9 Ways to Save the Democratic Party

How can Hawai‘i’s majority pick itself up after falling so far?


Illustration : Michele Amatrula

Hawai‘i’s Democratic Party is in trouble. You know it. We know it. Even party members know it—most of them, anyway. In 2002, the state’s dominant political party lost the governor’s office to a Republican for the first time in 40 years. This year, Gov. Linda Lingle’s biggest challenger is a former state senator with little name recognition, who managed to become the Democratic front-runner only after more prominent prospects—including congressman Neil Abercrombie and Big Island Mayor Harry Kim—declined to run, despite party pressure.

But the Democratic Party started falling apart long before voters chose a Republican for the state’s highest office. The past couple of decades in Hawai‘i’s political history are littered with cases of campaign-finance scandal, corruption, party infighting and favoritism—all contributing to the growing feeling among residents that little good gets done in state government.

“What’s happening in Hawai‘i is no different from what happens anywhere you have a majority party in power for a long time,” says Ira Rohter, a political science professor at the University of Hawai‘i. Hawai‘i’s historically low voter turnout is due in part to “a deep sense of frustration that you can’t change city hall.”

Many of the Democratic Party’s own members acknowledge the party needs to restore itself in the eyes of the public. While the state’s majority party faces little threat of becoming the minority anytime soon, it is in danger of becoming irrelevant to the people living in an ever-changing Hawai‘i.

“My sense is that Hawai‘i Democrats are in a transition period, where there are no clear leaders, no shining stars,” says Democratic state Sen. Les Ihara. “We are made up of a lot of different people, and it’s hard to figure out, what’s the message? What’s the future? What kind of leaders are we or do we want to be? There is no one today who stands out as epitomizing the Democrats of this decade.”

The mounting dissatisfaction from citizens of all kinds—Democrat and Republican, professional and working class, longtime residents and recent arrivals—should sound an alarm for Hawai‘i’s Democratic Party. How can the party save itself? Here are nine ways, prescribed by some of Hawai‘i’s most respected political insiders and outsiders.

1 Get back to your liberal roots.

Most residents know the story of the Democratic Party’s extraordinary rise to power in Hawai‘i. In the election of 1954, Democrats won control of the Territorial Legislature over the Big Five-controlled Republicans, made up mainly of white businessmen and landowners. Spurred by union members, who organized plantation workers across ethnic lines, and Nisei World War II veterans, such as U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, the historic power shift became known as the Democratic Revolution of 1954.

The election of Democratic Gov. John Burns in 1962 locked up the party’s hold on state government, bringing about an era of some of the most progressive legislation in the nation. Within the next 20 years, Hawai‘i became the first state to legalize abortion and require prepaid healthcare for workers. It also passed some of the country’s most generous worker’s compensation measures and enacted leasehold conversion laws.

Where did that liberal streak go? Many traditionally Democratic causes have been taken up by Lingle, an admittedly moderate Republican. In her first term, voters saw her set up a state shelter for displaced homeless people, lobby for the Hawaiian federal recognition bill in Washington, help establish the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as the world’s largest federally protected marine conservation area and introduce energy bills to reduce the state’s dependence on oil.

“Lingle is in many ways liberal, and the differences between her and [previous Gov. Ben] Cayetano are minor in terms of what they actually do,” Rohter says. “What really needs to happen is a redefinition of what it means to be a Democrat. What are those traditional values? The party can’t just keep rolling out the old line about the plantation and the terribleness of all that stuff—a lot of people who lived through that period are dead.”

Even some of the party’s most senior members, such as Cayetano, worry about the lack of social responsibility they see among today’s Democrats. “I don’t see these young people having the political will or real connection to the kind of values that are the foundation of the Democratic Party,” Cayetano says. “They talk the talk and mouth the words, because it’s politically advantageous for them.”

2 Stand for something other than getting reelected …

Every election season, Democrats recycle the same script—how if reelected, they will fix our failing public schools, ensure hardworking folks can afford a home and diversify Hawai‘i’s economy so young people don’t have to leave the Islands. After 20 years of hearing different versions of the same speech, the public should be asking legislators why none of these promises seem much closer to being fulfilled.

Even in the 2006 Legislature, the public saw few Democratic measures that could be considered bold or courageous, especially in a year when lawmakers enjoyed a $600 million surplus. Instead, lawmakers banned smoking in workplaces, toughened crosswalk laws, repealed the controversial gas cap and put more money into the trust fund for affordable rentals. Nice, but hardly earth-shattering.

Legislators dedicated half the surplus for school repair and maintenance—but when haven’t they thrown more money at our bloated public education system? They also passed a three-strikes law for violent felons, increased the standard deduction and approved several energy bills—but those are measures the governor and Republican legislators have championed for years.

Why is it so hard for the Legislature to actually effect meaningful legislation? Maybe it’s because some legislators worry too much about getting reelected. The “no make waves” philosophy of pleasing everybody and offending no one can paralyze Democrats, usually ensuring only two things: their jobs are protected and nothing really changes in state government.

