Andria Tupola likes to jump off high places.
Spitting Caves. Waimea Rock. Laie Point.
It’s her idea of fun. That, and running. Music, too. But the two-term House lawmaker hasn’t had much leisure time since she decided to try supercharging her political career.
The 37-year-old Waianae resident is gunning for governor, Hawaii’s highest executive post. Tupola’s campaign has momentum — her rallies are attracting crowds, supporters are signing up to help.
But as a Republican running in a state that has only had one GOP governor since 1962, she will struggle to prevent Democratic Gov. David Ige from winning a second four-year term. He led by 23 percentage points in a July poll and had an 18-to-1 fundraising advantage as of the Aug. 11 primary.
All that has not deterred Tupola. Even in the solid-blue Aloha State, where rising GOP stars have been turning Democrat, she remains committed to the course and her splintered party.
Tupola sat down with Civil Beat for an hour-long interview on a Tuesday afternoon in Kaimuki. It was a comparatively calm day on the campaign trail.
Her husband Tavo, who works for the Honolulu Police Department, had taken their two daughters, ages 11 and 10, to school that morning, leaving Tupola at home with some rare time to herself.
The piano beckoned. Tupola, a college music teacher until her political career became a full-time job, said she sat down and just played and sang for an audience of one.
It was more about re-centering and de-stressing than recharging. Tupola, who doesn’t drink coffee, naturally goes full tilt.
“My energy that I exude in interviews or when I speak, that’s like me all day,” she said, extending her hands and arms out in her usual animated manner. “I can take melatonin and it doesn’t do anything to me.”
She caught a reflection of herself earlier that day at the University of Hawaii’s West Oahu campus. Tupola recalled talking to a former colleague about how five years ago she had an office there as a professor and now she is running for governor.
“Going from that — to this — was just wow,” she said.
Tupola, a 1998 graduate of Kamehameha Schools, first tasted politics while working on her undergraduate degree at Brigham Young University in Utah. She ran for student body president against nine others and won.
That gave her what she considers the fundamentals in running for office, whether it’s to represent her school’s 33,000 students, her westside Oahu district’s 27,000 constituents or the state’s 1.4 million residents.
“It’s the same concept,” she said. “You talk to people, you campaign, you get your message out, you see if people like your message and then you either win or lose.”
Before her first run for office in Hawaii, Tupola campaigned for Republican Mitt Romney for president in 2012, concerned about preserving constitutional freedoms. She said she feared the U.S. might embrace ideas and philosophies that were similar to what she saw in the early 2000s while doing missionary work in Venezuela, led at the time by socialist President Hugo Chávez.
“I just never want to see what happened there happen anywhere else,” she said, pointing at a nationalized education system as an example. “I want people to feel empowered, I want them to feel like they can take ownership over their community and that there’s not some big government running their lives.”
Tupola’s turning point came in 2014 when she decided to put herself out there as a candidate for state House District 43, which includes Ewa Villages, Ko Olina, Nanakuli and Maili.
She was the only Republican to unseat a Democrat that election, defeating former Majority Floor Leader Karen Awana by 14 percentage points.
Tupola cruised into a second two-year term in 2016 and now holds one of just five GOP seats in the nation’s most politically lopsided legislatures.
Neal Milner, political science professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii, said Tupola stands out among Republicans in large part because there aren’t many.
He said she’s an articulate, respectable candidate who is as good as any the Republican Party was likely to get.
“If she loses, which she’s likely to do, it’s going to have very little to do with any kind of weakness she has,” Milner said. “It’s a safe Democratic state and it’s hard to break that.”
Tupola never anticipated a political career.
Her first inclination was to pursue law, inspired by her father Bode Uale, the first family court judge of Samoan ancestry in the U.S. In school she discovered she could debate well and speak confidently.
But her dad dissuaded her from a legal career. She said he told her to do music like her mother, Beth Parker, so that’s what Tupola did. She earned a degree in music education from BYU, a master’s from the University of Hawaii and is working on her doctorate.
She did not mind going down the music path as it was always a passion. Tupola, one of four children, said she never really knew exactly what her father did because they were not allowed to discuss his confidential work at home.
