The self-described “Lone Ranger,” state Sen. Sam Slom, may be making his last ride. He is the only Republican in Hawaii’s 25 member state Senate.
The outcome of Slom’s re-election bid will have ramifications not only for the Senate district that stretches from Hawaii Kai to the edge of Waikiki, and but also for the entire state.
Stanley Chang, a Harvard-educated attorney and former Honolulu City Council member, is Slom’s Democratic challenger.
If Chang defeats Slom, Hawaii will be the only state in the country in decades with a Senate run entirely by Democrats.
Political analyst Neal Milner says that would be a great loss, not just for Republicans but everyone.
“I find myself sympathetic to Slom because he has an effective conservative voice, which brings a perspective that’s different from the Democrats,” says Milner. “He is visible. He speaks out for an alternate point of view.”
“There is no Republican voice as strong as Slom’s voice in the state,” says Milner. “Certainly not in the Hawaii state Republican Party, which is hunkered down and hasn’t has a new idea in decades. They have no one else like him on their team. If he goes there will be a big vacuum out there.”
Slom owns a business called SMS Consulting, which helps small businesses and startups. He was president of Smart Business Hawaii, the former Small Business Hawaii, until he retired in 2014.
He is unwavering in calling for no new taxes and less government interference. He leans libertarian, speaking up for a free market economy.
“I am proud to be a Republican. I am not running away from the brand like some of the others in the party,” says Slom.
Slom admits this is the most difficult race since he beat then Republican Donna Ikeda for a legislative seat two decades ago.
Chang, 34, has been walking the district for more than a year. He says he has knocked on almost 15,000 doors of potential voters.
Slom quips, “He forgets to mention that many people are not home when he goes to their houses. They are out working on their second and third jobs; what you have to do to stay afloat in this state.”
Chang says it is true the majority of people he attempts to visit are not home, “but I try to go back to see them.”
He says his door-to-door visits are what make him valuable.
“It is important for East Honolulu to have a senator who both listens and delivers,” says Chang. “The residents deserve an elected official who takes the time to go to their homes to hear their concerns.”
He uses a smart phone app to help him track the homes he’s already visited and guide him to where he needs to go next. He’s lost 25 pounds since he started canvassing.
When I go door to door with Chang in Aina Haina to take some pictures of him, one homeowner he visits is reluctant to say he will support him but promises Chang that he’ll consider it. He says, “I see you out more than anyone else.”
Another Aina Haina homeowner blasts Chang for sending out too much campaign literature. And then tells him off for the poor quality of the city’s road repaving efforts.
Chang’s committed supporters say his accessibility is what drew them to him.
Niu Valley resident Jeannine Johnson says when Chang was her City Council member he got the city to shut down an illegal vacation rental in the valley that had turned into a commercial wedding site and noisy party venue.
Johnson says Chang was able to obtain city matching funds for a community playground project in Niu that had been stalled for 12 years.
“That was a big thing for me and the neighborhood. He gets things done that our community wants and needs,” says Johnson.
The 9th Senate District used to be reliably Republican, but it has changed. Because of reapportionment, parts of Kapahulu and Waikiki were added to the district. Also, the residents have changed.
“Now there are a lot of state employees, immigrants, retirees,” says Slom. “People move on. They die. Areas change.”
In the old days, when the district was more homogeneously Republican, Chang’s support for the rail system and possible tax increases to support the project might have been a deal breaker for East Oahu voters. Today, it is difficult to tell what affect Chang’s liberal leanings will have on the outcome of the race.
There is also the question of 74-year-old Slom’s health. He had quintuple heart bypass surgery in April. He says his doctor has given him a clean bill of health and that he has the ability and the energy to do the job.
Otherwise, he says, “I wouldn’t be running,.
When a Los Angeles Times reporter asked Slom why he keeps plugging away as a minority in the strongly Democratic Legislature, Slom said, “To make sure that people understand there is a different philosophy, that it’s an important philosophy, that it’s practiced in many states across the country.”
Senate President Ron Kouchi says if Slom is defeated, lively debates will continue in the Senate because, “among Democrats we have a lot of different ideas. To say there will be no dissenting opinions is not true. With or without Sam, the issues will be deliberated.”
But Kouchi admits that Slom “certainly guarantees dialogue.” And that he brings in a more conservative fiscal outlook to the table.
Chang also says if he prevails in the election, diversity will thrive.
“There is an ideological diversity among the Democrats in the Senate,” says Chang. “Within the Democratic caucus, you have people on opposite sides of virtually every issue.”
But some of Slom’s colleagues say it will be a different and less interesting Senate if he loses.
Sen. Glenn Wakai says of Slom, “I hope his voice is not silenced. I have a lot of admiration for him. I just adore him as a person. He has the ability to make complex issues very understandable to the public.
“It is not good to have one party, any party, dominate one legislative body,” says Wakai. “It is not healthy for the state.”
Wakai is chairman of the Senate Economic Development Committee, on which Slom serves as vice-chairman.
One thing I will personally miss if Slom is not re-elected is a sense of togetherness with him. As a Republican, he is locked out of Hawaii’s Democratic caucuses, as are reporters and the public.
Hawaii’s Democratic senators gather behind closed doors in the majority caucus room in the basement of the Capitol when they make final decisions on bills. This happens with the Democratic majority in both the Senate and the House. When the lawmakers emerge from the privacy of their caucus room, the fate of a bill has already been determined.
The lawmakers then make floor speeches before the public in the gallery, but it’s a kind of a floor show because the Democrats know ahead of time which bills will pass. At least Lone Ranger Slom is there to offer a fresh outlook.
“Somebody has to stand up when they see something wrong,” says Slom. “The majority party works behind closed doors. It doesn’t like to see open debate.”
Political consultant Keith Rollman, who helps Republican candidates, says of Slom, “We all lose if he loses. People don’t realize what an imbalance it will leave. I don’t think any good will come with the Senate doing its work behind closed doors without someone there to question and to give another perspective.”
Rollman says Slom is also valuable to conservative voters outside his district. They routinely come to his office to ask him to submit bills addressing their concerns.
Slom freely gives out his home phone number and personal cell phone number to anyone who wants them.
“I call myself the senator for the state,” he says. “I am there for anyone who wants help.”
Slom is philosophical about the election.
“This has never been my Senate seat. If the public wants me to serve, people will vote for me. If they want someone else that is fine. I will go back to being a taxpayer and a voter and continue to be active in my community.”