The surprising decision this weekend by Hawaii Democrats to reject Laura Thielen’s request to run in the party’s Aug. 11 primary for state Senate is causing many Democrats to question their own party.

Dismay over the decision is playing out in blog posts, including on Civil Beat, and in an exchange Monday between state senators during floor session. (See YouTube link below.)

The kerfuffle began Saturday when the party’s State Central Committee sustained an earlier decision by Oahu Demo­crats that Thielen was not a party member in good standing for the six months leading up to the state’s June 5 filing deadline. Thielen only registered with the party Feb. 21.

The party’s decision has bewildered top Democrats like Sen. Clayton Hee.

Hee told his colleagues Monday on the Senate floor: “I just wanted to make a comment about news reports that the Democratic Party was limiting its membership. I thought it was a joke until I found out that, in fact, it’s serious, that the Democratic Party now has rules, I guess, designed to keep people out of the party.”

Hee, who said he was not “particularly endeared” to Thielen because of clashes he has had with her over Kahana Valley, said he believed the philosophy of the party “was to allow everyone in instead of crafting rules to keep people out.”

“Anybody who wants to run ought to run,” said Hee, almost shouting. “And the last organization to prevent people from seeking elected office ought not be the Democrat Party.”

Bart Dame, who participated in the party discussions over Thielen, wrote in the discussion section of Civil Beat’s blog item on Thielen’s rejection: “Leadership has imposed an extremely unreasonable level of secrecy upon those of us at the meeting. I think this gag order is asinine and reflects a contempt for democratic norms.”

Dame continued: “This extreme, self-hobbling censorship by the party leadership serves as a graphic illustration of the screwy ‘legal’ logic which led to this STOOPID decision against Laura Thielen.”

Asked about her next move, Thielen, 51, said she’s keeping her options open.

“I understand that there are a number of people within the party, including on the Central Committee, who are extremely upset over this decision and feel that this is not the way the rule was intended to be applied and that the proces is very concerning,” she told Civil Beat Tuesday. “And I am hopeful those internal discussions will lead to a revisited decision and a better one — to support ballot access and voter rights to choose their own representatives for their own districts. I am waiting to see how it plays out.”

Party Chair Dante Carpenter, however, said he knew of no plan to revisit the Thielen vote.

While stressing that he could not discuss what took place during executive session — including vote tallies — he defended the party’s process and the outcome.

“I would love to discuss this all day long, but over 70 party members from across the state were in attendance for the vote, so it was not a small committee in a secret hideaway session,” said Carpenter. “I can tell you that, parliamentary wise, we needed to have at minimum a tie vote to sustain the vote of the Oahu Executive Committee, and the question was whether or not to sustain the vote.”

Carpenter said the State Central Committee deliberated for more than two hours and the Oahu committee for more than seven hours on the matter, and that the vote on Thielen “was a decision not taken lightly.”

The Context

An attorney, Thielen has served as director of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, director of the state Office of Planning and as a member of the Board of Education. She’s currently the agricultural liaison for the City and County of Honolulu.

But she also ran DLNR under then-Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican, and her mother, Rep. Cynthia Thielen, is a longtime Republican who ran against U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, the beloved Democrat, in 2006. Laura Thielen managed the campaign.1

Ironically, Cynthia Thielen votes in many ways like a liberal Democrat, especially when it comes to environmental issues. She has been a top critic of her Democratic colleagues at the Hawaii Legislature this session for what she says are blatant efforts to roll back state environmental laws to expedite construction projects.

It was those actions and others that prompted Laura Thielen to run for state Senate District 25, which runs from Lanikai through parts of Kailua, Keolu Hills and Waimanalo and around Makapuu to Portlock.

The seat was held for a decade by Fred Hemmings, a Republican who retired in 2010. Pohai Ryan edged two opponents in the Democratic primary before handily winning the general election.

But Ryan has served only two years in office, and all state Senate seats are up for re-election this year because of reapportionment.

Thielen is critical of Ryan’s bill sponsorship and votes on a slate of legislation, including the exemptions to the environmental law, allowing vacation rentals on agricultural land and supporting early transfer of state land to the Public Land Development Corporation.

