Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Editor’s note: With the general election less than three weeks away, the Herald asked University of Hawai‘i journalism professor Gerald Kato to share his observations on the current state of Hawai‘i politics. Kato, who graduated from Farrington High School, UH-Mänoa (bachelor’s) and the University of Missouri (master’s), covered government and Hawai‘i politics for many years as a beat reporter.
Elections can be a lot like the weather. The presidential race is that “severe weather” you hear the television meteorologist going on about, while here in Hawai‘i, the forecast remains partly cloudy with showers.
Much like the weather, elections in Hawai‘i have all the signs of being predictable, even as they’re subject to change. That said, here are a few thoughts on this year’s election before they become yesterday’s passing showers.
What’s going on nationally is, in many ways, playing out on a smaller scale here. For instance, the Democratic Party and Republican Party caucuses this past summer illustrate in both parties the divisions between the party establishments and the newcomers, represented among Democrats by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and business tycoon Donald Trump on the Republican side. Both won big in the Hawai‘i caucuses in the face of support by party leaders for mainstream candidates Hillary Clinton and anyone but Trump.
Most of Hawai‘i’s Democratic establishment endorsed Clinton, including former Govs. George Ariyoshi, Ben Cayetano and John Waihee; U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono and former U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka. Meanwhile, there was a big turnout among Republicans, despite wind and rain across the island chain during the GOP caucuses. There seemed to be a yearning to take the parties in a new direction.
After the caucuses, the big question was whether the enthusiasm of those who went to the caucuses would translate into a transformation of either party in Hawai‘i beyond the 2016 election.
One of the strengths of Democrats through the years has been that party regulars, the so-called “grassroots,” have remained a constant force through good and bad times, locally and nationally. Will the Sanders Democrats have what it takes to remain active after their candidate was defeated for the nomination? Or is it Sanders, and Sanders alone, that drew them to the process?
Tim Vandeveer, the newly elected chair of Hawai‘i’s Democratic Party and a strong Sanders supporter, seemed to think so. After being chosen party leader, Vandeveer was quoted as saying that with his election, the torch had been passed to a new generation. What the new generation will do with that torch isn’t clear, however.
Whether that new generation turns out to vote for Hillary Clinton, who, by all accounts, will win Hawai‘i (the birthplace of President Barack Obama, as even Donald Trump now acknowledges) will be its first real test. Vandeveer’s challenge now and going forward is to grow a new grassroots movement to show that a new generation is indeed prepared to assume political leadership of the party. Right now, the old guard still seems to hold sway.
Republican have long hoped that as they became upwardly mobile, Asian Americans — Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, Korean Americans — and Pacific Islanders would become, politically, more moderately conservative and turn to the GOP. Republicans such as former Congressman Charles Djou, state House Minority Leader Beth Fukumoto Chang, state Rep. Lauren Cheape Matsumoto and former GOP executive director Dylan Nonaka represented the new face of the party. But state Republicans face big challenges within the party.