What does it mean to be a Democrat in Hawai'i?
November 17, 2005
P ublic ridicule of the plan to exempt the Maui County Council from the state's Sunshine Law requiring open government was swift and brutal. "What the council chair and associates are proposing is to move us toward efficiency at the expense of the community's right to know and ability to speak out," he wrote in a Nov. 2, 2005 Maui News editorial. "In exchange for firm law, they are suggesting that we simply trust them."
It's interesting but by no means unusual that the author of the above op-ed, Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa, is a Republican. Open government is one of those truisms that most American officials hold dear. But the council chairman who earned Arakawa's scorn—the one who tried to hide himself and his colleagues from the public by rationalizing that "the Sunshine Law detracts from the effectiveness of county councils in carrying out their legislative responsibilities"—is Riki Hokama, a Democrat.
Think about that a moment. Democrats—big "D" and little "d"—believe in democracy, which is, as Abraham Lincoln put it, government of the people, by the people and for the people. Yet here is Hokama, a member of the Democratic Party of Hawai'i, making a clumsy effort to bar the people from the council chambers like they were strangers trying to get into his living room.
At first I thought it was just the ramblings of a guy who's been in power too long and got funny, inflated ideas about his importance. But then I recalled some of the other things local Democrats have been doing.
For instance, soon after returning from a Middle East fact-finding trip, U.S. Congressman Ed Case (D, 2nd District) announced that it was imperative that the U.S. "stay the course" in the war in Iraq. Then twice this year, first in March and then again earlier this month, U.S. Senators Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye (D, Hawai'i) voted to approve oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). And Hokama, seeking to justify his bid to close access to the Maui County Council, pointed out that the State Legislature—dominated by Democrats since 1954—has long exempted itself from the Sunshine Law.
Were these minor differences of opinion, that's one thing, but open government, Alaskan oil drilling and the war in Iraq are high profile ideological issues for Democrats. What's more, every one of these actions explicitly violates a 2004 resolution passed by the Democratic Party of Hawai'i.
"We have a lot of [party] resolutions," said Maui County Democratic Party Chairman Ian Chan Hodges. "Almost every local elected official has gone against one or two or even a dozen. If you look at the party, Maui County and statewide, the party leadership is quite progressive. There is somewhat of a disconnect between the leadership and elected officials."
For a longtime Democratic activist like Dick Mayer, ideological times are tough.
"I'm frustrated," said Mayer, a Kula resident and activist who in 2004 collected and edited all the resolutions of the Maui County Democratic Party. "For whatever reason, there's a lack of familiarity with the resolutions. Those are the expressions of large numbers of people who participate in the conventions. I would much rather see candidates take those resolutions and translate them into actions."
(See the accompanying "Total Resolution" to see what some of these resolutions say.)
According to Ian Chan Hodges, party officials are beginning to focus on getting state legislative officials to put more emphasis on party resolutions and even turn some of them into bills.
"The grass roots people put hours and hours and days and weeks into those resolutions," said Shay Chan Hodges, Ian's wife and Hawai'i Democratic Party Central Committee member. "That definitely needs to be respected."
The question of what it means to be a Democrat in Hawai'i is nothing new to the party in general. Ever since 2000, when the inarticulate, anti-intellectual son of President George H. W. Bush became President of the United States, the Democratic Party as a whole has been grasping at its identity.
After all, President Bill Clinton had spent eight years co-opting Republican Party platform issues—welfare reform, free trade, balancing the budget—in an effort to "govern from the center." Longtime core party issues like pacifism, environmentalism and aid for the urban poor went to the background or disappeared entirely. The feeling was that the country was veering to the right, and the Democrats needed to head there, too.
Hence we have a very moderate Congressman like Ed Case very reasonably explain that his pro-war views come from having to represent his entire district, though how he came to feel that the majority of his district supports the war in Iraq is not so clear. Interestingly, both Akaka and Inouye couched their ANWR-drilling votes—which Case strongly opposed—in very progressive terms of helping the local indigenous peoples, though a clear view of the actual ownership of Alaskan oil rights show a lot more indigenous peoples are going to get screwed over by drilling than made rich (see Maui Time's "Akaka's Eskimos," Aug. 4, 2005 for more on this).