She said she is also upset about proposed legislative exemptions to the Sunshine Law and the State Ethics Code.

“I am very motivated by what is occurring during this legislative session and I explained that to the party and how my positions are in conformation to the Democratic Party platform and resolutions,” said Thielen.

The party platform lists among its tenets preserving and strengthening the future of agriculture and protecting the environment.

Told of Thielen’s criticism of her record, Ryan responded, “I am very surprised by the former DLNR director. She knows how this works. Bills can change by the time they get to conference, and I voted with reservations on most exemption bills so that I would not be excluded from conference. The meat is in conference.”

Ryan also took a crack at Thielen: “This is the DLNR director who tried to promote Recreational Renaissance, which was a disaster, especially to Kona, where it actually decreased access for Native Hawaiian fishermen and cultural gatherings.”

Ryan is referring to a plan to develop and maintain outdoor recreational properties that would have charged fees at some state parks, among other things.

The Rules

In Hawaii, to run as a Democrat a candidate must be sanctioned by the state party.

Democrats drafted rules in their 2008 party constitution, amended in 2010, in response to two high profile requests for party membership.

One involved Mike Gabbard, a state senator who wanted to leave the GOP, and the other involved Bev Harbin, who was appointed by Lingle to fill a state House vacancy.

Gabbard was controversial because of his outspoken opposition to same-sex marriage — a position contrary to many Democrats — while Harbin was a prickly personality who, it was later discovered, owed back taxes and had misdemeanors for writing bad checks.

Harbin is long gone from the House — Lingle later admitted she has made a mistake in appointing her — but Gabbard, now a Democrat, is a veteran lawmaker who is generally respected in his party.

Those rules put in place a process of approval that applicants for membership in the party must go through.

They don’t apply to this situation, because Thielen is not being appointed to fill a seat nor is she currently holding office. She is also a registered Democrat.

But another rule in the party constitution — it requires a member to be in good standing for six months before the filing deadline — does apply. She’s only been a Democrat since February.

Thielen calls it a confusing rule, as there are exemptions to that rule, including a section that reads:

A candidate application for new Party membership must be received no later than sixty (60) days prior to the legal candidate filing deadline, unless the applicable Executive Committee waives this deadline for an applicant.

The confusion is compounded by the fact that the candidate filing deadline for 2012 was moved from late July to early June — as it had been for a number of years — and that challenges to the reapportionment process delayed the finalizing of political district boundaries until just last month.

What upsets Thielen — and Bart Dame and Clayton Hee — is that in rejecting Thielen’s request party leaders effectively decided which candidates to put before voters.

The Fallout

The Thielen vote has opened Democrats up to significant criticism.

The Civil Beat discussion, for example, includes this post from Dylan Nonaka, former executive director for the Hawaii Republican Party:

I hope this rule is applied evenly to every person seeking to run for office this year as a Democrat. I have a feeling if a superstar candidate pops up to run against a Republican incumbent and signs a D party card right before the filing deadline it wont. I love how after rejecting Thielin from running for office the inclusive party of transparency suppresses their members free speech rights by not letting them talk about it.

But it is Democrats who are most upset.

“So wait, we let Mike Gabbard in but kick Laura out? As a card carrying member I’m appalled by both decisions,” wrote Bryan Mick. “If Laura runs as something other then a D and wins, how short sighted will this decision look?”

In Hee’s floor comments Monday, he called the vote on Thielen “a sad day … it’s almost as if one would have to take an LSAT exam to be a Democrat.”

That prompted Ryan to rise and point out that it was Thielen’s candidacy, and not her party membership, that was rejected. She said Thielen could also run in the next election.

Ryan told Civil Beat that she was “grateful” that Democratic leadership honored the six-month rule. She also said she would have welcomed Thielen into the contest and had previously told that to Thielen.

“Because I think the more options the better,” she said. “It didn’t matter to me. But, why didn’t she sign up a month before? I was told she was already thinking about running.”

Asked if she might run as a Republican or an independent, Thielen said no, though some supporters have urged her to consider the third-party option.

“I am a Democrat,” she said.

Read Civil Beat’s Hawaii Elections Guide 2012.

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