Eric Pape: This is a Civil Beat podcast and I’m Eric Pape. Today we’re at the Hawaii State Senate where a Republican senator is talking to a group of third-graders.

Sen. Sam Slom: Maria, can you take a picture of these young ladies? Everybody say “Jalapeño.”

Visitors: “Jalapeño!”

Pape: Sam Slom is the only Republican state senator in Hawaii. Like the islands themselves, he’s surrounded by a sea of blue — that’s Democratic blue.

Slom: Good morning everyone. Aloha!

Visitors: Aloha.

Slom: I am the only one Republican. There are 24 members of the Democrat party and then there is me. Guess what? We’ve got a room down there called a caucus room. And I get to caucus with myself.”

Pape, now talking one-on-one with Slom: As a teenager in Allentown, Pennsylvania, he had a quirky fascination with Hawaii. Among other things, he wore aloha shirts in the Northeast in February. His parents thought he was nuts when he decided to forgo a University of Pennsylvania scholarship to move to Hawaii.

Slom: When I gave that up to come here, my parents who have been divorced, they both wanted me certified and put in an institution: “Why are you going way over there, they don’t speak English, they eat raw foods, their women are topless.” I said “Well, one out of three ain’t bad, you know”

Pape: Yes, Slom has a sense of humor. Given the state of his party in the islands, that’s probably a good thing. He was first elected in 1996 and speaks of “salad days” for his party — that’s when he was one of five Republicans. That was years ago.

Slom: To me it’s great, because I get up every morning, I argue with myself for two minutes. I say: “Are you in agreement Sam?” “Yes, that’s a great idea, Sam.” “I think so too, OK, let’s go!” My staff though, I train them to argue with me because I feel unless you have that competition, or unless you have other people with different ideas, you’re not going to be as sharp as you can. And I bemoan the fact that we’ve got less public debate now than we ever did before. We’ve got the lowest percentage of voting. We went from number one in the country to number 50.”

Pape: It can be hard to know if turnout has fallen from 82 percent in 1992 to 52 percent in 2014 because voters just prefer Democrats and know they will win, or if people have lost hope of ever getting them out.

I’m intrigued by states that are super-Democrat or superRepublican. I sometimes wonder: Will leaders with more power become more extreme, or will they moderate themselves? And will the party out of power soften its stances to get more popular?

But Slom is a real Republican. He pushes solidly conservative bills on guns and against unions, and he focuses on values.

Slom: Work harder and you’ll succeed, treat everybody equally, compassion is important but don’t be stupid about it.”

Republicans who run statewide in Hawaii often seem … sort of closeted. They campaign on competency and bipartisanship, not on ideology.

“I have a high regard for Duke Aiona, I think he would have made an excellent governor, he’s an excellent person. I defy you to show me, during the last campaign, any commercials or any materials that said Republican on it. Charles Djou, good friend, would have made an great congressman, did make a good congressman for six months.

No “R,” no Republican. He was a centrist. Linda Lingle, two-term governor of this state. After she left office, before she ran for U.S. Senate, she announced at a Republican convention she was a bipartisan.

Well, if you have the leaders in your own party not talking up why they are Republicans and the difference between Republican and a Democrat or Independent or Green party or whatever, then you got a real problem.

Pape: The problem for Republicans is simple: they rarely win. Some people blame national attention-getters — like those at those people on the stage of the Republican presidential debates — for making it hard for their candidates here. Slom, on the other hand, thinks the problem is that local candidates aren’t being Republican enough.

Slom: OK, we really feel that Planned Parenthood is evil and kills babies, but we don’t want to do anything because we’ll be perceived as the ones shutting down the government. We campaigned on shutting down Obamacare, but we really can’t do that now because there are some people that still believe in it. What do you stand for?

Pape: All electoral strategies aside, Slom knows how he could make things a lot easier for himself.

Slom: If you’ve got Republicans that change overnight, become Democrats, because all of a sudden they get comittee assignments and they get their bills passed … Mike Gabbard, good friend in the Senate, he became a Democrat. He used to be one of our “salad five” in the Republican Senate.

He became a Democrat all of a sudden. He was singing a different song, he had his guitar. He was happy. And he was a comittee chairman and he’s an energy guru and all of that.

Sam Kong in the state House. Neat guy. Religious guy. Ran as a Republican I think two times for the House. Oh, he got creamed. He became a Democrat last year. He was elected, just like that! I will give him a lot of credit though, because unlike a lot of other people who have switched parties, he still sounds much more like a Republican and still has many of the same commitments that he had before.”

Pape: Slom, who’s in his 70s, is unlikely to follow that path.

He’s actually gotten some non-ideological bills passed. And every year he introduces his dream package that includes allowing voter initiatives, referendums, recall and term limits.

Slom: My buddies say, well if you believe so much in term limits, why don’t you just quit? And I say that the reason I stay around is to be a pain in your buttocks!

Pape: He’s also working to rebalance things as much as he can, as he tried to do during the same-sex marriage debate. But without allies, he needs voters to get involved.

Slom: When we had 10,000 people down here for the special session on the same sex marriage, most of them have never been here before. Not one vote changed from before the session until the vote was taken. I had hundreds of people in my office who were so frustrated afterwards. They said “How do we get such and such out of office?”

I said, “You don’t, because we don’t have recall.”

“Well, how do we do …”

I said, “You don’t because we don’t have initiative.”

“How do we?”

“You don’t.”

They said, “well, we’re gonna change that.”

And I helped facilitate some committees that worked after that session. And you know what? People never came back, they never got involved. And that’s a shame.

Pape: His position sounds frustrating for a 19-year veteran of the Senate. So why does he stay?

Slom: There were times in the past where I thought of possibly leaving. People said, “You’re crazy to stay here, you’re batting your head against a wall, and if you went to any other place, you would succeed.” But I love Hawaii, Hawaii has been good to me. And I’m still, with all of the kvetching that you’ve heard, I’m very positive. Because we have the best people in the world. We can do things. There is not one problem here that we couldn’t solve.

This podcast was produced by Chrystele Bossu-Ragis for CivilBeat.com.

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