Hawaii Republicans and political watchers tell me the local GOP’s woes are more deep-seated than expressed in my column last week.
It’s reflective of the political upheaval all over the country— the dissatisfaction with business as usual.
Some writers who responded to my column say that the state Republican Party is failing to capture the imagination of voters and candidates to run for office because it is not doing enough to emphasize that the GOP can be the party of change.
State Party Chairman Fritz Rohlfing’s modest goals for the 2016 election are to protect the GOP incumbents in the Legislature and gain a few seats and hope that Charles Djou will unseat Kirk Caldwell as Honolulu mayor.
A commenter to my column identified only as “Sean B,” says, “As a young local professional I can say that the cost of living is the biggest battlefront for my generation in Hawaii. That’s where the party’s focus should be. That’s where the party can win over young locals.”
He added, “The key for local Republicans is to highlight how Democrats have done nothing to protect locals from the (sky)rocketing cost of living or attempted to (deliver a) better quality of life.”
One of the GOP’s most respected leaders, state Sen. Sam Slom, says Hawaii Republicans can never hope to get ahead when they “keep running away from the brand.”
Slom says he is dismayed by popular young politicians such as House Minority Leader Beth Fukumoto Chang, who he says are promoting the status quo to get along better in the Democrat-dominated Legislature rather than acting as agents of change.
Slom, the only Republican in the State Senate, says Fukumoto Chang and the other GOP House members should be standing together in a united front to strongly oppose higher taxes and less government interference and fighting for legislation to lower the cost of living in Hawaii.
He points to specific votes such as Fukumoto Chang’s support for extending a tax surcharge to help pay for rail.
Slom says at the state GOP convention last month the party members lashed out at Fukumoto Chang for a good reason and it wasn’t to destroy the young leader.
“We all recognize the value and are overjoyed by having young people in the party.”
Slom says of Fukumoto Chang: “Her mantra in the Legislature has been ‘Don’t criticize the Democrats.’” Slom says that’s wrong when her constituents have elected her to stand up for Republican values such as lower taxes and fewer government regulations.
Slom says Hawaii will never have a healthy two-party system if elected Republicans refuse to fight for the principles they were elected to uphold.
“They have got to protect the brand. They have got to be proud of it.You have got to do that because who else will do it?”
Republican state Rep. Bob McDermott says,“Fukumoto Chang has sold out to the Democrats. The Democrats in the Legislature don’t need our support. Our job is to be the loyal opposition, to keep the Democrats on their toes, to make them accountable and to offer alternative solutions.”
At the state convention, Mike Palcic was among those suggesting that Fukumoto Changswitch parties.
Palcic says, “I want her to live up to Republican values. Not meekly accept everything the Democrats are doing.”
Political analyst and Civil Beat columnist Neal Milner says he understands the frustration among the local GOP members.
“They want a more conservative GOP,” Milner says. “They want Fukumoto Chang to be more confrontational, to stand up for party values.They are saying to local party leaders, ‘You have been trying for years to make the party more centrist for the last 10 years and it hasn’t worked.You have not increased the GOP’s power one iota. The local GOP is not moving in any ideological direction.It is constipated. Its strategies over the last 10 years have not worked.’”
In a telephone conversation Sunday, Fukumoto Chang said, “At the end of the day, I strongly believe my job is to represent my community over the party.”
Fukumoto Chang says she voted for the rail tax extension after her constituents said in a poll they supported it.
“If we had the information we have today that the rail is only going to go to Middle Street, my community’s support might have been weaker and I might not have supported extending the tax.”
She says she will not switch parties to become a Democrat. And she does intend to fight tax increases.
One of the most outspoken critics of the Hawaii GOP’s elected leaders and leadership is Eric Ryan.
Ryan is listed in state campaign spending reports as the president, treasurer and keeper of books and accounts of the Hawaii Republican Assembly.
HIRA’s webpage says the organization is “the conservative standard bearer of the Republican Party in Hawaii and leading advocate for conservative solutions in the islands.”
Campaign spending reports show as of Dec. 31, the last reporting period, HIRA had $3,486.81.In addition, HIRA’s super-PAC called HIRA Action had $17,502 in cash.
Republican critics of HIRA say the organization is driven by only two men: Ryan and former Hawaii Republican Party Chairman Willes Lee.
Ryan says Lee is HIRA’s national director. Lee is also president of the National Federation of Republican Assemblies.
In an email, Ryan says the time is ripe for voters to turn their support to Republicans for solutions when many in Hawaii are living paycheck to paycheck.
Says Ryan: “HIRA wants an activist party which enthusiastically educates and persuades voters 24/7/365 about the need for change, what Republicans would do differently, and pull out all the stops to push for that change so impressively that voters, donors, volunteers and candidates would have greatly enhanced faith in the Hawaii GOP.”
But HIRA’s shrill tone has alienated many of its former supporters.
Slom says he quit HIRA several years ago because of its negative character attacks on party members and elected officials.
“A lot of the things HIRA is saying are true but they need to move the party forward by suggesting programs and policy, not by ad hominem attacks,” Slom says.
“If HIRA keeps attacking party GOP members from the inside, why would anyone want to join?”
In the past, the HIRA website has attacked GOP Chairman Fritz Rohlfing, calling him “a thief,” and calling former party Chair Pat Saiki a “swindler.”
Says McDermott: “They call me and every other Republican in office a RINO or‘Republican in Name Only.’ I don’t think even Adolf Hitler would be conservative enough for HIRA.”
Glancing at the HIRA website Sunday, it seemed to have softened its attack-dog tone and turned its focus to issues instead of insults.
But McDermott says the change has come too late, that too many of its former supporters have already withdrawn their support for HIRA.
Hawaii delegates who will leave next month to attend the GOP national convention in Cleveland voted 17-10, with four abstentions, to prohibit Ryan from joining them as a delegation guest.
Republican National Committeewoman for Hawaii Miriam Hellreich says, “Eric Ryan’s goal is to malign, demonize and damage local GOP officials, candidates and the party itself.”
She says they hoped to exclude Ryan from the group “because his chief interest seems to be to tear apart the party with personal attacks and distorted information.”
But Hellreich says the national GOP party rules superseded the local delegation’s vote, which means Ryan can now attend the convention as a guest of one of Hawaii’s delegates.
Political analyst Milner says that although HIRA’s approach “may seem crack-potty and goofy, it is speaking out in frustration.No Republican Party in the United States is as marginalized as Hawaii’s GOP.Critics are seeking change.”
Everything is open to change this election. The twists and turns the political changes are taking are enough to make anyone dizzy.
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Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.