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There is nothing sadder than watching Hawaii’s struggling Republican Party sink lower and lower.
Everyone wants a healthy two-party system. But it looks like that’s not going to happen here anytime soon.
Critics say one of the causes sparking the local party’s decline is the conservative faction’s ill treatment of young Republican leaders.
For example, there was the Republican conservatives’ shout-down of state House Minority Leader Beth Fukumoto Chang after the young party leader questioned Donald Trump’s racist and sexist remarks.
That was at the local GOP convention last month when Fukumoto Chang was blasted with boos and catcalls for her lack of support for Trump.
Delegate Mike Palcic shouted that Fukumoto Chang should resign from the party.
Another audience member called her a RINO, which is short for “Republican In Name Only.”
It makes no sense in a political party that is already weak, with only seven Republicans in the 51-member state House and one Republican in the 25-member state Senate, to embarrassingly trash a young star.
What kind of message does it send when young Republicans get elected and then get vilified by their own party?” — Dylan Nonaka
The 33-year-old Fukumoto Chang was named by The Fix, a Washington Post blog, as one of “40 under 40 Rising Political Stars.”
In 2013, the national news site The Daily Beast cited Fukumoto Chang as “Nine Women Remaking the Right.”
Hawaii State GOP chairman Fritz Rohlfing said, “We are not eating our young politicians. In fact the opposite is true. We are making a strong effort to support young officeholders and to recruit young people to run.”
Rohlfing said the harsh treatment is coming from “a small group of self-described Republicans who are unreasonably doctrinaire. Their attacks on officeholders and candidates are understandably difficult for some young people. But the critics in this group are a minority. They are definitely not party old-timers.”
The small group Rohlfing is talking about is the Hawaii Republican Assembly, led by conservatives such as Willes Lee and Eric Ryan.
Rohlfing says politics can be like “a contact sport, not a bean bag game.” He says that politicians have to be tough enough to stand up to criticism even from members of their own party.
Another sign that all is not well with the state GOP is the current unwillingness of political strategist Dylan Nonaka to help the local party grow its membership.
Nonaka is a political consultant who through the years used his considerable energy and charm to persuade young non-white people to run as Republicans.
He has been recognized as valuable to the party not only locally but also nationally. In 2012, Nonaka was selected by Republicans to lead the Pledge of Allegiance at the GOP’s national convention in Tampa, Florida.
Nonaka, 33, is in many ways the face Republicans would like to feature both locally and nationally to prove they are not a bastion for old white guys.
Nonaka is the descendant of a third-generation Japanese-American family in Kona. He is a former Marine Corps infantry sergeant who fought with the first wave of combat soldiers invading Baghdad in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was student body president at the University of Hawaii Hilo, where he graduated with honors.
He said he joined the Republican Party to bring fairness and balance to Hawaii government, fairness he found missing in the solidly Democratic state government.
Nonaka’s Kona family members are longtime Democrats. When his grandmother asked why she should vote for Linda Lingle as governor when she ran, Nonaka told her, “You have to or I will lose my job.”
At the time he was working for Lingle as the Republican governor’s liaison officer on the Big Island.
“That shows the power of personal self interest in my grandmother’s vote,” said Nonaka.
Nonaka was the executive director of the state GOP in 2010. He was famous at the time for working with party chair Jonah Kaauwai to urge dozens of young local people, some from longtime Democrat families, to run for political office as Republicans.
“We were successful in getting Republicans candidates to run for every state House seat except for two and for every Senate seat except for one, “ said Nonaka. “We didn’t lose a single incumbent seat, but gained one new seat for Republicans. This was the first time in 10 years that the GOP saw an increase in legislative seats.
Nonaka said their goal was “to bring new people into the party, to change the platform to make it more inclusive,” but he says this was criticized even then by a small group of party loyalists afraid of change.
Rohlfing said the people slamming young elected officials now are part of a cabal attacking anyone who deviates from the their brand of conservatism.
Nonaka said he’s finished working 24/7 to help the local GOP beef up its number of candidates.
“This is as bad as it has been in a long time. What kind of message does it send when young Republicans get elected and then get vilified by their own party?” he said.
“If we can pick up a few new seats in the Legislature and (Charles) Djou becomes mayor, it will put to rest a lot of the negativity in the party.” — Fritz Rohlfing, Hawaii Republican chairman
Nonaka said he’ll continue to vote Republican, but he will no longer make the effort to encourage young people to take a risk to run as Republicans in this solidly Democratic state.
