House and Senate leaders joined Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson for his announcement Monday that he is switching teams, leaving the Republican Party to join the majority Democrats who control the Legislature.

“When I first got into politics four years ago, I ran specifically to support and advocate best policies over partisan ideology and I committed to being the kind of leader that would work to find common ground and do things differently,” Johanson told reporters during a press conference at the Capitol. 

“Increasingly, that has put me at odds with many in the Republican Party,” he said. “It’s one of the reasons that’s given me pause to evaluate where I belong and where I am.”

Flanked by House and Senate leaders Representative Aaron Ling Johanson announces that he is leaving the Republican party to join the majority Democrats who control the Legislature.  29 dec 2014. photograph Cory Lum/ Civil Beat

Flanked by House and Senate leaders Monday, Hawaii state Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson announces that he is leaving the Republican Party to join the majority Democrats.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Johanson, a moderate first elected to the House in 2010, represents District 31, which includes Moanalua, Red Hill, Aiea, Aliamanu and Lower Pearlridge. 

He was just elected in November to serve a third two-year term, defeating Democrat Lei Sharsh by a two-to-one margin. Johanson ran unopposed in the Republican primary in August.

When asked why he was choosing to switch parties less than two months later and how his constituents and those who voted for him might react, Johanson said he believes many cast their ballots for him despite being a Republican, not because of his party affiliation.

Johanson said over the past four years there’s been “a commonality and an alignment” with policies his Democratic colleagues have pushed in the Legislature. He said joining their party allows him to better uphold his promises to his constituents and be a leader who can “find common ground and make a difference.”

He said the choice to switch parties has been a gradual and deliberative one over the past four years, but he didn’t officially decide until December.

House Speaker Joe Souki and Senate President Donna Mercado Kim were among the Democratic leaders who joined Johanson’s family members at the press conference.

Speaker of the House Joseph Souki shakes Representative Aaron Ling Johanson hands as he announces that he is leaving the Republican party to join the majority Democrats who control the Legislature.  29 dec 2014. photograph Cory Lum/ Civil Beat

Speaker of the House Joseph Souki, left, shakes hands with Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson as he announces Monday that he is leaving the Republican Party to join the majority Democrats.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Souki said Johanson will be a great fit and welcomed him to the team. Kim said she’s worked well with Johanson for years and anticipates the same positive relationship going forward.

Republican Party Chair Pat Saiki sharply criticized Johanson’s decision in a statement Monday.

“For Representative Johanson to sacrifice his principles for political ambition is disgraceful,” she said. “He must be a disappointment to the 3,968 residents who entrusted him with their votes less than two months ago. A person, especially a politician, is only as good as his word. When the person breaks that word, he can never be trusted.”

He’s not the first Republican state lawmaker to switch parties. Sen. Mike Gabbard and Reps. Karen Awana and Jimmy Tokioka are among the latest who have become Democrats. Awana was unseated by Republican Andria Tupola, a first-time candidate, in November.

 “It is no secret that running as a Democrat in Hawaii makes life much easier for any politician,” Saiki said. “However, it takes courage to stand up to the political machine that has dominated island politics since statehood. Representative Johanson now becomes part of that political machine, and he’ll have to fall in line.”

Democratic Gov. David Ige released a statement Monday saying his administration is committed to working with everyone, regardless of party affiliation. He welcomed Johanson to the Democratic Party.

“I think many in the local Republican Party are becoming more narrow in their demand for ideological purity as well as in their demand for a combative tone and posture.” — State Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson

“Over the years I have had a good working relationship with Aaron and was able to observe his commitment of always putting his community first,” Ige said. “I am also impressed with his desire to find common ground  on issues that impact all of our residents,  no matter how divisive those issues are.”

Johanson, who was the minority leader in the House, may open up an avenue for a far more conservative block of Republicans — including Reps. Bob McDermott and Gene Ward — to gain control of that leadership position.

House Republicans have been in gridlock over their leadership roles for the next session, though Johanson said that wasn’t why he switched parties.

“I think many in the local Republican Party are becoming more narrow in their demand for ideological purity as well as in their demand for a combative tone and posture,” he said.

If House Republicans can’t decide how they want to organize by the time the session convenes next month, Souki said Democrats will decide for them.

There are now just seven Republicans in the 51-member House, including two freshmen in Reps. Feki Pouha and Andria Tupola. The 25-member Senate has just one Republican, Sam Slom.

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