Hawaii Politics

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One-Party Dominance

Although Republicans played a major role in shaping Hawaii before statehood, the Democratic Party of Hawaii has dominated government and politics in the islands for more than half a century.

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In an election year when Republicans unseated Democratic incumbents and improved their hold on the U.S. House of Representatives, Hawaii voters in 2016, overwhelmingly reasserted their support for Democrats.

Democrat David Ige handily won the race for governor against Republican Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona.

Republican U.S. Rep. Charles Djou failed in his attemp to regain his old seat in the House as Tulsi Gabbard and Colleen Hanabusa were elected to the two congressional seats in the 2nd and 1st districts.


The Democratic Party of Hawaii has dominated government, politics and policy in the islands for more than half a century. While there have been a handful of Republicans elected to high office, it has usually been the exception and involved strong candidates who faced weak Democratic opponents. The number of Republicans holding office in Hawaii actually declined under Republican Gov. Linda Lingle, who was elected in 2002 and left office at the end of 2010.

Hawaii’s one-party dominance in congressional races contined in 2016 as Brian Schatz returned to his seat won by appointment after Daniel K. Inouye died in 2012 and Mazie Hirono won re-election to her Senate seat after winning a free-for-all democratic primary to fill Sen. David Akaka’s seat after his retirement in 2012.

Origins of One-Party Dominance

Just as the Civil War still informs politics in the South — and the country — Hawaii’s monarchy, missionary and plantation histories, and Republican-controlled territorial period still inform Hawaii’s post-statehood socioeconomic and political environment. Indeed, the names of many streets, highways, schools, office buildings and shopping centers still carry their names — Kamehameha, Kuhio, Kalanianaole, Liliuokalani, Kapiolani, Bingham, Dole, Thurston, Farrington, Dillingham, Alexander & Baldwin, Castle & Cooke, to name a few.

To this day, Republicans in Hawaii are often still linked with business interests and sometimes stereotyped as mostly elite white people, though the party today is ethnically diverse and represents various constituencies. Similarly, Democrats in Hawaii are often still linked to the multi-ethnic working and middle classes whose origins date to the plantations. Today, however, there are many whites and many wealthy people in the party.

These limited descriptions also apply to the national parties and help explain why bipartisanship is so difficult to accomplish at the state and federal level — and why Democrats have long dominated Hawaii politics.

Territory of Hawaii

Although a party system developed following the 1887 Bayonet Constitution that took power away from the Hawaiian monarchy, political parties in Hawaii first became dominant when Hawaii was a territory (1900-1959). The Hawaii Republican Party traces its origins to the Missionary Party, which was formed by the descendants of Protestant missionaries from New England who first arrived in the early 19th century. Republicans, whose party dominated the legislature until 1954, represented business interests and the ruling elite of white men. Some members were instrumental in the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.

Territorial Governor

Territorial governors were appointed by the U.S. president. There was no lieutenant governor. The appointed governors generally were of the same party as the president. Among the most significant governors were Republican Sanford B. Dole, the first governor and a central player in Hawaii’s transition from a monarchy to a republic and then a territory, and Republican Wallace R. Farrington.

Delegates in Congress

Hawaii had only one delegate in Washington, D.C., and from 1903 through 1920 the seat was held by Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole. A member of the Hawaiian royal family, Prince Kuhio joined Republicans after belonging to the short-lived Home Rule Party of Hawaii, which sought independence for Native Hawaiians. Today, Republicans in Hawaii revere Kuhio.

Other important delegates to Congress during the territorial period include Republicans Samuel Wilder King, Joseph Rider Farrington, and Farrington’s wife, Elizabeth P. Farrington. The Farringtons were also publishers of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, one of Honolulu’s two daily newspapers.

The last congressional delegate from the territory was John A. Burns, a Democrat who was instrumental in the party’s transformation to the dominant party.

Territorial Legislature

Hawaii’s territorial legislature was controlled by Republicans until 1954, when Democrats took over both the House and Senate. The political “revolution” was led by leaders like Burns, mainland union organizers like Jack Hall, labor strikes and other organized protests by dock and plantations workers, primarily Japanese Americans, Filipinos, and Japanese-American veterans who served with distinction during World War II.

One of those war veterans, Daniel K. Inouye, served in the territorial House and Senate from 1954-1959, the U.S. House from 1959-1963, and served in the U.S. Senate from 1963 to 2012. Inouye was the most influential political figure in Hawaii history.

One-Party State

Since statehood in 1959, Hawaii Democrats have dominated federal, state and county government, though Republicans have produced several leaders who have managed to have an impact. Still, it is usually the case that Democrats are able to field several strong candidates for offices while Republicans find it difficult to field even one.