Political analyst (and Civil Beat columnist) Neal Milner said, “This is a big loss. Part of a continuing pattern of things getting worse for the Republicans.”
Nonaka to this day remains the reasoned voice Hawaii political pundits turn to when they want solid analysis about Republican political strategizing.
“Dylan had real promise because of his age and because he had the potential to move the Republican Party forward in more productive ways,” said Milner.
Nonaka said his dismay with the local GOP has intensified over the last few years. Most recently, it was the frustration of watching Fukumoto Chang get blasted at the state convention.
And two years ago, he said, another turning point was when Fukumoto Chang’s predecessor as GOP state house leader, Aaron Ling Johanson, announced his decision to switch parties to become a Democrat.
Johanson, 36, is a Yale-educated attorney who was considered one of the brightest lights in the local Republican Party. He made an effort to work collaboratively with state Democrats.
At a press conference announcing his departure from the party, Johanson said, “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.”
Nonaka said, “Johanson was vilified for not being enough of a bomb thrower, for not being GOP enough, and for his efforts to work with state Democrats to try to get important things done in the Legislature.”
He said by “bomb throwing” he means that some GOP old-timers want to keep the focus on divisive issues like abortion, gay marriage, transgender bathrooms; policy issues that are unlikely to be altered instead of focusing on the real problems facing young people in Hawaii today such as the impossibly high cost of living.
“Dylan (Nonaka) had real promise because of his age and because he had the potential to move the Republican Party forward in more productive ways.” — Neal Milner
“A married couple has to be making a combined income of at least $150,000 a year to even begin to live comfortably in Hawaii,” said Nonaka.
Hawaii GOP Executive Director Marcia Tagavilla, 28, said she knows first-hand what it is like to be a young local person running for office as a Republican. She ran for a state House seat in the Salt Lake-Aliamanu District in 2014 and lost.
Tagavilla said, “I have seen vocal critics in the Hawaii Republican Assembly who are critical of everything. They are an outside group trying to define us from the outside. It is difficult to figure out their end game. How much negativity do they want in politics?”
Tagavilla said the local GOP is reaching out to support young candidates in the face of the conservative assembly’s attacks.
Nonaka said his latest frustration is state GOP chairman Rohlfing’s embrace of longtime Hawaii scofflaw Rod Tam, who recently switched parties to become a Republican.
Rohlfing said he was “thrilled” to welcome the former state legislator and Honolulu City Council member when Tam announced his bid as a Republican for the state Senate seat vacated by Democrat Suzanne Chun Oakland.
Five years ago, Tam pleaded guilty to 26 misdemeanor and petty misdemeanor counts of theft and falsifying documents.
He ended up spending two days in jail and performing more than 300 hours of community service for his illegal spending spree, which included using taxpayer money for hundreds of private dinners and lunches for his family members and friends.
“That was so embarrassing to hear the Republican Party chair welcome Rod Tam to the party. What a sad thing to tout. I couldn’t believe it,” said Nonaka.
Rohlfing says Eugene Hamamoto, the Republicans’ district chairman for the Pauoa-Punchbowl area, recruited Tam to run.
Hamamoto, a third-generation Hawaii Japanese-American, lives on Tam’s street in Pauoa Valley and said he has admired his political views for a long time.
In a series of texts, Hamamoto told me he knew the risk for the GOP to support Tam. He said he told Tam, “you will have as many Republicans and Democrats who don’t like you but if you continue to act on behalf for the people it will work out.”
Hamamoto said more and more people, including grass-roots Democrats, are coming forward now to help Tam’s campaign, “mainly because they recall the good he has done for them in the past in the face of opposing special interests.”
Rohlfing said, “Tam has paid his debt to society, has learned from his mistakes and will be an effective senator for his district.”
Nonaka said his hopes are dim for Republicans gaining any seats this election.
“The new people who are running are failing to put together real campaigns. They are not doing what it takes to win. Some of them just want to see their names on the ballot,” said Nonaka.
Rohlfing was more optimistic. He said he is hopeful that former Republican U.S. Congressman Charles Djou will win the Honolulu mayoral race.
“If we can pick up a few new seats in the Legislature and Djou becomes mayor, it will put to rest a lot of the negativity in the party. People are frustrated. They are negative now because we are not winning. This should change with Djou becoming mayor.”
Nonaka is not so sure about that. He said, “I feel like it is a lost cause for many Republican candidates.”