taxed twice. “The teachers believe that they are not being treated right, and that they should be treated the same as the teachers on the mainland,” Jarrett opined, pointing out the difficulty of drawing talent from the mainland.24 The House took no further action, and his successor resubmitted the resolution (H.R. 14465) to no avail.
Jarrett’s reputation bore him through the 1924 election. Republicans ran Phillip L. Rice, a member of the influential Rice family and World War I veteran, to contest the Delegate seat in 1924, but Jarrett outpaced his previous victory with a roughly 4,000-vote majority.25 Two years later, he faced former Navy commander Victor S. (Kaleoaloha) Houston. Jarrett’s personal popularity finally faded, as he was unable to spend enough time in Hawaii to maintain his connections. Island Democrats attempted to discredit Houston by arguing his Navy service had disqualified him as a resident of Hawaii, but without effect. Republicans argued the territory needed a Republican in Congress as tariff policy, a hallmark of the party’s platform, became ever more important. Hawaiians swept Republicans into office at all levels of the government in November 1926.26 Houston prevailed over the incumbent, winning 52.5 percent of the vote.
Bill Jarrett fell ill shortly after returning to Hawaii. The illness lingered for more than a year, and Jarrett died on November 10, 1929. His successor, Delegate Houston, announced his death on the House Floor, saying “He was a true Hawaiian—able, courteous, friendly, hospitable, and dignified.”27
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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