Democrats’ dominance is aided by the close bonds forged between the party and labor in the 20th century. Today, candidates continue to vie for the support of union members not only for endorsements and campaign contributions, but for sign-waving and get-out-the vote canvassing at election time.

Labor unions do not uniformly support Democratic candidates, but it is rare when they do not. For example, in Lingle’s unsuccessful 1998 campaign for governor, she received the endorsement of the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly. UHPA’s support was for a reason: Professors had clashed with the Democrat incumbent, Ben Cayetano, over budget priorities. UHPA chose Lingle again in 2002, when she defeated Cayetano’s lieutenant governor, Mazie Hirono, and again in 2006.

Union support does not ensure victory, however. In 2002, Hirono received the endorsement of the largest and most powerful union, the Hawaii Government Employees Association, but still lost to Lingle. Still, labor support is highly sought and is an indication of a candidate’s ballot strength and ability to raise money.


The last appointed governor and the first elected governor, in 1960, was Republican William F. Quinn. Since then, Democrats held the governorship from 1962 to 2002, an uninterrupted run that invariably saw sitting lieutenant governors elevated to the higher office.

John Burns served until 1974, when he was succeeded by Lt. Gov. George Ariyoshi. Ariyoshi served until 1986, when he was succeeded by Lt. Gov. John D. Waihee III. (The 1978 Constitutional Convention limited the governor and lieutenant governor to two terms.) Waihee was succeeded in 1994 by Lt. Gov. Cayetano. The succession pattern ended in 2002, when Republican Lingle defeated Lt. Gov. Hirono.

Despite the dominance of Democrats, many people in Hawaii express pride that the governor’s office has been held by a diverse group: three white men (Quinn, Burns and Abercrombie), a Japanese American (Ariyoshi) and (Ige), a Hawaiian (Waihee), a Filipino (Cayetano), and a Jewish woman (Lingle). Ethnic diversity is a factor in elections, and ethnic balance on a ticket can influence outcomes.


Only two Republicans, Pat Saiki and Charles Djou, have been elected to the U.S. House. A former state legislator, Saiki served two terms before running unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1990 and governor in 1994. Djou won the May 22, 2010, special election, but lost the general election that November — making him the only Hawaii incumbent in Congress to lose a re-election bid.

The Democrats elected to the U.S. House since statehood form a who’s who of major Hawaii politicians: Inouye, Abercrombie, Case, Hirono Tom Gill, Patsy Mink, Spark Matsunaga, Daniel Akaka and Cec Heftel. Such is the success of Hawaii Democrats in Congress that none have lost re-election; they have either left to seek another office, died in office, or, in the case of Abercrombie, failed to win the Democratic primary after winning a special election in 1986 to replace Heftel. Abercrombie won election to the seat again in 1990 and served for the next two decades.

A similar Democratic dominance is seen in the U.S. Senate, where only one Republican, Hiram Fong, has served. Oren Long, a Democrat, preceded Inouye in the Senate (Long retired), while Akaka succeeded Matsunaga, who died in office. Inouye’s success at re-election was due in no small part for his skill in directing congressional funds to his district, earmarks that totaled $2.7 billion in fiscal years 2008-2010.


The Hawaii State Legislature has 25 senators and 51 representatives. As a result of the 2010 election, only one senator and eight representatives belonged to the Hawaii Republican Party. The minority party says it is able to influence legislation and votes in favor of most bills. But House Republicans saw all 46 bills in their minority caucus package in the 2010 session held or deferred, while Senate Republicans only introduced a handful of bills. A similar pattern followed in 2011.

Overall Republican representation in the Legislature has shrunk during Lingle’s two terms in office, despite Lingle’s efforts to build and diversify the party when she served as party chair from 1999 to 2002. One Republican senator, Mike Gabbard, and one House representative, Karen Awana, switched parties with little fallout.

With veto-proof majorities, Democrats increasingly find it unnecessary to work across party lines, or with the governor. However, there is factionalism among Democrats in the House and Senate, and disagreement between chambers; both are sometimes obstacles to passing meaningful legislation. To stay in power, House and Senate leaders form coalitions, though there is little room for government reform-minded legislators to advance agendas.

Hawaii legislators enjoy a high rate of re-election, and many are career politicians. They are usually well funded by supporters, and are rarely seriously challenged in elections. The historically Republican-leaning districts include the Kona-Kohala area on Hawaii island, and East Honolulu and Kailua on Oahu.

