Molonai Hola's optimism bowled over his rival right away.
John Lund was running against Hola for student body president at the University of Utah. They decided to go to lunch. Lund had what he now calls the "Hola experience," and decided he'd be not Hola's opponent but his running mate.
"I walked away smitten with the guy. I went back and said, 'I love the way you think, and I want to run as your vice president,' " Lund remembered. That was 1987, and the pair went on to win. Around that time, Hola told Lund he'd be mayor of Salt Lake City someday.
Now that Hola, 38, is in the race against incumbent Mayor Rocky Anderson and fellow challenger Frank Pignanelli, he's finding the road to elected office a bit rougher, of course. But talk to him or Lund, and you won't find even a shred of doubt that Hola will make it past the Oct. 7 primary election. Both are also positive he'll go on to win the mayor's seat on Nov. 4.
"He'll be a breath of fresh air when he takes office," Lund promised. "On the worst, rainiest, bleakest, coldest day, in Nai's eyes, it's beautiful weather. For him, the glass has never been half full. It's overflowing. And we need more of that."
Most people here would think Hola started life with an empty glass.
"I was born in a hut," Hola will tell you right away. It was a coconut-leaf hut in Futu'mu, Tonga, where he lived with five siblings until 1970, when the family moved to Utah. Hola's great-grandfather had wanted to bring his family to America for educational opportunity. He never made it, and neither did his children. Hola's father, three generations later, fulfilled that wish.
But Hola remembers being terrified when, 6 years old and speaking almost no English, he set out for James E. Moss Elementary. When his mother put him on the school bus, "I was scared. And she must have been 10 times as scared."
Later that year, his teacher, Mrs. Armstrong, stuck a shiny green star onto Hola's forehead. He'd learned a lot of English in a short time, so she took him by the shoulders, turned him to face the class, and said, "He's a good boy."
And that experience, sweet and sentimental as it sounds, put Hola on the path to politics. School officials continued to bolster his confidence, saying they saw in him nascent leadership ability. At Granite Park Junior High, then-vice principal Bob Fitt urged Hola to run for student body president. He did, and later won the same posts at at Granite High School and the U.
Hola remembers being a boy, looking up at the U. campus across the city. "It seemed so far away. The University of Utah: How am I ever going to get up there?" he wondered. His older sister, Ela Mila, remembers the hard times. "There were times when we were kids when we had to have water on our cereal in the morning. We just didn't have money." "And since both of our parents had to work, we had to look out for ourselves." From the beginning, Mila added, their father insisted they speak English and make American friends. The Hola family went to their neighborhood LDS ward chapel, not to the Tongan ward across town. "Our dad didn't play Tongan music around the house when we were kids, either. He always said, 'We didn't come to America to live in Tonga. We came here to try to better ourselves, and so you could get an education.' " Now she and her brother joke about the prohibition on all things Tongan. "But I think it helped us a lot. Our friends were Americans. We didn't hang out with just Tongans." Hola was especially facile when it came to befriending his schoolmates, be they jocks or geeks. "He just flows with people," Mila said. Hola lives on the east side now, and owns a successful defense contracting firm, Icon Consulting Group. He and his wife of one year looked all over Salt Lake City for a house, he said, and settled on one on Yalecrest because they liked being close to the U. "I can walk over to the football games," he said.
Like many Polynesian boys, Hola excelled on the football field and won an athletic scholarship to the U. But "we never heard him talk about playing (football) professionally," Mila said. "He always said he would use his scholarship to get through school" and then go into business.
He earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in business and management and served an LDS Church mission in Roanoke, Va.
But there was always more to the Hola plan. "I had this need to make a difference," he said of his hankering for political office. "But I didn't have the old-family money to (fund) running for office."
He has built up his business to provide the infrastructure for his mayoral bid, and in recent months his team of managers has been running Icon while he's campaigned full time.
Last spring nobody outside Hola's inner circle saw him as a man with any chance of becoming mayor of Utah's capital, let alone survive the primary. But an August Deseret News/KSL-TV poll showed he has gathered support from 17 percent of Salt Lake voters and is the second choice of 46 percent of opponent Frank Pignanelli's supporters.
But isn't this, his first mayoral run, mostly about building name recognition for next time?