“Growing up, all we knew is that our dad helped families. That’s it,” she said.
Years later as an elected official, she would learn a lot more about his work.
As a member of the House Finance Committee, she sat through hearings where the Judiciary’s budget is shaped. She saw how the specialty courts are laid out, the funding structures and how they help address truancy, drug abuse and other issues that have plagued parts of her community.
“As a legislator, I started to understand that these are super important for all the societal problems that we have and my dad’s part of the solution,” she said.
Tupola ascended to the House minority leader post in February 2017 after Rep. Beth Fukumoto was ousted from the position. Fukmoto has said she was booted after speaking at the Women’s March and criticizing President Donald Trump’s racist and sexist remarks.
Banding together with Reps. Gene Ward and Bob McDermott, the most conservative House members, Tupola won a 3-2 vote to replace Fukumoto, whose only other support came from Rep. Cynthia Thielen. The other House GOP member, Rep. Lauren Matsumoto, abstained.
Matsumoto and Ward did not respond to messages seeking comment. Thielen deferred to Ward and McDermott.
McDermott had announced his candidacy for governor last year but withdrew after learning Tupola was going to run. He said Wednesday she had done him a favor by helping him realize he was better off keeping his House seat.
Describing himself as Tupola’s “biggest cheerleader” in the House, McDermott said she could have held her legislative post indefinitely. But he said her chances of winning the governorship are slim, not only because of her party affiliation but also her lack of experience.
“It’s like climbing Mt. Everest without an oxygen tank or sherpa as a Republican in this state,” he said.
He said he has tried to help Tupola with thoughts on strategy, such as pushing for vocational schools or some other big idea to steal the narrative from Ige, but that they haven’t spoken lately.
“I know her motivations are good,” McDermott said. “She wants to help people. And the pace here can be slow — you can think you’re not making progress.”
Fukumoto left the Republican Party soon thereafter and joined the Democrats, the latest up-and-comer to leave the GOP. Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson had done the same thing three years prior.
Tupola, also seen as a rising star in the party, plans to stay with the Republicans.
“The difficulty of your path is going to be relevant to your perspective,” Tupola said. “I’ve chosen the path that I want and I just need to stick to it.”
The normal infighting that’s pervasive in both parties recently bubbled over for Republicans.
In May, a judge granted Tupola’s request for a restraining order against Eric Ryan, who was kicked out of the party the day before the court hearing. He runs a hyper-conservative group called the Hawaii Republican Assembly and has blasted Tupola and other politicians online for years for not being “real Republicans.”
Tupola has said he took it too far when he threatened her family.
But she doesn’t need coddling.
Her husband, who is divorced from politics, has taught her toughness.
“He’s unplugged from all of it,” Tupola said, noting he doesn’t even watch Fox News. “So when I share a story with him, he has no opinion besides just what’s best for me.”
Tupola recalled the pressure she felt during the change of leadership among House Republicans last year, which drew national attention and a barrage of criticism.
“I remember going home and I was so distraught,” she said. “I was just like, I do not want to do any more interviews. I’m so tired of everyone, you know, Facebooking me and sending me a message like, ‘Judas Iscariot, you did this horrible thing.’”
Tupola turned to her husband but he was laughing at her. She asked him to explain what was so funny about her crying.
He reminded her that no one forced her to become a public servant and that this comes with the territory. She said he told her, “Pull up your pants and stop crying. Nobody’s crying for you. Get over it.”
Tupola said she took a deep breath and got over it.
“You do it for the right reasons, not because people applaud you every step you take,” she said.
Tupola has also struggled with her running mate, Marissa Kerns, who was independently elected in the primary as the party’s lieutenant governor candidate. They run on a joint ticket in the general.
“You can’t always be around people you like.” — Rep. Andria Tupola
Kerns has criticized Tupola’s record as too liberal and the two have not campaigned together. On Monday, Kerns was sending out emails asking for donations and touting former Sen. Sam Slom’s endorsement of her campaign for LG. Meanwhile, Tupola has been busy sign-waving and speaking to community groups on her own.