“In my eight years in the House, I’ve seen an almost singular obsession with reelection, and it’s not healthy,” says Democratic Rep. Brian Schatz. “If you look at those who are successful, it’s not the ones who carefully manage every choice they make and avoid unpopular votes or substantial risks. People we’ve rewarded in the past—Burns, [former Gov. George] Ariyoshi, [the late U.S. Rep. Patsy] Mink and even Lingle—are those who put their necks on the line.”

3 … And have the guts to stick with it.

Rather than rocking the boat, Democratic legislators are more likely to pass half measures that don’t address problems or backpedal on big decisions at the first sign of opposition.

In 2004, for example, the state Legislature passed Act 51, which was supposed to create a more equitable way of funding schools. But when principals, teachers and parents at smaller schools protested the loss of any funds, lawmakers scrambled to come up with an extra $20 million to ensure no schools lost money. Even now, lawmakers want to tamper with the funding formula again, allocating a base amount to each school, this time by taking away money from bigger schools.

“It’s an abject failure on the part of the Democratic legislators to deal with this issue,” says Lingle’s former state chief negotiator Ted Hong, who considers himself a Democrat. “They have no concept of leadership, only a concept of getting reelected. They come up with half-baked ideas in terms of a watered-down weighted student formula, and it causes more problems then if they just left the system alone.”

4 Remember who your constituents are.

The public can respect the fact that state workers, union members, business execs and lobbyists are voters, too, but some Democrats forget their job is to represent all of their constituents, not just those who contribute to their campaign fund.

“What I see now is that the Democratic Party is in danger of being captured by special interests,” Hong says. “In terms of Russell Okata and the HGEA [Hawai‘i Government Employees Association], nothing gets done without their blessing. There are people in the Legislature who, if the HGEA tells them day is night, they’ll believe it. They’ll pass legislation for it.”

During Cayetano’s administration, for example, he called for an overhaul of Hawai‘i’s civil service system. In 2001, Democratic lawmakers finally gave him what he wanted, passing several dramatic reform measures, even with angry public worker unions breathing down their necks. No sooner was Cayetano out of office than legislators caved into union pressure and began dismantling those same reforms.

“I’d say about 75 [percent] to 80 percent of those measures that Gov. Cayetano passed were gone within the space of a few years,” Hong says. “The first and biggest whack came in the first year, when Gov. Lingle got elected.” The only people left to support Cayetano’s once Democrat-supported reforms? Lingle and the Republicans.

Unions aren’t the only major players at the Legislature. Corporations and other special-interest groups know their way around the Capitol just as well.

“Every legislator is affected by special-interest groups,” Cayetano says. “The difference is when the quality of legislators is such that, on certain issues, they can say to the group, ‘I can’t go with you guys on this one. I gotta do things to make things better for everyone.’ That doesn’t happen anymore.”

5 Help the middle class—and those who’d like to be.

When the democratic party came to power in the Islands a half-century ago, one of its chief missions was to create equality for Hawai‘i’s disenfranchised plantation workers. Today, with home prices growing out of reach and ever more limited economic options, it’s Hawai‘i’s middle class feeling left behind.

Mike McCartney, chairman of the Democratic Party, acknowledges that party members need to address more middle-class problems. “The economy is good, but a lot of what’s happening to our economy right now has a lot to do with what’s happening offshore,” he says. “What concerns me is that some people are getting rich and making a lot of money, but I’m not sure our middle class can make it. Although the state as a whole is doing well, we’re not all doing well. We rank in the last five states for home ownership.”

Despite the party’s awareness that Hawai‘i’s middle class is increasingly under strain, Republicans are more vocal than Democrats in pushing for tax relief. For years the local GOP has tried to remove the general excise on food and medical services. This year, the state Legislature agreed to refund $50 million to Hawai‘i taxpayers, a sixth of the Lingle administration’s initial proposal of $300 million.

“This doesn’t have to be a partisan issue,” says Senate Minority Leader Fred Hemmings. “There are a lot of rank and file that realize that this is not the Hawai‘i they voted for in the past.”

6 Welcome new blood (and ideas) into the party.

When people talk about the Democratic machine, it implies that individual party members form an organized front to push their agenda and quash opposition. This is not the case. In fact, a minority of Democrats actively participate in the party’s power elite. The rest fall into two categories: those who “go along to get along” and those who act independently, to their political detriment.

Democrats who don’t toe the party line wind up in political purgatory, the best example today being congressman Ed Case. When Case announced earlier this year that he would challenge U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, many party members lashed out, calling him impatient or ambitious and throwing their support behind the party’s beloved elder statesman.

Case wasn’t surprised by the response. Before last month’s primary election, he told HONOLULU Magazine: “We’re dealing with a small minority of the Democratic Party who have been in control in Hawai‘i, and they’re not about to give up that power. But I won’t let them tell me what to do. And I don’t think they should be able to tell anyone what to do. They should be able to articulate what they believe, but not exert the kind of royal power politics we’ve been used to.”

Some of the Democratic Party’s most promising leaders, including 33-year-old Schatz, feel undermined by the internal power play. The exclusivity of the inner circle illustrates how much the party has changed since it came to power.

