The top Republican officeholder in Hawaii may jump parties.

State Rep. Beth Fukumoto sent a letter to constituents Wednesday stating, “This week, Republicans in the state Legislature and in party leadership sought to censure me for raising concerns about the treatment of women and minorities by politicians in power. They have also insisted that I stop working across the aisle and focus more on partisan politics. For these reasons, I am considering leaving the Republican Party and pursuing membership in the Democratic Party.”

Fukumoto has not yet made an official decision. She is asking constituents to contact her and share their views. She represents Mililani and Mililani Mauka on Oahu.

Rep Beth Fukumoto Change GOP convention held at the FILAM in Waipahu. 21 may 2016
Rep. Beth Fukumoto was shouted down at the GOP convention in Waipahu in May. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Fukumoto, the minority leader and top elected GOP official in the state, is making it clear that she feels unwelcome in her party:

It is my belief that I can no longer remain a member of a party that punishes dissent. Furthermore, I believe that it is my job as your representative to work with everyone, regardless of party, to accomplish things for Mililani. I have always said that we should work to find common ground, even when we disagree, but powerful voices in the Republican Party continue to fight against compromise.

Fukumoto confirmed Wednesday that she mailed the letter to constituents.

She also released a statement Wednesday morning that read in part:

In the last couple years, I’ve watched leaders in the Republican Party become less and less tolerant of diverse opinions and dissenting voices. I am under constant scrutiny for working across the aisle to pass common sense legislation that will benefit my district and the people of Hawaii.

Today, I’m facing demands for my resignation from leadership and possible censure because I raised concerns about our President’s treatment of women and minorities. I’ve been asked by both my party and my caucus to commit to not criticizing the President for the remainder of his term and to take a more partisan approach to working in the Legislature.

That is not a commitment I can make. As a representative of my community, it is my job to hold leaders accountable and to work with anyone, regardless of party, to make Hawaii a better place for our families.

Several people in the Hawaii Republican Party have said for months now that Fukumoto would soon join the Democratic Party of Hawaii.

It’s what Aaron Ling Johanson, Fukumoto’s predecessor as minority leader, did in 2015.

Fukumoto was denounced at the GOP party convention in Waipahu in May in part because she raised concerns about racist and sexist behavior by Donald Trump, then a GOP candidate for president. Trump won the GOP caucus in Hawaii in March.

A Shrinking Minority

There are currently just six Republicans in the 51-member state House. The 25-member Senate has no Republicans following the loss of longtime GOP incumbent Sam Slom in 2016.

Update: On Wednesday, Fukumoto was deposed as minority leader during a House floor session. Fukumoto and Rep. Cynthia Thielen, another Republican, were the only “no” votes.

After the vote, which included much debate, Thielen said Fukumoto should have remained leader. She is upset that Fukumoto was punished in part because she (like Thielen) spoke at the Women’s March on Oahu last month.

She accused some of her GOP colleagues of wanting to punish Fukumoto for speaking out against racism, sexism and intolerance.

Thielen said of the vote, “I think it’s a disgrace and it sends a message to people in Hawaii that unless you don’t share our narrow-minded bigotry, don’t join the GOP.”

1Representative Andria Tupola WAM Finance mtg. 5 jan 2017
Rep. Andria Tupola last month. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Fukumoto said, “I think I have a generally steely personality, but during Cynthia Thielen’s remarks on the floor I could barely stop myself from crying. For somebody who has worked for decades for women’s rights to get up there and acknowledge that I was losing leadership because I stood up for women’s rights, was more meaningful than anything else could have been for me.”

Former Minority Leader Gene Ward and GOP Rep. Bob McDermott have been particularly critical of Fukumoto’s leadership.

Asked for comment before the vote, Ward said, “Beth picked a fight with her party, her president, and her caucus, and she lost.”

New House Leaders

Ward is the new minority floor leader. Andria Tupola replaced Fukumoto.

Update: In a statement, Tupola said, “There is a lot our caucus agrees on, and I look forward to highlighting the strength of each member, helping them champion the issues important to them. I look forward to serving our caucus and bringing our voice to the forefront of the conversation addressing of our state’s rising cost of living, increase in homelessness, unfunded liabilities, and many other quality of life issues.”

She added, “We need to rise to the occasion and gather with every department, legislator, union, business, or community member that is willing to work towards positive change.”

GOP Chairman Fritz Rohlfing congratulated the new minority leaders and urged Fukumoto to remain in the party.

He added, “If she does decide to leave the Republican Party, however, and join the Democratic Party less than three months after having been re-elected as a Republican, I believe the honorable thing for her to do would be to immediately resign her legislative seat so our party can propose to the Governor replacements for appointment from her district within the time frame provided under Hawaii state law.”

Marilyn Lee, the longtime Democrat who was unseated by Fukumoto and has tried unsuccessfully to win the seat back, said earlier Wednesday, “You have got all kinds of Democrats in the Democratic caucus, and she leans to the conservative side. But I don’t think I can ever forgive her for voting against marriage equality and not really representing her ideas honestly to the community in terms of her political leanings.”

Lee added, “She basically has strong support from many evangelicals who will probably be surprised that she is not nearly as conservative as they think.”

Fukumoto previously used her former married name, Fukumoto Chang.

Civil Beat spoke with Fukumoto recently about her caucus’ priorities in the 2017 Hawaii Legislature.

Rep. Cynthia Thielen’s floor speech:

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