“I decided a long time ago that I can’t control everything,” Tupola said, adding that includes things that can affect her success.
“You can’t always be around people you like,” she added. “You have to learn how to get along and find a path forward with anybody.”
Over the past four years in office, Tupola has sponsored legislation with gun-loving members of her own party and tree-hugging Democrats.
She backed bans on reef-harming sunscreens and conversion therapy for minors while rejecting bills to increase motor vehicle fees or extend the general excise tax surcharge to fund the Honolulu rail project.
The National Rifle Association endorsed her in 2016. That same year, the Sierra Club, which has endorsed Ige for governor, gave her environmental voting record a perfect score, according to the Iowa-based Vote Smart’s rating.
“You just do what you think is right for the community,” Tupola said.
Being Republican means supporting local businesses and decreasing the cost of living so that people can thrive, she said.
“We talk about fiscal responsibility, we talk about jobs, but really what it means is we should be fighting every day to keep local families here,” Tupola said.
She may not be as ardent a Trump supporter as her running mate, but she said she has appreciated the president’s approach to enforcing the laws on the books, especially in regards to dangerous countries, and providing tax relief to citizens.
In Hawaii, it’s hard to talk about tax reform, she said. Her bills to exempt food and health care services from the state’s general excise tax have gone nowhere.
Tupola knew she was ready to make the leap for the governor’s office after a 2015 community meeting on Hawaii island.
She was invited to speak in Kohala about the drug problem there, which she saw as similar to Waianae’s.
Roughly 300 residents filled a high school cafeteria. She was the last to speak, following the police chief and head of narcotics.
“I was thinking, ‘What in the world am I supposed to say to a community that one, I don’t represent, and two, these guys don’t know who I am,” she said.
Tupola opted to open with basic questions. “How many of you guys think your government is too Oahu-centric? How many people feel like your legislators don’t listen to you? How many people feel like there’s a power over you that you can’t control?”
With the crowd amped up, she said that’s when she told them they were wrong. She explained that the only power they have over them is the power the community gives to them.
She urged the crowd to rise up and get organized, form a community association, and immediately helped them start picking leaders and making rules.
“It was a really empowering moment,” Tupola said. “I had this huge group of people that just felt powerless, they felt hopeless, and I spoke, and these guys were just excited.”
That’s when a community member stood up and asked Tupola what she herself was going to do.
“I was like, ‘Oh, me? I’m going to take over this government,’” she said.
Tupola left the meeting asking herself why she needed to be the one to have gone over and talked to the Big Island residents. She resolved that there was something in her approach that resonated with the community there, and that she had the capacity to help more people.
From that day forward, she was preparing to run for governor. More traveling. More community meetings. More listening. A heightened effort to identify the systemic issues that haven’t been addressed.
Tupola, with limited campaign funds, won’t be able to saturate the airwaves with her message like Ige’s campaign can. She had $11,700 cash on hand as of Aug. 11, the most recent reporting period with the state Campaign Spending Commission. The next reports are due Oct. 29.
She ran some ads last month with Oahu Publications Inc., which owns the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and newspapers on Kauai and Hawaii island. And she ran radio ads with Summit Media last week. All told, she spent less than $2,500 and had no other ads on the books as of Monday.
Ige, who had about $207,000 on hand after spending almost $2.5 million to get through the primary against U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, does not seem threatened by Tupola, at least based on his advertising budget heading into the general.
His only advertising contract as of Monday was for $5,000 with Snyder Pickerill Media Group, which created the videos for Ige’s TV ad campaign before the primary.
Milner, the political expert, said strategically, it’s as good a time as any for Tupola to run.
“Most candidates that run for an office like that are pretty optimistic,” he said. “Why the hell not?”
Tupola is set on a less costly grassroots and social media strategy and recently went to the mainland in search of more funding.
She planned to wave campaign signs along roads on Maui, Kauai, Oahu and Hawaii island on Monday. She has community rallies planned later this month around the state and more fundraisers in the works.
Tupola also planned to hop off more high places. She said her daughter’s birthday request last week was to jump off Waimea Rock.
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