Here are a couple of items for your consideration:

  • More than one-fourth of Hawaii public school teachers are Japanese-American.
  • The Hawaii State Teachers Association has endorsed three Japanese-Americans — Colleen Hanabusa for the U.S. Senate, Mark Takai for the U.S. House and David Ige for governor.
  • Dan Inouye wanted Hanabusa to take his place in the Senate.
  • George Takei, who played Sulu on “Star Trek,” has endorsed Hanabusa for Senate and donated to Mazie Hirono’s successful Senate race in 2012.
  • Takei and his husband got married at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.
  • The former president and founding CEO of the museum is Inouye’s widow, Irene Hirano Inouye.

What do these items have in common?

Sure, they all mention Americans of Japanese Ancestry, or AJAs. The acronym is used commonly in Hawaii, though the term Japanese-American is more common elsewhere.

Ige, Takai, HSTA signs

Campaign signs for David Ige and Mark Takai at the Hawaii State Teachers Association office, June 2014.

Chad Blair/Civil Beat

For political junkies like me, one could say these items have political implications, although I should be clear: The above items were narrowly selected, and I could have presented another narrow slice of Hawaii politics — like how districts with large Filipino populations tend to elect Filipinos, for example.

Or how whites make up the single largest “group” in the islands (unless you rank by ethnicity, and then it’s Asian, or by “mixture,” and then it’s people reporting more than one ethnicity such as part-Hawaiian). I could also have mentioned how, coincidence or otherwise, top leaders like the governor, the mayor of Honolulu and the chief justice are white.

For those looking for examples of casual racism, I am also putting myself at risk by suggesting there is a connection between the ethnicity of public school teachers and the candidates that their union endorsed. While AJAs comprise more than one-fourth of school teachers, more than one-fifth are white and nearly one-third report mixed ancestry. In other words, it’s a diverse lot — as is the union’s leadership.

Nor do I think that Neil Abercrombie, Kirk Caldwell and Mark Recktenwald are where they are today because they are haole. Let me immediately apologize if that is the perception.

In fact, the HSTA endorsement of Takai makes a lot of sense, given his long record of advocating for education issues. And, to put it mildly, there are still lingering bad feelings over Gov. Abercrombie imposing a contract on the HSTA early in his administration.

The University of Hawaii Professional Assembly endorsed Takai, too, even though a lot of faculty are white. UHPA also endorsed Abercrombie and Brian Schatz for Senate … who are white.

I’m digging myself a pretty deep hole, eh?

Does Ethnicity Matter?

Let me get to my point: Does the ethnicity of a candidate matter? And if it does, why?

The answers are “sometimes” and “it depends.” Which brings me to the AJA vote. Many politically akamai folks in the islands will tell you it matters a great deal.

It has to do with a number of things, beginning with the large emigration from Japan to Hawaii in the 19th century to work the plantations, the internment of AJAs during World War II even as Inouye and other AJAs fought valiantly for America, and the 1954 “Democratic revolution” in territorial Hawaii where Japanese, Filipinos, whites like Jack Burns and labor groups wrested power from a white Republican oligarchy.

Hanabusa’s grandfather was interned at Honouliuli. Takei was interned as a boy in Arkansas and California. Ige has spoken movingly about his late father who served in the served in the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team in the war and was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

Given that history, is it any surprise that an AJA voter might favor an AJA candidate?

Hanabusa, Takai, HSTA

Campaign signs for Colleen Hanabusa and Mark Takai at the HSTA office, June 2014.

Chad Blair/Civil Beat

Which brings me to polling.

Conventional wisdom here is that AJA voters, especially older ones, won’t share their true intentions with pollsters. It leads to polls that end up being wildly wrong — like ours, for instance, which said Hirono and Ed Case (he’s white) were in a tight 2012 primary race when in fact Hirono ended up winning by double digits.

That one poll aside, we’ve done pretty well.

We have a poll right now showing Ige beating Abercrombie in the governor’s race and Shan Tsutsui (AJA) swamping Clayton Hee (Chinese-Hawaiian) in the lieutenant governor’s race. That could mean an AJA-AJA Democratic ticket come Aug. 10, although an AJA-AJA ticket went down to defeat in 2002 when Hirono and Matt Matsunaga lost to Linda Lingle (white) and Duke Aiona (Hawaiian-Chinese-Portuguese).

Some have taken issue with our numbers in the Ige-Abercrombie race, including Mufi Hannemann.

His gubernatorial campaign says we over-sampled the white vote (40 percent) and were “off” with the AJA vote (25 percent), in proportion to their actual population percentages — 24.3 percent and 16.7 percent, respectively. We also under-sampled mixed races — 10 percent in the poll compared with 21.4 percent in the Census.

I’m not an expert on polling. But this “snapshot” of the gubernatorial election shows that a majority of voters, regardless of ethnicity, for now favor two candidates who happen to be AJAs.

Live Long and Prosper

The AJA vote is still considered the most important voting “bloc,” because they are said to be the most consistent in terms of turnout. Even though AJA numbers have dropped considerably as a percentage of the population over the years, a lot of AJA are older voters, and older voters vote more than younger ones.

I’ll close with three items, and I encourage you to contribute to the discussion question at the end of this article:

  • My doctoral dissertation was on the 1994 Hawaii race for governor. I thought the Japanese candidate, Pat Saiki, would defeat the Filipino candidate, Ben Cayetano. But Cayetano, the Democrat, finished first; Saiki, the Republican, finished third; and Frank Fasi, a white man running as an independent, finished second. The reasons for the outcome included a variety of factors, but it was a good lesson for me to be cautious in predicting electoral outcomes based on skin color. (Full disclosure: I volunteered for the Saiki campaign that election to learn more about Hawaii politics.)
  • With Dave Brat’s knockout of Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia, comedian Bill Maher said the GOP in Congress has lost a “lone voice” for diversity because Cantor is Jewish. “There are 278 Republicans in Congress,” Maher said June 13. “They are now all Christian and all white except for one black senator who was appointed. So this is an entirely Christian, white party.” Of note: Hawaii’s delegation features two AJAs who are Buddhist (Hirono and Hanabusa), one who is Jewish (Schatz) and one who is Hindu (Tulsi Gabbard).
  • In the 1960s, “Star Trek” was revolutionary in introducing a racially diverse cast (although whites were mostly in charge). Later versions of the series featured black and female captains. And in the latest “Star Trek” movies, Sulu is played by a Korean American actor. In a related note, for Trekkies like me, it was nice to see that the best man at George Takei’s wedding was Walter Koenig, who played Chekov, and the matron of honor was Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura. Takei’s husband, Brad, is white.

“Star Trek” is science fiction, of course, and for entertainment purposes. Back on planet Earth, we’ve still got a long way to go in being a more representative, just society. At some point, though, it would be wonderful to not have to focus on race and ethnicity (and religion and gender and class) and instead judge candidates by their record, character and ideas.

• Stay plugged in to campaigns and candidates this election season with Civil Beat’s Hawaii Elections Guide 2014, your source for information on federal, state and local elections.

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