At the Democratic Party of Hawaii’s convention Sunday, delegates rejected the scion of a prominent Oahu family in favor of a Maui delegate to lead the party for the next two years.
Stephanie Ohigashi, a Maui County Democratic Party vice chairwoman active in politics for three decades, defeated labor attorney Tony Gill in a lopsided vote. Ohigashi succeeds Dante Carpenter, who did not pursue a third term. Ohigashi’s election energized delegates, and it could change the way the party operates.
Ohigashi, 67, told Civil Beat that her top priority is to make the party “a true statewide party! Exclamation point added!”
Her election may also determine whether the party continues a lawsuit that seeks to end Hawaii’s open primary system. Gill, 63, has led the legal action, arguing that allowing non-Democrats to pull a Democratic ballot places a “severe burden” on the party’s right of free association.
The lawsuit has upset many Democrats who believe it goes against the party’s “e komo mai” mantra of welcoming more people. Others support Gill, saying that some Democratic candidates and elected officials have not adhered to the party’s platform.
“The Democratic Party of Hawaii is, by any measure, the most important political organization in the state. It may be the most important organization of any sort, besides government itself,” said Tony Gill.
Asked about Gill’s lawsuit, Ohigashi noted that it is on appeal and that the party’s State Central Committee would wait to see what the courts say. But she said she always doubted whether getting rid of the open primary system was in the best interest of the party.
The party’s convention agenda was adjusted to allow for neighbor island Democrats to participate in the vote for chair before they flew home.
The vote came midday on the final day of the biennial convention and made for some drama.
The doors of the Sheraton’s ballroom were secured so that no delegates could leave the room as the votes were tallied. Democrats from several districts had to count their votes twice. At one point the vote was suspended as technical problems halted updating the spreadsheet, projected on giant screens in the ballroom, used to record the votes.
As delegates from each of the state’s 51 districts announced their votes, it was soon apparent that Gill was in trouble. While some districts were split between the two candidates, others unanimously favored Ohigashi. On more than one occasion, groups of delegates clapped and cheered as results were released.
The final vote had nearly 400 delegates choosing Ohigashi to just over 250 for Gill.
Gill is the the son of the late Tom Gill, the former U.S. representative and lieutenant governor. His brother, Gary Gill, is an active member of the party who works in the Abercrombie administration. Another brother, Eric Gill, leads the UNITE HERE Local 5 union representing hotel workers.
Gill, a former chairman of Oahu County Democrats, was magnanimous in defeat. After the vote, he asked that a unanimous ballot be cast for the state party chair, earning Gill a standing ovation from his colleagues.
As former party chairman Richard Port said in his nominating speech for Gill’s candidacy, Gill was born with “Democratic Party blood in his veins.”
Gill supporters handed out fliers earlier in the day. They included a quote from Gill that underscored his passion for his party: “The Democratic Party of Hawaii is, by any measure, the most important political organization in the state. It may be the most important organization of any sort, besides government itself. This is because it is the only organization with a realistic chance to create a governing majority, and the only organization of similar stature that is inclined to use the tools of government to advance the interest of the average citizen.”
Gill made many of those same points during his convention speech. He also looked back to the 1954 “revolution” that first brought Democrats to power in Hawaii. He said a second revolution, one “no less important” but different and “more creative,” was coming.
He did not give many details about the second revolution but said it would create a society “both sustainable and just.”
Gill closed with these words: “We can show the world how to live. That is our mission. Let your hearts be full of it.”
If Gill aimed for the high rhetoric of Lincoln, Ohigashi was like your next-door neighbor. Her supporters distributed bottled water and snacks with her name on them. A brochure highlighting her career noted that she owns three pit bull mixed dogs and two cats.
In her convention speech, she shared how she had bought a new dress for the occasion.
Ohigashi said that she had decided to jump into the race only recently, concluding that, after 31 years in the party, she wanted to do something more than plant campaign signs in yards and on fences and make beef stew for political events.
Ohigashi manages the Wailuku law office of her husband, Lee Ohigashi, and is an executive assistant to Maui County Councilman Mike Victorino, who enthusiastically nominated her for the job.