“During my generation, we tried to reach out to young people, people with different points of views, not just tried to control what they thought,” says former Gov. George Ariyoshi. “Different opinions make the community stronger.”

The Democratic Party has done such a mediocre job at recruiting new members that even ideal Democratic candidates have joined the opposition. One example is 36-year-old Rep. Kymberly Pine. In 2002, she became the first Republican to represent ‘Ewa Beach in at least 40 years. Pine, who is running for reelection, came from a family of plantation laborers and staunch Democrats.

“People always ask me, ‘Why are you a Republican? You’re Filipino!’” she says. “A few years ago, I worked at the Capitol as a press secretary, and I saw what was going on. It seemed as if the Democratic Party had become the lunas. I didn’t see openings for new ideas. I didn’t see openings for new leadership. When a party is in power for every branch of government for over 40 years, it’s easy to forget your way.”

7 Stop playing partisan politics.

Take a look at how state legislators vote on any major bill. More often than not, Democrats vote strictly with other Democrats, Republicans with other Republicans. It’s one thing for public officials to provide checks and balances; it’s another when their only goal is to keep the other side from looking good.

“There’s this wholesale voting against the governor’s programs, not because of their merits, but because it’s the governor’s program,” Hong says. “Good ideas don’t belong only to Democrats. They need to step back from partisan politics and get something done.”

One example local Republicans like to use in discussing Democrats’ unwillingness to work across party lines is the proposed decentralization of Hawai‘i’s state Board of Education.

“In 2002, the state House passed a measure to allow local school boards,” says Republican Party Chairman Sam Aiona. “When the governor got elected in the following legislative session, she proposed local school boards, and the Legislature did not pass her proposal. We’re seeing more cooperation these days, but not at the level it could or should be, which is why we absolutely need more balance within the state Legislature.”

Here in Hawai‘i and across the nation, voters have grown fed up with partisan politics. They want to see intelligent debate about real issues and are more willing to vote independently, Cayetano notes.

“Party labels are becoming less important these days, and part of it is disillusionment with the party,” he says. “Myself, I would vote for some Republicans in certain districts over Democrats, whereas 10 years ago, I wouldn’t even think of it. That’s the state of the party.”

8 Enough with the local card.

Fifty years ago, when oppressed plantation workers and Nisei veterans took on Hawai‘i’s Big Five-controlled power structure, the idea of us and them made sense. In the 1970s, the political movement known as “Palaka Power” strengthened this divide between locals and Mainlanders, insiders and outsiders.

Today, in a state where nearly half the residents weren’t born here, identity poli-tics don’t work in attracting the broadest range of supporters to the Democratic Party. But many of its members still draw those same cultural lines between themselves and others who disagree with them.

“How can one avoid the conclusion that [the party] has lost its way in terms of representing the mainstream of Hawai‘i?” Case says. “The Democratic Party’s success in the ’40s and ’50s was built on a different ethnic mix than today. The Democratic Party is still busy playing a local card. Well, 50 percent of the voters were not born and raised in Hawai‘i; that’s not going to work for them. In fact, it’s downright insulting.”

Democrats still like to peg Lingle as an outsider, despite her 30 years of living in Hawai‘i and two terms as mayor of Maui. One of Democrats’ favorite criticisms of the governor is that she’s all style and no substance, better at public relations than building relationships.

“Democrats are still using the same political tactics they used 40 years ago—the locals versus everybody else, and the ultimate hypocrisy is they’re trying to paint the governor as a loud-mouth haole when there’s no bigger loud-mouth haole than Neil Abercrombie,” says Hemmings. “I have a positive message: Forget about labels. Look at substance, and let’s all work together to change things for the better for everybody, not just one political party.”

9 Be Transparent.

One of the biggest reasons constituents have a tough time trusting Democrats (or any politicians, for that matter) is their reputation for making decisions behind closed doors—rumors of backroom deals, lunches at private clubs or quid pro quo arrangements with lobbyists and fellow legislators.

It doesn’t help that the Legislature exempts itself from Hawai‘i’s sunshine law, which gives the public the right to be informed and participate in government meetings. State and county boards, including county councils, must follow these rules. But the House and Senate abide by their own self-imposed guidelines and, not surprisingly, waive them as they see fit.

Democrat Sen. Les Ihara, one of the most vocal legislators for transparency in government, has long urged legislators to follow the state’s open-meetings law. Earlier this year, he also introduced a bill that would require legislators to disclose the names of their interns—a measure that followed Republican complaints that employees of organizations such as HMSA were working for Democrats. That bill failed, too.

“There was a time when pro-democracy reformers were the excluded ones, and they wanted to include the masses, because the public views were not taken into account,” Ihara says. “Back then it was to their advantage, but the tables have turned. I have been proposing that, if we don’t have reform from within, it will be imposed and, partially, the election of a Republican governor was the result. It is healthier in the long run for Democrats to be more in tune with the public.”

Transparency. Not a bad start. If Democrats are willing to take these nine steps in getting their act together, they might have a fighting chance at regaining the purpose and passion that created the party in the first place.