This column is not about Donald Trump. But first, let me just say a little about … Donald Trump.
Nationally, the Republican Party is in quite the quandary: Its leading presidential candidates are not from the establishment (i.e., Bush, Kasich and Christie, with Perry and Walker long gone) that has historically been the pool from which the eventual nominee is crowned.
Some party members are quite worried that a Trump, Cruz or Carson may end up winning the 2016 primaries and subsequently take the party down come November, even though Republicans control a majority of state legislatures and governorships and both houses of Congress.
Compare that to things here at home, where the Legislature has been dominated for decades by Democrats while GOP governors and congressional officials have been rather rare. Frustrated by the lack of electoral success in getting Republicans in office, a faction of the Hawaii Republican Party has been agitating for a leadership shakeup.
In short, the Hawaii Republican Assembly (it’s homepage URL reads “Hawaii Deserves Better”) argues that the HRP is simply not conservative enough, especially regarding fiscal issues. But many establishment leaders say the way HIRA, as it’s more commonly known, is going about demanding change is seriously backfiring.
The assembly bills itself as the standard-bearer for Republicans in Hawaii, the “Republican Wing of the Republican Party,” the only true Republicans in a state where they argue that too many other party members are RINOs — Republicans In Name Only.
“Our organization is solely geared toward getting conservative Republicans into party positions and getting them elected to our state government, and advancing conservative positions from A to Z,” said Tito Montes, assembly president. “The Republican Party is not different than the Democrats in Hawaii. They are very neutral on the issues, they don’t fight boldly or strongly, they don’t hold principled positions. They are weak and vacillating. They almost want to become Democrats Lite.”
Montes is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, a Navy veteran and now reservist with 24 years of experience and a consultant to Pacific Fleet in Honolulu.
The assembly’s website and Facebook page extoll Ronald Reagan as its conscience. It believes in smaller government, lower taxes, free market capitalism, a strong defense, the right to life “and a decent Hawaii.”
Willes Lee, the assembly’s national director, is dismissive of the Hawaii Republican Party’s platform, which he calls “nuetral.” The party’s principles fall under an awkward acronym — LLIFE — which stands for liberty, limited government, individual responsibility, fiscal accountability and equality of opportunity.
While Montes is the president, Lee, a West Point graduate, decorated veteran, former chair of the Hawaii GOP and a member of several conservative boards including for the National Rifle Assocation, has been involved with the assembly since 2006.
The assembly is not an official arm of the Hawaii GOP but rather an affiliated chapter of the National Federation of Republican Assemblies, a group whose origins date to California in 1934. The NFRA is backing Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for president, as are Lee and Montes.
“We were the tea party before it was the tea party,” said Lee. “But now we are full spectrum and focused on fiscal issues.”
Those fiscal issues are at the core of the assembly’s criticism of the HRP, but its delivery of those concerns are in-your-face blasts delivered via its website and Facebook but also emails from the assembly and Lee. Lee’s are so lengthy that they are broken into two parts and illustrated with blue, black and red ink and frequent use of bold type and underlining.
On Dec. 1, for example, Lee accused GOP Chair Fritz Rohlfing of poor fundraising, misuse of funds and even embezzlement. Also tagged are former chair Pat Saiki, National Committeewoman Miriam Hellreich and Barbara Marumoto, a former state legislator who is the party’s vice chair for candidate recruitment.
Meanwhile, Montes, in a Nov. 23 email blast, explained that he wrote to Reince Priebus, chair of the Republican National Committee, telling him that the Hawaii party has “forfeited all pretense of being a relevant organization that is governed with integrity.” Montes complained that the HRP has threatened legal action against the assembly and “teamed with a Democrat union law firm in order to shut down conservative Republicans.”
In addition to the embezzlement accusations against Rohlfing, Montes accuses Saiki, Hellreich and Marumoto of perpetuating “fraud-based fundraising activities.”
“That is a snapshot of the corruption which taints our state party,” Montes concluded before asking Priebus to halt any funding for the local party and help purge its leadership.
On Nov. 2 Montes said in a press release that the Hawaii GOP had hired a “Democrat union lawyer” to threaten legal action to shut the assembly down.