Convention delegates moved slowly Sunday morning, some having trouble finding parking at the Sheraton, others emerging blurry-eyed after a night of partying. As Carpenter put it, some delegates were “sucking them up in the hospitality suites until 4 a.m., two hours of sleep.”
Highlights of the day included a short video on the late Sen. Dan Inouye, introduced by his longtime chief of staff Jennifer Sabas. The video, which included vintage photos of Inouye with JFK and LBJ, earned a standing ovation from delegates.
State Sen. Brickwood Galuteria and Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr., strumming ukulele, then performed “Kaimana Hila,” Inouye’s favorite song.
Delegates also voted for a policy resolution asking elected officials to “fully support and fund” public preschool programs but rejected another that sought the establishment of universal preschool at public schools only.
The party also rejected calls for a return to an elected, rather than appointed, school board. The resolution was proposed because of concerns that under school board chairman Don Horner, the BOE had been less transparent and accessible to the public.
Another resolution, one opposing the mandating of a “last, best and final offer” on public sector unions, was withdrawn by its author.
The convention concluded around 2:20 p.m., several hours earlier than scheduled. It came as emergency sirens went off on Oahu, warning of flash floods.
Earlier in the day, state Sen. David Ige delivered a “report,” as they were billed, to delegates. In fact, it was a campaign speech, which is what is supposed to happen at party conventions.
Ige thanked delegates for allowing him a convention speaking role, even as “some worked to prevent me from speaking.”
He talked about the sacrifices of the generation that fought in World War II — it included Ige’s late father — and said that the people he has met with across the state say they have lost faith in their government.
Ige said he would like to see photovoltaic panels on every home in Hawaii to wean the islands off of imported fossil fuels.
And he made a dig at the man he wants to replace — Gov. Neil Abercrombie — by saying he has never held a campaign fundraiser at the home of a billionaire.
Ige is not a dynamic speaker, and many delegates may not have being paying much attention Sunday. His speech came as the ballroom doors were reopened following the vote for party chair. Bento lunches were also being served, and folks were hungry.
Ige was followed by state Sen. Clayton Hee, who was more forceful in his speech. Rather than regurgitate what it means to be a Democrat, Hee, a candidate for lieutenant governor, spoke of the moolelo — the story, history or legend — that everyone has to tell.
Hee’s own moolelo includes how his Hawaiian ancestors came to the islands in canoes and how his Chinese great-grandfather came to work on the sugar plantations. Hee said he would make the office of LG a “functioning office” that would focus on homelessness and agriculture.
He said “something has gone wrong” when the state must import so much of its food.
Majority Leader Scott Saiki spoke in place of House Speaker Joe Souki, who lost his voice.
That prompted Senate President Donna Mercado Kim to later crack, “Who ever heard of a speaker of the House who couldn’t speak? Leave it to Joe Souki to do that.”
Saiki ticked off the list of legislative successes this year, including an increase to the minimum wage, emergency contraception services for sex-assault victims, more money to help address homelessness, a plan to address climate change, paying down the state’s unfunded liabilities for health care and pensions and replenishing the state’s rainy day and hurricane relief funds.
“The accomplishments of the 2014 Legislature were Democratic accomplishments led and fought for by Democrats like you,” said Saiki.
In her capacity as Senate president, Kim highlighted some of the same legislative achievements as Saiki and mentioned a few more, such as mandatory kindergarten, establishing environmental courts and combating invasive species. Kim said the legislation reflected the priorities of the party’s platform.
As an illustration of just how dominant Hawaii Democrats are, the party has primary battles for governor, lieutenant governor, the U.S. Senate and the 1st Congressional District. At the state level, Democrats are running in all 13 Senate seats up this year and 50 of the 51 seats in the House.
The party will likely not field a candidate to run against Republican Cynthia Thielen, a moderate who supports marriage equality and protecting the environment. Theilen faces Joan Hood, a Kailua pastor, in the primary.
As of Friday, nine House Democrats were still unopposed, including Saiki, Karl Rhoads, Marcus Oshiro and Cindy Evans. But many seats are contested, such as the District 4 seat that represents Puna where incumbent Faye Hanohano has drawn five challengers so far.
The filing deadline to run is June 3, and the primary is Aug. 9.