Hillary Clinton may well end up the Democratic Party’s nominee for president of the United States.
But if Hawaii Democrats are representative of other state parties, supporters of Bernie Sanders are not yet throwing in the red, white and blue towel.
On Sunday, on the second and final day of the state party convention at the Sheraton Waikiki, party members elected a new chair, Tim Vandeveer, a grassroots activist best known for his activism in “keeping the country country” on Oahu’s North Shore.
Vandeveer is also an unrelenting supporter of Bernie Sanders for president, the independent senator from Vermont known for his views on socialism.
Vandeveer defeated three other candidates with deeper ties to and experience in the party: Jacce Mikulanec, who works in government relations for the Hawaii Medical Service Association; Tyler Dos Santos-Tam, executive director of the Hawaii Construction Alliance; and Flo Kong Kee, a government affairs specialist with United Public Workers.
But it was clear from the strong support for Vandeveer in the Sheraton ballroom that a Bernie tide had swept him into office.
“When the people lead, our leaders will follow, and that absolutely applies to me.”—Party Chair Tim Vandeveer
“When the people lead, our leaders will follow, and that absolutely applies to me,” said Vandeveer. “I am going to need your support to put this party back on track. No matter what side of the debate you are on, we must always engage in civil discourse and treat each other with aloha.”
In a show of unity following the vote, Gov. David Ige expressed his pride in all four candidates, who joined him on the stage of the Sheraton ballroom.
“We are in good hands,” Ige said to attendees, all of them on their feet. “Let us come together for victory in November! Mahalo!”
Vandeveer’s election was not the only indication of the clout of Sanders folks at the convention.
It also included a strong speech by U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard to support an anti-war candidate for president — yep, Sanders — and a floor debate on party rules and resolutions that sought to change how superdelegates align with candidates and how people register to vote in the presidential caucus.
The proposals arose out of Sanders’ big win over Clinton in the Hawaii March caucus (in Hawaii it’s called a presidential preference poll).
Sanders followers are upset that a majority of the local party’s 10 superdelegates supported Clinton, though Sanders had earned a majority of the regular delegates as a result of the caucus.
There were also concerns in some corners about whether new Democrats should be welcomed into the party so soon before the caucus, as was the case in March.
On the one hand, the late registration brought much needed new blood into the party. On the other, some complained that the new members joined only to support Sanders and were not true Democrats.
Convention attendees deliberated on Sunday, agreed on some matters but not others. The adopted measures will later be posted to the party’s website.
One proposed rule change would have made enrollment in the party effective two weeks after an enrollment care is received by the party. The change was favored by Democrats who objected to new members registering to vote on the same day as the presidential caucus and then being allowed to vote automatically.
Opponents of the change, however, said the proposed rule would disenfranchise potential voters. The rule change was voted down.
Vandeveer’s election seemed to go some distance in mollifying Sanders proponents. For example, Bart Dame, who lead the Sanders Hawaii campaign (and who actually supported Kong Kee), was visibly beaming for the remainder of the day.
Time was also running out, and neighbor island attendees had planes to catch.
Three of the four members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation gave well-received speeches Sunday.
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz argued that Democrats had made tremendous progress in recent years on issues such as climate change and civil rights. He denounced Donald Trump, the GOP’s presumptive nominee, who he described as “uniquely dangerous” to the world.
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“This sounds familiar, if you read the history books,” said Schatz, referring to Trump. “If you read how fascism starts, this sounds familiar.”
Like Schatz, his Senate colleague, Mazie Hirono, emphasized her priorities — including immigration reform — and reminded attendees of the gender and ethnic mix of Hawaii’s Democratic leadership over the years.
Hirono also kept up the Trump trashing, accusing him of espousing racist, sexist and xenophobic rhetoric.
“Those are not our values,” she said, adding that it’s critical to fight for the many people in the nation “getting screwed” every day by people like Trump.
Mark Takai, one’s of Hawaii’s two members in the U.S. House of Representatives, did not attend the convention. Takai has announced he will not seek re-election due to an ongoing battle with pancreatic cancer.
A spokesperson read a statement on his behalf, where Takai indicated he would help elect a progressive candidate like former Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa — an endorsement of sorts.
She is expected to announce soon that she is running for Takai’s seat, the one she gave up in 2014 in an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate.
It was Takai’s colleague, Gabbard, who energized many in the Sheraton ballroom with an unbridled condemnation of any presidential candidate who would lead the country into an unnecessary war. She is a combat veteran and currently a member of the Hawaii National Guard.
Gabbard, Sanders’ most prominent Hawaii supporter, made it clear that when she talked about electing a candidate having the judgment to make such a decision, she was not talking about Clinton.
“Stand up and make your voices heard!” Gabbard demanded.
Many did, to shouts of “Tulsi! Tulsi! Tulsi!”
Party conventions are not just about uniting members. There is a lot of business to conduct, including the selection of new leaders.
Dame, the Sanders advocate, ran unopposed to become the national committeeman, while Kate Stanley won the contest to be the national committeewoman. Their job is to represent the local party at meetings of the Democratic National Committee.
The most important election was for the new state chair to replace Stephanie Ohigashi, who completed her two-year term.
To underscore the division in the party among Sanders and Clinton supporters, observers for each campaign closely watched the counting of the ballots.
The contest also pitted various factions within the local party: lobbyists, civil rights, construction, labor grassroots and the environment. In the end, it was the pro-Sanders camp that prevailed.
In his speech asking for support, Vandeveer stressed that he is a Democrat in the vein of FDR, JFK, Sanders and Gabbard. His biggest issue is the same one that Sanders has, which is to get “big money” out of politics.
The other candidates, Kong Kee, Mikulanec and Dos Santos-Tam, made their pitches, too. There was general agreement that Democrats need to get their financial house in order and improve communication.
“If you read how fascism starts, this sounds familiar.”— Sen. Brian Schatz on Donald Trump
During the actual vote, the results of all 51 districts were announced one by one. Every time Vandeveer received more votes than his opponents, his champions cheered. And every time he received less votes, they softly groaned.
As the final votes were tallied and it appeared that Vandeveer would prevail, challenges arose as some pointed to discrepancies between the number of delegates in each district and the actual votes.
The mini-crisis was eventually resolved to the satisfaction of all parties, and Vandeveer was named the winner.
“We’ve all got to help Tim move the party forward,” said Dos Santos-Tam.
Hawaii Democrats then concluded their state convention. But business was not quite pau.
Earlier in the day, Ohigashi congratulated the new members of the party’s state central committee.
“Here’s the good news,” she said. “You are going to serve the next two years. Here’s the bad news: Your first meeting is today!”
Indeed it was.
The committee began its meeting not long after the convention was gaveled to a close, when most Hawaii Democrats had already vacated the Sheraton and gone home.
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