The Democratic Party is still very much a "big tent" trying to group together all sorts of disparate interest groups and ideologies. For example, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D, Nevada) is pro-life, in contravention of the national party's stated pro-abortion stance. Aren't some ideological sacrifices necessary to gain the biggest support possible? Indeed, Case has been telling the public that the liberal wing of the Democratic Party has grown "intolerant" of alternate viewpoints, much like the Religious Right holds a stranglehold over the Republican Party.
Indeed, a few years ago the Maui County Democrats talked of issuing "report cards"—ideological analyses of how elected officials of both parties were keeping up with the party's platforms and resolutions. But they dropped the idea.
"Do we want to embarrass people?" Shay Chan Hodges asked rhetorically. "We also have to support people."
Still, party leaders are starting to express their concerns to elected officials who seem to stray off the reservation.
"We had a meeting with Ed Case," said Shay Chan Hodges. "To Case's credit he came. We expressed our concerns. He didn't necessarily agree with us. He was honest with how he felt. I thought it was very good. A lot of people forgive Case on the social stuff because he's so good on the environment. The Iraq thing is really frustrating, but with Case you have to look at the big picture."
It's not an easy point to dismiss. Indeed, Ian Chan Hodges pointed out that such a meeting was all but unheard of for Republicans, who typically cherish "lock-step" votes over a free expression of ideas and interests. And for all the anger Akaka and Inouye stirred up over their pro-ANWR drilling votes, they often vote the liberal line on a host of other issues.
"ANWR was sort of depressing," said Shay Chan Hodges. "It's terrible what they're doing, no question, but Akaka votes very progressive on everything else."
But can that go too far? Can too much leniency lead to voter dissatisfaction and campaign losses? In fact, some suggest that part of the reason the Democrats lost so much power in the White House and Congress is because they aren't "authentic"—they don't stand for anything anymore.
"What the Democrats don't get is that while the American people are longing for authenticity, they come across as totally inauthentic," longtime Democratic Party activist Norman Lear told Arianna Huffington in the November/December issue of Radar. "[B]ecause they try to represent what they think the American people want, and in the process entirely lose themselves."
What exactly the national Democratic Party stands for these days is open to debate. For instance, Senator John Kerry (D, Massachusetts) seemed to campaign for President in 2004 by both supporting and opposing the war in Iraq. But on a more basic level, progressives like Ralph Nader and Huffington point to the party's addiction to corporate contributions as poisoning whatever pro-worker, pro-environment, pro-peace platforms the party once held dear (see the accompanying "Who's at the Party" to see how little difference major Wall Street investment firms see between Democrats and Republicans).
"There's a need for funding to run campaigns, and the funds are all in the hands of big corporations," said Mayer. "All Democrats running for office are thinking they need large amounts of money. Unions are diminishing in power. It's what's happening to the American political scene. And it's getting much, much worse. The need to pay attention to people by both parties is diminishing."
The upcoming 2006 elections will be different for the Hawai'i Democrats. For the first time they have no "annointed" candidate running for Governor. The current Governor, Republican Linda Lingle, has already amassed such a tremendous war chest of contributions that most Democrats refuse to take her on.
Indeed, Congressman Neil Abercrombie (D, 1st District) has all but said he'd rather stay in the U.S. House of Representatives—where he's a powerless back-bencher—than run against her. As it stands now, her highest profile potential Democratic challenger is Republican Hawai'i Island County Mayor Harry Kim.
"I'm a very grass roots populist," said Shay Chan Hodges. "I think if you make more than $100,000 a year you shouldn't be a Democrat. But ultimately it's all about making money. It's very difficult to participate in politics unless you have money behind you. [Ian and I] are the only people we know with children under 10 who go to the [party] meetings. But people with kids are most in touch with what's going on."
Still, activists like Shay Chan Hodges remain optimistic. "I wouldn't raise my children anywhere else but Hawai'i, and it has nothing to do with the beach," she said. "This is a very progressive state. We have a huge opportunity to get back to our roots, back to the revolution of 1954 when the Democrats first took over. But it would be very good if [candidates] were very familiar with our resolutions. If you're going to call yourself a Democrat, then you should be proud to be a Democrat." MTW
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