Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Retired Air Force Col. Shirlene Dela Cruz Ostrov is defining either optimism or insanity as she takes over as head of the Hawaii Republican Party.
Hawai‘i is routinely described as a one-party state, as elected Republicans have dropped to just five in the 51-member state Legislature.
The list of GOP weaknesses include:
- no Republicans in the state Senate;
- two GOP leaders — former state House minority leader Rep. Beth Fukumoto and Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa — both leaving the GOP this year; and
- a red state wave that gave the Republicans control of the U.S. House, Senate and White House that completely missed deep blue Hawai‘i.
Hawai‘i posted the nation’s biggest rejection of Donald Trump’s election bid, with the New York billionaire winning only 30 percent of the vote here.
Still, Ostrov says she can find a reasonable way to some political success.
“There are no shortage of people who want a two-party system,” says Ostrov, pointing to that same presidential election.
“Places like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, normally blue states, turned red. Hawai‘i needs to have a balance,” she said in an interview.
Still, the plight of the Hawaii Republican Party was brought into focus when conservative members of the local GOP hounded Fukumoto out of the party this past legislative session after she criticized and refused to support Donald Trump.
Former GOP leader and standard-bearer, Patricia Saiki, a moderate Republican, praises Fukumoto.
“Donald Trump is now the president of the United States, whether you agree with him or don’t. But you don’t have to be ousted from the party if you disagree with him. It is shortsighted,” Saiki said in an interview.
“I like Beth — she is an honorable person; perhaps she was too hasty. Beth carries her feelings on her sleeve and she has made herself into a symbol, and that was not necessary,” Saiki added.
Showing that she still knows how to make a political point, Saiki notes how Fukumoto is now being “interrogated” by the Democrats, who are questioning whether she is progressive enough to join the party.
Fukumoto, who also previously served as Hawai‘i GOP chairwoman, says she understands the Democrats’ questions, adding that her Democratic colleagues in the House of Representatives “are super-supportive.”
“As far as they are concerned, I am in the Democratic caucus,” Fukumoto said.
Newly elected House Speaker Scott Saiki said he “strongly supports Fukumoto’s application to the Democratic Party.
Still, Fukumoto is awaiting approval from the Democratic Central Committee before her Democratic credentials are accepted.
Both parties, Fukumoto says, have gone through a period in which the active party members are more interested in a politician’s political philosophy than their political effectiveness.
“What I am hearing is they (Democrats) don’t know if I am progressive enough. That’s because there is an argument that current elected officials are not progressive enough.
“It is the same thing I saw in the GOP — what does it mean to be Republican. In primaries, conservatives are getting beaten by those who are even more conservative,” Fukumoto said.
Politics is always about finding compromises to achieve a victory, so moderate Saiki says she is starting to get behind the local GOP’s just-announced candidate for governor, Rep. Bob McDermott.
“I think he would make a great governor,” said Saiki, who ran unsuccessfully against Democrat Ben Cayetano in 1994.
McDermott describes his own campaign for governor as “like climbing Mount Everest without sherpas or oxygen.”
“I know I won’t have as much money as Gov. Ige, but David proved you can win with $500,000,” he said.
The former Marine officer and Iraq War veteran recalls that when he first served in the state House there were 19 Republicans, but even then, the GOP was not a party that offered much help.
“I put $8,000 on my own credit card and I busted my butt every day,” says McDermott, who is known for his blunt speaking style.
Asked why the local Republicans have so dwindled, McDermott says the party has had a difficult time finding viable candidates.
“I don’t see as many good candidates. Also, we had the defectors (Fukumoto and Aaron Ling Johanson in 2014) — they wanted to be with the cool kids,” said McDermott, who publicly rebuked Fukumoto this past session.
In his campaign, McDermott hopes to make Gov. Ige’s low-key, nonconfrontational leadership style an issue.
“David is a go with the flow sort; he’s not a leader. I want to emphasize the things that can be fixed — the things that people see, touch and feel,” McDermott said.
GOP chairwoman Ostrov describes her party as “gasping its last breath” when she was elected at the state convention on Kaua‘i last month.
Now to turn it into a living political entity, Ostrov says she will have to find some unity among the sometimes-squabbling groups.
“We have people concerned about business, we have a very vocal religious right and we all have our objectives,” she said.
“So we have to make sure we have a platform that is representative. I know that’s a challenge.”
Ostrov looks at the party membership totaling 33,000 and the 138,000 votes Trump won in Hawai‘i as building blocks for a new local GOP.
Even Trump, who is proving to be remarkably unpopular across the country, can be a help, Ostrov said.
“I believe that President Trump is keeping his promises, so yes, he is not someone who is easy to get behind if you are from Hawai‘i; it is going to be a challenge. It is important people understand why he is doing the things he is doing . . . we have to be the translator,” said Ostrov.
To help with that translation, Ostrov just returned from a week in Washington where she met with GOP consultants, including members of the White House, to help with the 2018 campaigns.
She noted that after her election as chairwoman, she “received a call from the White House and reassurances that the president is interested in seeing Hawai‘i thrive.”
To that end, Ostrov says the local GOP’s first challenge will be to find the money needed to support candidates next year.
The most recent Campaign Spending Commission report shows the GOP has a balance of $16,660, as compared to the $46,916 held in the Democratic Party’s local treasury.
Besides money, Ostrov says the GOP will also be counting a lot more on strategic campaigning, using political data to find the best districts for viable candidates.
“To have candidates thrive, you have to till the soil for them. Good candidates will attract good funding. We are going to start earlier and go for it,” says Ostrov.
Richard Borreca is a Honolulu journalist. He has worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, KHVH News Radio, KHON-TV, Honolulu Magazine and The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, for whom he now writes a Sunday column.