Exactly two years ago this Memorial Day weekend, David Ige was a little known, poorly funded, low-energy candidate for governor of Hawaii.
Today, Ige — who went on that summer to defeat the well-funded, well-known, high-energy incumbent, Neil Abercrombie, in an historic landslide — is the top elected Democrat in the state.
Ige, whose public speaking skills have improved markedly since his elevation to high office, told more than 1,000 fellow party members at their biennial state convention in Waikiki Saturday that his own unexpected election illustrated what Democrats stand for: the opportunity for candidates of diverse “backgrounds, beliefs and backings” to advance their cause and candidacy.
“We derive our strength from our diversity,” said Ige, very much echoing what Abercrombie himself used to say (“Our diversity defines us, not divides us,” the former governor often said). “We embrace diversity. There is more that unites us than divides us.”
Ige did not say so directly, but he was speaking of a very sharp divide that threatens to cleave his party locally and nationally. While Republicans now have a presumptive nominee in New York billionaire Donald Trump — albeit, one that has torn that party apart, too — Democrats have yet to choose a nominee.
Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, leads Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator, in primary and caucus votes and is all but certain to rack up the necessary delegates to clinch the nomination.
But that hasn’t happened yet.
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In the meantime, the Clinton campaign has been the subject of more bad headlines with the recent State Department Inspector General report on her use of government emails.
And Sanders is gaining rapidly on his opponent in polls in California, the state with the most delegates.
Those realities were no doubt on the minds of many at the state convention, which concludes Sunday. After all, Sanders trounced Clinton in the party’s presidential preference poll in late March 70 percent to 30 percent.
Because of that, there is an undercurrent at this state convention — one unlikely to rise to the level of chaos described as Democrats experienced at Nevada’s convention — but one that reflects clear differences of opinion among Hawaii Dems.
To keep his party together, and to help it help defeat Trump in November, Ige explained why it was so important to elect Democrats: They hold all the important positions in the state, from several county mayors to the leaders of the state House and Senate, to all four members of the congressional delegation.
Because of that, Ige argued, Democrats are much easier to work with and to get things done for the people. The link runs all the way to the White House.
“I excuse him for being a Punahou graduate,” Ige joked, referring to President Barack Obama. “Pearl City High School rules!”
The governor then credited Sanders supporters with injecting a new vibe and youth into the party, something that old school guys like him should embrace, he said.
Whether Democrats came to the convention as Bernie Democrats or Hillary Democrats, said the governor, “we need to enter the general election as united Democrats.”
Hawaii has so many elected and former officials that, everywhere one turned at the convention, attendees were bound to run into one. They were there to canvas for their own re-election or to the election of candidates they support.
One of them was Colleen Hanabusa, who on Thursday pulled papers to run for Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District. She is widely believed to be running to win back her old seat, which is being vacated by the ailing Mark Takai.
It’s possible other CD1 candidates might emerge.
State Sen. Brickwood Galuteria, for example also pulled papers for the office. So did Lei Ahu Isa, a trustee with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
Isa said she was not sure that she would end up running, given Hanabusa’s expected entrance. But she was seriously considering doing so.
Another name whispered here and there at the convention was that of Neil Abercrombie, perhaps for Congress, where he previously served 20 years. But some said the likelihood of his return to politics is slim.
The most exhilarating moment of Saturday’s convention came when a prerecorded video from Sanders was played in the ballroom. Supporters leapt to their feet and shouted, “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!”
The video was followed by an impassioned speech from Bart Dame, the Sanders campaign’s lead coordinator in the state. He said that the campaign had energized the local party, exciting some members but alienating others who fear losing their “petty little power position.”
Dame said Sanders’ main message about economic inequality and the corrupting influence of money is resonating across the country.
“We are not prepared to surrender his message at this point,” he said. “We are going on to Philadelphia! We are going to fight for every vote!”
The Clinton video was less motivational, judging by the reaction of the crowd. It was also a campaign production, one marked by pulsing music and multiple clips, rather than a personal appeal to Hawaii voters.
“We are going on to Philadelphia! We are going to fight for every vote!”— Sanders supporter Bart Dame
It was left to Hanabusa to speak on behalf of Clinton, who the former congresswoman said was a friend. She credited Dame and Sanders supporters for their accomplishment in winning the March caucus, saying, “Job well done.”
Hanabusa’s main point on behalf of Clinton’s candidacy is that Democrats must unite to stop Trump.
“You should be afraid for this county and for each and every one of us, that’s what you should be,” she said. “And you should know that that is where the country has got to focus.”
On that, it’s fair to say that all Democrats agree.
As Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, a candidate for re-election to a nonpartisan office but a self-declared lifelong Democrat nonetheless, said Democrats are not interested in building “huge” walls (like Trump’s proposal for the U.S.-Mexico border) but in building bridges between diverse groups.
Hawaii under Democratic control, he said, demonstrates a commitment to civil rights, health care and a living wage.
Speeches from U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono, and Takai and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard are scheduled for Sunday morning.
Again, the Sanders-Clinton split will be evident, with Gabbard having actively campaigned for Sanders and the other three congressional delegates solidly in the Clinton camp.
The same goes for the election of a new party chair to succeed Stephanie Ohigashi. Jacce Mikulanec, Tyler Dos Santos-Tam, Florence Kong Kee and Tim Vandeveer are the contenders, and some delegates may base their votes on whether a candidate supports Sanders or Clinton.
Vandeveer, for example, is a strong supporter of Sanders and thinks that might aid his candidacy. Mikulanec, who has supported Clinton, said he would support Sanders if elected as chair, a position that has superdelegate status.
“It’s only fair,” said Mikulanec.
The issue of superdelegates will be a potentially contentious issue Sunday, when party members will consider various resolutions. They include measures that request superdelegates be awarded proportional to the outcome of the March caucus.
Sanders won 17 delegates while Clinton received eight. But 10 Hawaii superdelegates, including Gov. Ige and Lt. Gov. Chan Tsutsui, are free to support whom the wish. At last count, six had expressed support for Clinton.
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