Accordingly, the handful of Republicans who have been elected to the Legislature usually hail from the same districts. Republican Rep. Barbara Marumoto, for example, has represented District 19 (Kaimuki-Waialae-Kahala) on Oahu since 1978, while Republican Sen. Sam Slom has represented District 8 (Hawaii Kai-Aina Haina-Kahala-Diamond Head) since 1996.

Challenges From Within

Despite their dominance, Hawaii’s Democrats have had their share of party infighting and dissent that has often played out in public.

The most recent example was Ed Case’s Democratic primary challenge against Daniel Akaka in 2006. Case, born in 1952, argued that Hawaii would benefit from a younger leader who was likely to remain in the Senate for decades. Akaka — like Inouye — was born in 1924. Akaka is also not considered a powerful force in Washington. Case’s challenge backfired, however, when Inouye and the party rallied around Akaka; he lost 53-46 percent.

The animosity continues: Inouye and Akaka publicly endorsed Colleen Hanabusa over Case in the 2010 special election to replace Abercrombie, despite a tradition of not making special or primary election endorsements. Abercrombie and Hirono, for example, have not said who they support.

Case has often challenged party leadership. In 2002, Case, then a state legislator, ran against Lt. Gov. Hirono in the Democratic primary for governor. Though Hirono had the support of leaders, including Waihee and Abercrombie, Case nearly won; a weakened Hirono then lost to Lingle in the general election six weeks later. Case went on to win a special election Nov. 30 to replace the late Patsy Mink, who died one week after the primary and was posthumously re-elected in the general to in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Inter-party challenges are not just a recent occurrence. Lt. Gov. Waihee defeated former Congressman Cec Heftel in the Democratic primary for governor in 1986, for example, a race the Heftel campaign said involved a smear campaign against their candidate.

The most well-known case was in 1970, when Lt. Gov. Thomas Gill unsuccessfully ran against Gov. Burns in the Democratic primary. The campaign pitted a political reformer, Gill, against the venerated Burns. Gill accused Burns of heading a political machine that was corrupt. The campaign was chronicled in a 1973 book by journalist Tom Coffman called Catch a Wave: A Case Study of Hawaii’s New Politics. Gill also unsuccessfully ran against Ariyoshi, who succeed Gill as lieutenant governor, in the 1974 Democratic primary.

There have also been challenges to incumbent Democrats in the Hawaii Legislature, but recent cases have been less about dissenting views than political newcomers challenging controversial lawmakers. Democrat Sen. Cal Kawamoto, for example, lost his District 18 seat (Waipahu-Pearl City-Crestview) on Oahu to Democrat Clarence Nishihara in 1996, while Democratic Sen. Ron Menor lost his District 17 seat (Mililani-Waipio) on Oahu to Democrat Michelle Kidani. Though both were powerful senators, Kawamoto faced a Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission investigation while Menor was convicted of DUI during the campaign.

Third Parties

Third parties have not performed well, or lasted for very long, in Hawaii. They are sometimes built around single issues, such as Hawaiian nationalism, and personalities, such as former Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi. But the existence of third parties shows that there is a desire among some citizns for alternatives to one-party dominance.

Fasi was elected to several offices as a Republican and as a Democrat. In 1982 Fasi ran for governor as an Independent Democrat, losing to Democrat incumbent Ariyoshi. When Fasi ran in 1994, he formed the Best Party because Republicans chose Pat Saiki and Democrats chose Ben Cayetano that year. Fasi siphoned enough votes from Saiki in the contest to finish second to Cayetano.

The Best Party later merged with the Aloha Aina Party of Hawaii, which was formed by kumu hula Vicky Holt Takamine. Considered a modern-day version of the turn-of-the-19th century Home Rule Party of Hawaii, the Aloha Aina Party supports Hawaiian nationalism but has not fielded many candidates for office.

The Green Party of Hawaii has been more successful, electing Keiko Bonk to the Hawaii County Council in 1992 and 1994, though Bonk lost a bid for Big Island mayor in 1996. Two Greens later held Bonk’s seat for several terms.

The Libertarian Party of Hawaii has fielded candidates, none successfully, and is a bit player in Hawaii politics.

Voters’ Options

Hawaii has initiative and referendum procedures, but they differ at the county and state level. They also do not allow citizens the kind of ballot action seen in states such as California, where resident initiatives have capped property taxes and recalled a sitting governor. While those examples have their critics, they do represent recourse for voters frustrated with their government.

The state has no provision for creating a law or ordinance, or to amend a county charter or the state constitution. It also has no provision for repealing or rejecting a law or ordinance. The state does require, however, that all constitutional amendments be approved by voters; the amendments are proposed either through the legislature or a constitutional convention.

