At age 84, Hawaii GOP chairwoman Pat Saiki has left behind a comfortable life, playing golf twice a week, hand-stitching Hawaiian quilts, and hanging out with family and friends to take on an enormous challenge: getting more Republicans elected to public office in a diehard Democrat state.
With just seven Republicans in the state House and only one Republican in the state Senate, she has her hands full.
Political analyst Neal Milner says any candidate running as a Republican in Hawaii, no matter how worthy, is at a great disadvantage from the beginning.
Says Milner, “You start out with a ball and chain on your ankle, 20 yards behind everyone else.”
Former Hawaii GOP executive director Dylan Nonaka says, “To win, a Republican candidate has to do everything right, work twice as hard as a Democrat and get lucky.”
Saiki says she’s not throwing out numbers of how many GOP victories she envisions in Hawaii this election.
“Hopefully some gains. Any win is progress,” she says. “The more the merrier. It’s a beginning, OK! I am hoping people will soon see a resurgence of Hawaii’s Republican Party.”
By a resurgence of the GOP, Saiki means like back in the mid 1970s when she was serving in the state Senate. “There were nine Republican senators. We had enough votes to hold up the budget if we wanted to.”
Saiki says her overall goal is to create a healthy two-party system in Hawaii’s legislative and congressional politics — a system in which both Democrats and Republicans can be held accountable.
Clearly it won’t be easy to shepherd more Republicans into office, but Saiki has been facing challenges all her life. I know because my lazy friends and I once were one of her challenges. This was when she arrived on the Punahou School campus in 1952 to be our fifth grade P.E. teacher.
Saiki had been hired fresh out of the University of Hawaii by then Punahou president John Fox, who told her he wanted her to join the faculty because the school needed “local teachers.”
She became the first full-time local — meaning non-white — teacher in Punahou’s junior academy.
The fifth grade girls were sassy to Miss Fukuda, as she was known then, because we hated P.E. We would do anything to get out of it. Our idea of exercise was riding horses around Kapiolani Park, not working up a sweat playing soccer.
Miss Fukuda was stunningly beautiful in her pressed white shorts, and very funny. She eventually won us over. We admired her even more when she signed on to be one of our summer camp counselors at Camp Kokokahi in Kaneohe.
I will never forget her gentleness one afternoon at camp as she carefully pulled about 30 stingers out of my sobbing friend,Judith Jones’s back after Judith had been swarmed by a group of angry wasps whose nest we had destroyed by pelting it with rocks.
Who would have thought then the kind insect-stinger-puller would one day become a U.S. congresswoman?
Pat Saiki had been pushing the envelope since her childhood in Hilo where she was the eldest child in Shizue and Kazuo Fukuda’s family of three daughters.
“You have to give people a choice. When you have only one party in control there are more opportunities for mischief, for corruption.” — Pat Saiki
Saiki says her father, a volunteer tennis coach at Hilo High School, was disappointed he didn’t have any sons “so he decided to turn us into tennis champions.”
‘He would call my sisters and me ‘Sonny Boy’ every time we hit the courts. He treated us no differently than he treated boys. He told us we could be anything we wanted to be. My father was a feminist before the word feminist became popular.”
After she taught a few years at Punahou, Pat married Stanley Saiki, an obstetrician-gynecologist, and they moved to Toledo, Ohio, for his residency.
She taught history in a public school in Toledo where she again won over reluctant students, this time telling seventh, eighth and ninth graders from a tough city neighborhood she would teach them hula if they behaved.
The lure worked, The boys and girls enjoyed hula so much they banded together to put on a May Day hula show at school complete with Samoan slap dances for the boys and hula for the girls in ti leaf skirts made with ti leaves Saiki’s parents sent from Hilo.
“The students were so energetic in their May Day performance the Toledo Chamber of Commerce invited us to put on the hula show in the middle of town. All the parents and town people came. It was a sensation,” says Saiki. “I never had discipline problems any of the students.”
In 1958, she returned to Honolulu with Dr. Saiki and two of what would become a family of five children. Dr. Saiki worked at Kapiolani Hospital where he eventually became the chief of staff.
When they moved back, the Saikis wanted to buy a house and found one they liked in Aina Haina. But Pat Saiki says the Aina Haina Association turned them down because they were Japanese. This was in 1958.
“I was furious. My husband was a physician yet we were turned down. It was one of the reasons I decided to get involved in politics. I felt we had to correct this.”
Her political work began with her successful drive to create the first teachers’ union for Hawaii’s public school teachers.