"We are going to win this race," is his only response.
To the uninitiated, that might sound like macho posturing. And he is a big guy. Still plays rugby. But with little prodding, he'll start rhapsodizing about his favorite poetry and plays. He recites lines from Shakespeare's "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" sonnet and from "Julius Caesar." He urges you to read "Seabiscuit," another true story of beating long odds. And he's in the middle of "The Tipping Point," Malcolm Gladwell's book about the little things that turn the tides of public opinion. Hola fits the book's definition of a "connector," one who pounds the pavement and galvanizes a variety of people. His road to political office has some old potholes, however. Hola pleaded guilty five years ago to a misdemeanor battery charge stemming from a domestic-violence incident with his first wife, Telesia Tonga. "In fact, there was no physical violence, (but) a lot of yelling and screaming," Tonga said last month when reports of the episode resurfaced. She called the arrest a "huge misunderstanding," adding she and her ex-husband are now on good terms.
After his April 4, 1998, arrest, Hola pleaded guilty in abeyance, and the case was dismissed after he met certain requirements. Hola and Tonga divorced in June 1999 and had the divorce changed to an annulment in April 2000. "We both wanted a fresh start," he said.
"I knew the story would come out eventually," Hola added. "I thought it would be inappropriate to come out and say 'I'm running for office, and by the way . . . ' I dealt with it as honorably as I could have. I was not going to let that hold me back from running for office." Last year Hola married Lindsay Welch, daughter of Salt Lake 2002 Olympic bid leader Tom Welch. Having a family member in the harsh spotlight of the Olympic bid scandal, Hola said, didn't make Lindsay eager to dive into the fishbowl of a political campaign.
"She was reluctant," he said. But Lindsay also knew whom she was marrying. Hola told her when they were just dating that he planned to run for mayor. These days she is "very supportive," he says. And "she is 10 times smarter than me. I run everything by her." Something Hola says he's smart enough to know is not to make an issue of his religion. Among the three contenders, Hola is the only Mormon.
Any hopeful who trumpets "LDS," he said, "is not going to get voted in. It doesn't take a Harvard degree to figure that out." Salt Lakers are proud free-thinkers, Hola said, and they don't cotton to the idea of the LDS Church influencing their elected officials
"Nowhere in my literature does it say 'LDS,' " he said. "It's been highlighted because of the controversies," such as the fight over Main Street Plaza. "But I've always said, 'Hey guys, this race is not about religion.' " While Hola says he's not ashamed of his religious or ethnic heritage, he doesn't want to be viewed as "the Mormon candidate" or the minorities' candidate. "I'm looking for support from people in the 25-45 age group . . . , people who needed a reason to be involved and needed someone to believe in." Phil Uipi, the only Pacific Islander ever elected to the Utah Legislature, said Hola must win the support of the general population. And if you think the whiter side of Salt Lake City wouldn't support a Tongan, think again, says Uipi, who won in a district that included Mount Olympus, Millcreek and other upper east-side neighborhoods.
"He has a very good chance to win," Uipi said. "He has the mentality to win." Hola is well aware of the image of Polynesians in Utah: They're good athletes; they're laid back. He won't go to see "Whale Rider," the story of a Pacific Islander legend and its modern effects on a Maori family. He's wary of stereotypical portrayals — and rightly so, said his sister. Mila rented "The Other Side of Heaven," about an LDS missionary's work in Tonga. The islanders are portrayed as primitives, she said, and that perception persists in Utah.
Hola doesn't spend much breath trying to debunk such stereotypes. He'd rather talk about 2004. "Let's focus on what we need to do to make our city go forward," he said. If people have differing ideas, "Let's tangle." And if his own ideas turn out to be unworkable, he says he'll scrap them. "A little 'sorry' can go so far. That word has been missing in politicians' vocabulary," he said.
"The dynamics, the demographics of the city are changing," Hola added. "You need a guy who can bring people together. This is a guy from the west side who went to Harvard. I can sit down with all kinds of people. I believe that so firmly: I am the future of Salt Lake City."
Mayoral candidate profiles:
Today: Molonai Hola
Tuesday: Frank Pignanelli
Wednesday: Rocky Anderson