Michael Lilly, the party’s attorney, said he was “not at liberty” to comment on possible legal action involving Rohlfing and the assembly. But, for the record, Lilly — who served as attorney general for former Gov. George Ariyoshi, a Democrat — is a “lifelong, card-carrying member of the Republcan Party.”
Rohlfing and Marcia Tagavilla, the party’s executive director, did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment. But Saiki said the assembly’s accusations are false.
“They’re just a bunch of radicals out to cause problems,” she said. “They do not have a leg to stand on, there is no evidence for their charges. They are reaching out to people to annoy them and to attempt to disrupt.”
Saiki described the assembly as a small faction that has little support within the party that is effectively turning people off by its “disgusting” tactics.
“They think they are gaining steam, but all they are doing is flailing at every little thing they can find they think can help destroy the party,” said Saiki, a former state legislator, congresswoman and candidate for governor and the U.S. Senate. “It’s not done for anything positive. They are supposed to be Republicans and supposed to be electing Republicans to office. But they are hardly doing anything to help that.”
(Saiki, Marumoto and Phil Hellreich, Miriam’s husband, are backing Jeb Bush.)
Beth Fukumoto Chang, the minority leader of Republicans in the state house of Representatives, agreed that the Hawaii Republican Assembly is in the minority of the minority party.
“Does the party need change? Absolutely,” said Fukumoto Chang, the wife of former party chair David Chang. “But, HIRA isn’t advocating effective change. Their tone and tactics are completely out of sync with the majority of voters in Hawaii.”
(Fukumoto Chang is not yet committed to a presidential candidate.)
Another House Republican, Assistant Minority Leader Bob McDermott, said he has tried to be a bridge between the assembly and HRP to resolve differences. But he has given up, and told the assembly that if it feels Rohlfing is indeed an embezzler — McDermott clearly feels that is not the case — then it should file a police report instead of engaging in what he calls possible character defamation.
McDermott (who supports Rick Santorum but says his low polling may change that) says the assembly is hurting HRP’s fundraising efforts and dragging the names of others “through the mud.” Like Saiki, he does not think the assembly has a large membership.
“These guys are minor,” he said. “This is three guys eating Doritos in a basement sitting behind their computer, and they have to hurry before ‘Star Trek’ reruns begin.”
The three guys are Lee, Montes and Eric Ryan, said McDermott, referring to a local political operative with web skills who has had past controversial dealings with conservative pols such as Kymberly Marcos Pine and Tom Berg.
Lee said the assembly has several hundred members, while Montes denied that Ryan is involved with the assembly. As for the defamation allegation, Montes said, “If telling the truth is defamation, then I guess so. But we are very careful in what we say.”
Taking his own jab, Motes added, “This is politics, so if McDermott can take a beating from Pono Choices, I feel he can take criticism of the Republican Party.”
Where the HIRA vs. HRP fight will end is impossible to know, but each is working to raise cash to help advance its respective causes.
The HRP reported having $60,000 in cash on hand at the end of November, according to the FEC. It posted $232,000 in operating expenses, including about $15,000 for maintenance and utilities of its Kapiolani Boulevard headquarters and $27,000 in mortgage payments. Paying for the HQ has been a challenge for years, and an assembly target. Tens of thousands of dollars have gone to past executive director Blake Parsons and current director Tagavilla in salaries and other expenditures.
For its part, the assembly has an independent expenditure committee, or super PAC, called Hawaii Republican Action. As of June 30 it reported $17,400 in cash on hand and donations from McDermott, perennial local candidates Cam Cavasso and John Carroll and Charley’s Taxi executive Dale Evans.
One indication of which group is prevailing among Republicans may come during the March 8 presidential caucus. More than 10,000 Hawaii Republicans participated in the 2012 caucus (the establishment candidate, Romney, won), the first of its kind here.
Nationally, despite successes in state houses, governorships and Congress, Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.
Lee said the way to change that is by sticking to conservative principles — something he feels will also put more Republicans into local office.
“I think it will come, but we have to be better,” he said. “I will hear on the mainland the blaming of voters or blaming of something other than our inability to effectively get our message to the people of of Hawaii. This is the Republicans’ inability to put forth competent candidates and inability to support them. If we can’t do that, we can’t break through.”