State GOP Chairwoman Shirlene Dela Cruz Ostrov is launching a campaign to do what some might call the impossible: stop the Hawaii Republican Party from rushing headlong into oblivion.
Ostrov is a self-proclaimed “local girl” who says she can break into pidgin English any time she wants. Her parents were Filipino immigrants from Batangan. Ostrov graduated from Mililani High School, got her degree in political science from the University of Florida and went on to serve 24 years in the U.S. Air Force, retiring as a colonel.
She’s been in combat zones in Afghanistan and Sudan and was awarded the Bronze Star.
“It’s going to be difficult, but there is nowhere for the party to go but up,” Ostrov says.
Her optimism blooms even though the Hawaii GOP is at its lowest standing in modern Hawaii history, with no Republicans in the congressional delegation or holding statewide office, no Republicans in the state Senate and only five in the 51-member state House.
The plight of the party is generating headlines like this in the Los Angeles Times: “The Republican Party is almost extinct in Hawaii and it’s getting worse.”
Then there are stinging rebukes from local pundits such as Richard Borreca’s characterization of the Hawaii GOP as the party “that murdered its young, attractive candidates,” referring to the defection of House leaders Beth Fukumoto and Aaron Ling Johanson to the Democrats after their colleagues slammed them for failing to march in lockstep party loyalty.
Fukumoto left the Republicans after her conservative House colleagues castigated her for a speech at the Women’s March in Hawaii in which she criticized Donald Trump’s policies as racist and sexist. Her fellow House members urged her to vow to never again criticize Trump. Fukumoto refused and quit the party.
Ostrov, who was elected chair in May, says the Hawaii Republican Party under her leadership will embrace party members with different opinions: “I was one of Beth’s constituents. It was unfortunate. We must be a home for innovative young conservatives even though we don’t agree with them 100 percent of the time.”
Ostrov was with former Hawaii GOP party chair Jane Tatibouet at a small gathering at the home of art dealer Mark Blackburn on Black Point Road on Friday. The event was to encourage “thought leaders” to spread the word about the state Republicans’ new leadership.
“I know it might seem hopeless to think of winning more seats,” said Tatibouet, but she pointed to gains during her time as chair of the Hawaii Republicans in 1993-1997.
Tatibouet said the number of Republicans elected in Hawaii nearly doubled then with five additional Republicans elected to the state House to make a total of 12 — enough members to force roll call votes to put Democrats’ positions on record. Voters also elected two Republican mayors on the neighbor islands: Linda Lingle on Maui and Maryanne Kusaka on Kauai. And nine Republicans were elected in county council races, which were partisan at the time.
Ostrov says one thing that’s new and encouraging this election season is Hawaii Republican candidates can count on additional help from the national party. She says with President Donald Trump in office the Republic National Committee has a larger treasury and is committed to spending some of its money to help Hawaii.
Ostrov says she traveled to Washington, D.C., to convince RNC chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel that “Hawaii is not a lost cause and there are people in Hawaii who yearn for a vibrant two-party system.”
The NRC will pay the salary of Aaron Wilson III, whom Ostrov recruited as the new executive director of the Hawaii GOP. He will move to Honolulu to set up residence Feb. 6, she says. Wilson is a 34-year-old from Philadelphia. He is considered one of the key strategists for turning Pennsylvania into a red state in the 2016 presidential election.
The RNC also will pay for new campaign tools for Hawaii, including better databases and “walk apps” for candidates to use to guide them to likely Republican-leaning residences when they campaign door-to-door, Ostrov says. Wilson has the experience to teach candidates and volunteers how to use the new technology — tools Hawaii Democrats have been using successfully.
Jane Tatibouet is in charge of recruiting and training candidates. She says her initial focus will be on nine open legislative seats whose incumbents have either retired or are seeking other offices. One of the open seats is House District 43, to be vacated by Republican Andria Tupola, who is running for governor along with John Carroll in the Republican primary. The party’s challenge will be to get another Republican to run for and retain the seat Tupola is giving up.
“We have to hold on to our tiny but brave caucus in the house,” says Ostrov.
Republican-turned-Democrat Beth Fukumoto is contemplating running for the congressional seat to be vacated by Democrat Colleen Hanabusa, who’s in the race for governor.
Fukumoto believes first-time candidates can benefit by winning office as Republicans as she did. She says because the party is so small there is a chance to move up quickly to positions of leadership. She was elected to the state House in 2012 and just two years later she became minority leader.
“I learned so much by leading the House Republicans and that never would have happened to me as a Democrat because they have many older and more experienced members vying for leadership,” she says.
Fukumoto says one of the challenges the local GOP will have to face when it is trying to recruit candidates, especially female candidates, is that the Republican Party is now the party of Trump.
“It’s a dilemma for the Hawaii GOP,” she says. “They can’t run away from Trump. But they can’t lean into him if they want to win.”
Political science professor emeritus and Civil Beat columnist Neal Milner doesn’t think Trump can inflict additional damage on the Hawaii GOP: “The party is already hurting so bad. It really can’t get hurt any more.”
When Jane Tatibouet is recruiting candidates, she keeps her pitch away from Trump and instead emphasizes the need for a strong two-party system to make Hawaii better for everyone.
“It is all for Hawaii,” says Tatibouet. “Hawaii first. We want Hawaii to be great. We have to focus on our local problems, the terrible traffic, the broken sewer systems, the failure of the education system, an airport that’s falling apart, unaffordable housing, the unconscionable carelessness of the false missile alert. It ‘s a crime and it just goes on and on.”
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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.