“Teachers at the time were public employees but had no representation and very few rights. Everything we did as teachers was dictated from the top down. We were not given time to plan our classes. Teachers could not even use the school office phone to call during family emergencies. When I taught at Kaimuki Intermediate and a call came into the school office saying my daughter had been taken to the hospital, I was told to go out to 18TH Avenue to use the pay phone to find out more about her condition.”
Saiki successfully urged the Hawaii Government Employees Association to create a new teachers chapter, which she led.
Saiki disbanded HGEA’s teachers chapter when the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers came to Hawaii to organize teachers. Saiki told teachers to embrace the national unions with their promise of representation in Washington.
“Who has ever heard of this? Someone who creates a union and then, like me, dissolves the union,” laughed Saiki.
Saiki’s decision to become a Republican seems surprising, considering she was raised in Democratic Party-dominated Hilo, but Saiki says in her years as a history teacher at Kaimuki Intermediate and Kalani High School she became dismayed by what she saw as the Democrats’ control of everything in the state.
“You have to give people a choice. When you have only one party in control there are more opportunities for mischief, for corruption,” she said. “But don’t think the Democrats didn’t try to woo me.”
In 1968, she ran as a Republican for a seat in the state House, where she served for three terms.
In 1974, she ran successfully ran for the state Senate and retained the seat for eight years.
In the Legislature, Saiki was known for her socially moderate yet fiscally conservative views.
Saiki says the Republicans running for office this year will avoid divisive issues like trying to revoke Hawaii’s same-sex marriage law.
She supported abortion rights and co-authored Hawaii’s Equal Rights amendment, making Hawaii the first state with a constitutional mandate for equal treatment of all citizens.
While she was in the Legislature, Saiki wrote and helped push through laws to make life better for women, including measures to allow women to take out mortgages in their own names and to keep their own names when they married.
With the encouragement of her husband she helped to create and gain state funding for the Sex Abuse Treatment Center at Kapiolani Hospital to care for women who were raped or victims of abuse.
At the time, Saiki says, police took women who had been sexually assaulted to the city morgue to be examined by a pathologist working there.
“There was no follow up, no therapy, no sympathy,” says Saiki. “The women were made to feel more like criminals than crime victims. Getting funding for the Sex Abuse Treatment Center was one of the easiest things I ever did at the Legislature. All I had to do was ask the lawmakers ‘how would you feel if your daughter, or your wife or your aunt was treated like this.’”
In 1986, Saiki successfully ran for a U.S. House seat. She became the first Republican from Hawaii elected to hold a congressional seat.
She gave up her House seat in 1990 to run for U.S. Senate but was defeated by Daniel Akaka.
After her political loss, President George H.W. Bush appointed Saiki to become the administrator of the Small Business Administration, where she was in charge of 4,000 employees and oversaw $7 billion dollars in loan capability.
In 1994, she lost a race for governor against Democratic challenger Ben Cayetano. She believes her loss can be attributed to the third-party candidacy in that race of then Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi, who siphoned off many Republican votes.
But she doesn’t believe the same thing will happen in this gubernatorial election to Republican candidate Duke Aiona in his three-way race against Democrat David Ige and Independent Party candidate Mufi Hannemann.
She says Hannemann is more likely to siphon off votes from the Democrats.
“Duke is solid. He has been there. He is Hawaii. He was a lieutenant governor for eight years. He has been a judge, had a law practice and has even worked as a substitute teacher to better understand public schools.”
On the rear window of her Lexus are stickers for Aiona and congressional candidate Charles Djou, whom she believes will defeat Democrat Mark Takai in November.
“Takai is a new face. He is unknown. Charles has been in Congress and he has run for the office three times. He is a proven leader who is well-known and well-liked.”
Saiki says the Republicans running for office this year will avoid divisive issues like trying to revoke Hawaii’s same-sex marriage law and instead they will concentrate on basic issues that affect all residents such as the cost of living and what she calls “the arrogance of the party in power.”
Saiki personally opposes gay marriages. She says, “I believe marriage should be between a man and a woman. I believe marriage is for procreation. But that does not mean I would go out and fight the law that allows same-sex marriages.”
Saiki says people continue to ask her why she is working so hard now at this stage of her life and when so few Republicans ever get elected here.
“That’s wrong,” Saiki says. “Republicans have had their icons here such as U.S. Sen. Hiram Fong and Gov. William Quinn.”
Quinn was appointed governor by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957 when Hawaii was a territory. He was elected the state’s first governor in 1959.
Saiki modestly leaves herself out as a Republican icon.
“We have had Republican leaders in Hawaii before and we can have them again,” she says.
“The tide comes in and the tide goes out. I am now hoping the tide will be coming in again.”