The City & County of Honolulu allows no referendums, but it does allow initiatives from the city council and petitions signed by registered voters that equal at least 10 percent of the total number of voters who cast ballots in the last mayoral election. The initiative procedure does not apply to tax levies, spending, bond issuance, salaries, or collective bargaining contracts. However, it does apply to amending the city charter.

Similar initiative requirements and restrictions also exist in Hawaii, Maui and Kauai counties, though each differs on the number of signatures required on petitions and the extent to which they may be applied to matters such as tax levies and spending. All three neighbor island counties also allow referendum, though each differs on whether they originate from councils or voters, and in the number of signatures required. Maui and Kauai, for example, prohibit referendums on financial matters such as capital and operating budgets.

Voter Turnout

Another factor favoring Democratic Party dominance is low voter turnout.

At the time of statehood in 1959, voter turnout was estimated to be above 90 percent. In the 2008 presidential election, however, just under 52 percent of registered voters went to the polls despite the presence of a locally born and raised candidate, Barack Obama, on the ballot. The U.S. Census Bureau said Hawaii had the lowest voter turnout in the nation.

Hawaii’s lack of electoral participation has mystified election officials, who have taken steps in recent years to simplify the process and promote registration. To register to vote in federal, state and county elections, the only qualifications are U.S. citizenship, Hawaii residency, and being 16 years of age, though residents must be 18 by the time they vote.

To register, residents must only complete a short form called the Affidavit on Application for Voting, also known as a Wikiwiki Voter Registration form, and submit it to the city clerk’s office or county clerk’s office before registration deadlines. The forms can be obtained in phone books or online. There are provisions for absentee voting as well.

Mail-in voting was used in two special elections to replace deceased members of the Honolulu City Council in 2009, and in the May 22, 2010, special election for a congressional vacancy. The turnout in all three races suggested voting via mail could lead to greater participation on the electoral process.

The Impact of One-Party Dominance

The reasons why one-party dominance is fundamentally important boil down to accountability and participation.

Accountability means taking responsibility for state problems and working on solutions, something that has gained urgency of late as Hawaii faces the most serious financial crisis in more than a generation. And yet, Hawaii lawmakers and leaders are struggling to work together on solutions.

Participation means a citizenry actively involved in community affairs, contributing to the discussion and feeling ownership in society. Yet, Hawaii has the lowest voter turnout in the nation. Essentially, one-party dominance has resulted in a split society: Democratic Party supporters who believe the status quo holds the most promise for Hawaii’s future; dissident Democrats and reformers who have challenged leadership and often failed; and a Republican Party and independents who have largely been ignored. Voter apathy, anger and frustration can result.

Party dominance can also make it difficult for the state to change course, even when there is wide consensus that change is needed. A recent example is the fiscal crisis that has furloughed employees and closed school days: The Republican governor has struggled to work with groups loyal to Democrats — the Legislature, the Board of Education, the Department of Education, and the Hawaii State Teachers Association — and vice versa.

Party dominance also leads to entrenchment and entitlement. In the 1990s, a Democratic governor faced a similar financial crisis — and opposition — from the same lawmakers, board, department, and union. Until the economic downturn that began in 2008, Hawaii’s four public-sector unions faced little challenge to regular pay increases and benefit enhancements.

Party dominance also means that policy and legislation are generated only by those who share similar values and opinions. Fresh ideas from outside the party may be ignored. Such insularity can lead to corruption.

For example, the 1997 Broken Trust case involving mismanagement on the part of well-paid trustees of the state’s largest private landowner, the Bishop Estate — aka Kamehameha Schools/Bishop Estate, now called Kamehameha Schools — was the biggest political scandal of the past quarter century. Two trustees, Democrats Henry Peters and Richard Wong, had previously served as Senate president and House speaker, respectively. Their appointments were approved by the Hawaii Supreme Court, though the justices themselves had been nominated to the high court by a Democratic governor and given advice and consent by Senate Democrats.

The Broken Trust matter was initiated by school students, faculty, parents, and alumni, and made public by a respected, bipartisan group of five community leaders who published an essay in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. The Democratic governor then ordered his attorney general to investigate the trustees.

Eventually, one trustee was removed by court order, the other four resigned, and an interim board was appointed by Probate Court. Today, school trustees are no longer appointed by the Supreme Court, and only one of the current trustees is a former political leader — Micah Kane, who once served as chair of the Hawaii Republican Party.

Yet, despite the scandal, Hawaii’s Democrats suffered little. The state has been represented in Congress by Democrats since 1990, while the state House and Senate have had large Democratic majorities for decades. The Democratic Party’s dominance has meant that even nonpartisan races such as those for county mayors and councils, the Hawaii Department of Education and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs have become politicized.

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