Some politicians today seem particularly thin-skinned, ready to seek a restraining order from a judge or threaten to sue when people criticize them.
Don’t they know nastiness comes with the territory? The political world is no place for wimps. Former President Harry S Truman said it in 1949: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
That is still true today. If you are easily burned, maybe you should dodge the hot oven of political mudslinging.
Former Gov. Ben Cayetano puts it more directly: “Politics is a blood sport. People have to be able to take it.”
Cayetano should know. He’s been slammed harder in recent years by negative attacks than most other local politicians.
Hawaii politics have always been rough, even as far back as the royal elections of 1874 when Queen Emma ran against David Kalakaua for the right to rule Hawaii. That was after King William Lunalilo died without naming a successor. Emma lost.
A hundred of her backers called the Emmaites attacked the courthouse to beat up legislators who voted for Kalakaua; they killed one and threw another out of a second story window. Thirteen Kalakaua supporters were severely injured. Marines had to be called from two American warships and a British gunboat to quell the riot.
With Hawaii’s election season in full swing, it will be interesting to see how well the candidates stand up to the inevitable personal attacks.
To date, two key candidates recently slammed by their critics have appeared stunned; one said she was scared. GOP gubernatorial candidate Rep. Andria Tupola successfully persuaded a District Court judge to issue an injunction against conservative splinter group blogger Eric Ryan.
In her petition, Tupola said she “felt afraid and helpless” in the face of Ryan’s alleged yearlong email harassment and cyber bullying.
In 2012, then-state Rep. Kymberly Pine got a temporary restraining order against Ryan after she alleged similar cyber attacks. Ryan was ousted from the Hawaii Republican Party the day before Tupola’s court date.
“I am not thin-skinned,” Tupola said. “I accept criticism of my record, but he crossed the line when he attacked me personally and my family.”
But negative campaigning is always personal. In the 1800 U.S. election, presidential hopeful Thomas Jefferson hired a hatchet man to go after incumbent President John Adams. Jefferson’s hit man called Adams a criminal and a tyrant. Adams was also accused of having “a hideous hermaphroditical character.”
Adams called Jefferson a coward and a libertine and “the son of a half breed Indian squaw and a Virginia mullato.” Even Martha Washington got into the act, calling Jefferson “the most detestable of mankind.”
Tupola’s attorney, Michael Green, calls Ryan’s persistent Facebook postings about Tupola and her husband and father “outrageous.”
“This is not what Hawaii politics is about,” Green said. “If this is what it’s come to, who would want to run for office to be subjected to lies made under the guise of free speech?”
Former gubernatorial candidate Clayton Hee also said Hawaii politics had reached a new low. That was after Honolulu attorney Megan Kau’s super PAC Women Against Domestic Violence Hawaii posted more than 100 signs along Kalanianaole Highway reading, “Stop Domestic Violence: Stop Hee.”
Kau says her signs linking Hee to domestic violence are from his ex-wife Lyla Berg’s allegations of physical and verbal abuse in court documents in Berg’s divorce petition in 1989. Hee has denied the allegations, and Berg has said she is not involved in Kau’s political committee.
Hee says it’s a political smear to bring up 30-year-old accusations against him when no charges were brought against him, no temporary restraining orders, no police reports.
“It is discouraging for me because in Hawaii we think of ourselves as fair,” Hee said. “To me, this is a new low.”
Cayetano, a close friend of Hee, agrees it’s low but says, “the low is not new.”
Cayetano was whacked repeatedly in a smear campaign in the 2012 Honolulu mayor’s race. Pacific Resources Partnership’s PAC spent $3.6 million to take down Cayetano, who had vowed to stop the rail project. Cayetano was initially ahead in the polls but lost to Kirk Caldwell.
Cayetano sued for libel and slander. PRP settled in 2014 with an apology to Cayetano in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and $125,000 in checks in Cayetano’s name to the Hawaiian Humane Society and the University of Hawaii.
Cayetano says he warned Hee to expect attacks.
“When you are a candidate who rocks the boat, a candidate like me or Clayton, the establishment is not going to like it.”
Said Hee: “It is not that I can’t take it. I am a tough guy. I used to be in rodeos. It is about people misbehaving in a way that hurts a lot of other people.”
Negative hits by their very nature are designed to hurt people. The late Frank Fasi, who was mayor of Honolulu for 22 years, was slammed by critics throughout his career with allegations that he was a crook and that he beat his wife.
Fasi, known as “Fearless Frank” did not run to court. He fought back.
When he was accused of being a spouse abuser in 1960, his campaign organization paid for a newspaper ad in which Fasi’s first wife, Florence, publicly denied rumors that he beat her.
Fasi told reporter Jerry Burris that allegations that he was a wife beater continued to surface throughout his career. “But every time we catch someone at it, Joyce (his then-wife) calls them up and really tells them off.”
Clayton Hee has withdrawn from the governor’s race to run instead for the state Senate seat he once held in District 23, Windward Oahu-North Shore. He’s challenging incumbent Democrat Gil Riviere in the primary.
Kau said Saturday that “I still have the signs. Now that Clayton Hee is running for a Windward seat, I know where to put them. We will put the signs on private property in Kaneohe.”
Kau says the allegations against Hee are pertinent even though they were made 30 years ago in a divorce proceeding.
“I don’t know for a fact that he abused Lyla Berg,” Kau said. “I have never spoken to her. But people have a right to be educated about the allegations so they can decide if they want to vote for him.”
Kau says because she has been a victim of sexual harassment, she takes any woman’s allegations about harm seriously.
Hee says he is seeking advice from attorneys to determine if he has grounds for a defamation lawsuit. He says that would reveal who is behind Kau’s effort.
“I don’t know of any other way to compel the truth to come out than to file a suit,” Hee said. “It is not something I look forward to or revel in.”
Kau says her campaign is her own effort, with the help of her friends.
Any public figure must meet a higher standard of proof in defamation claims than regular citizens. And slander and libel suits can sometimes backfire when, in the discovery process, new truths emerge about politicians that are more harmful than the alleged slurs for which they are seeking redress.
Cayetano says the best way to handle personal slams is to fight back and do it fast. He says political consultants have told him if you don’t respond hard within 24 hours, people will start thinking what they heard is true.
And never be surprised by a rough fight in an election year. Mudslinging in tight races today is the norm, not an aberration.
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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.