Fukumoto, 33, made the announcement at the State Capitol, explaining that she had spent nearly two months getting feedback from her Mililani constituents and taking a lot of personal time to reflect.
The representative said she came to realize that Hawaii’s majority party did not merely represent the status quo that most Republicans had long opposed.
“There were good Democrats trying to change things too,” she said in a press release. “So we started working together. But, in doing so, I ran into Republican partisanship that insisted I stop working with Democrats even when it clearly benefitted our community.”
Those issues included trying to bring down the state’s high cost of living, to reduce income inequality, to create well-paying jobs and to build affordable homes.
Meanwhile, Fukumoto found herself increasingly at odds with a GOP moving in a direction not in line with her values.
She described the greater partisanship as a force that opposed “divergence, difference and diversity at every step. This election, those voices won.”
It was clear that Fukumoto was referring, at least in part, to the leader of her party, President Donald Trump.
While she did not mention him by name in her press release, Fukumoto was loudly denounced by some Trump supporters at the Hawaii Republican Party’s state convention last year as she spoke from the stage. She also criticized the president at the Women’s March on Oahu rally at the Capitol in January.
In particular, Fukumoto has taken issue with Trump’s derisive remarks on women and minorities.
Fukumoto’s departure leaves just five Republicans in the 51-member state House of Representatives. Last month, her colleagues removed her as minority leader.
During floor session Wednesday, Fukumoto still sat at her desk in the GOP area of the chamber. But technically she is unaffiliated with either party, and Fukumoto speculated that she might eventually be moved to a different desk.
A Tiny Party’s ‘Weakened Brand’
Fukumoto’s former colleague, state Rep. Cynthia Thielen, expressed disappointment over Fukumoto’s departure. A press release from her office said “the tiny party’s brand is further weakened and its relevance to the wider, diverse constituency looks bleak.”
“True Republican leaders don’t promote a morphed, narrow version of the original Republican Party as fundamentalists or practitioners of a me-first attitude and a my-way-or-the-highway mentality,” Thielen said. “I am saddened and dismayed when there are power struggles by self-serving politicians and when the greater good of my party — as it was originally founded — is sacrificed by a few modern-day evangelists.”
But Eric Ryan, president of a minority GOP faction called the Hawaii Republican Assembly, called Fukumoto “disgraceful” and is “an absolutely perfect fit for the Democrat Party which has severely harmed Hawaii for the past 62 years.”
“With failed and punishing policies that have caused half of Hawaii residents to struggle from paycheck to paycheck and which force children Beth’s age and younger to leave Hawaii for the mainland because the very Democrats Fukumoto idolizes have destroyed any real job opportunities here while ratcheting up our terrible cost of living.”
Rep. Andria Tupola, who replaced Fukumoto as minority leader, said Wednesday’s announcement was not a surprise, “and we wish the former minority leader well in her transition.”
She also said she was committed “to moving forward and continuing the dialogue to create a more balanced legislative system to improve the quality of life for the people of Hawaii.”
Tupola represents Maili, Nanakuli, Ko Olina, Honokai Hale, Kalaeloa and Ewa.
And here’s what GOP State Chair Fritz Rohlfing had to day: “Rep. Fukumoto’s decision to abandon the Hawaii Republican Party is unfortunate. We are a thriving and inclusive Party. Our deep commitment to national security and economic growth will only help the citizens of Hawaii during the coming years.”
Rohlfing added, “Rep. Fukumoto was elected as a Republican just over four months ago by the voters in her Mililani district. She should have resigned her legislative seat first so the party could have recommended to the governor several qualified Republicans from whom he could choose to fill the vacancy.”
‘Best Interest Of Constituents’
Not surprisingly, however, top Democrats welcomed Fukumoto’s party change.
Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui said in a statement, “It’s clear that this was a decision she did not come by lightly, and that she believes this decision is not only best for her, but also in the best interest of her constituents.”
He added, “Going forward, I believe that Representative Fukumoto will continue to ably serve her constituents and the State of Hawaii with great respect and independent thinking.”
Meantime, two state senators whose districts include the Mililani area, issued a joint statement welcoming Fukumoto and urging the Democratic Party to allow her in the tent.
“We applaud her efforts to reach out to her constituents who reside in both parts of Mililani that we represent, and understand that she wants to do whatever she can to carry out her legislative work in the best interests of our community’s residents,” said Sens. Michelle Kidani and Donovan Dela Cruz. “We agree that as a member of the majority party, Representative Fukumoto will better be able to work more effectively on a legislative agenda that meets real needs with available resources and that is supportive of Hawaii’s people.”
While Republicans control two branches of the federal government, a majority of governorships and state legislatures (and will likely regain a 5-to-4 majority on the U.S. Supreme Court in the coming weeks), the GOP in Hawaii continues to shrink.
Longtime state Sen. Sam Slom was voted out of office in November.
Fukumoto, who used to be married to David Chang, a former party chair, is also following the example of former Minority Leader Aaron Ling Johanson, who switched parties in December 2014.
Like Fukumoto, Johanson (he represents the Moanalua, Red Hill, Aliamanu a Foster Village area on Oahu) was derided by fellow Republicans for being too collaborative with Democrats.
Fukumoto’s attention has already shifted to the majority, saying that she will begin talking to Democrats in her district and in the larger Democratic Party.
“Ultimately, it will be up to Democrats to decide if they want to accept me or not, but I want to assure my constituents that I will continue to uphold the convictions I have always demonstrated, regardless of my political affiliation,” she said.
Fukumoto’s disenchantment with Republicans has not gone unnoticed nationally.
On the same day she left her party, The Outline published a story whose headline speaks volumes: “The Republican Party Is Dying In Hawaii: Beth Fukumoto was a leader in the GOP. Now because of Trump, she’s becoming a Democrat.”
Watch Rep. Beth Fukumoto explain her reasons for leaving the Hawaii GOP:
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