Hawaii Republicans will be losing a valuable stateswoman with an announcement last week by Rep. Cynthia Thielen that she will not seek re-election in 2020.

Having served three decades in the Hawaii House of Representatives, the 86-year-old Thielen will be retiring with the distinction of being one of the most bipartisan members of the Republican minority. She championed issues that at times drew ire from conservatives and liberals alike, but were vital to moving forward modern discussions on the environment, public health, hemp, gender equality and education.

In 2006, when Thielen was called to replace Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jerry Coffee in a race against Sen. Daniel Akaka, she stepped into the role of federal candidate with adroit elegance, ignoring brow-beating critics and standing tall despite being dismissed as a long-shot against the popular Democrat incumbent.

Left, Senator Laura Thielen and mom, Rep Cynthia Thielen before Gov. Ige's State of the State address.
Retiring Rep. Cynthia Thielen, right, who served three decades in the Legislature, and her daughter, Sen. Laura Thielen, before Gov. David Ige’s State of the State address in 2018. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Though Akaka won re-election that year, it in no way diminished Thielen’s political star, making her seem all the more seasoned as a Hawaii Republican in a tiny House minority.

In state House committees, other minority caucus legislators sometimes acted like voting was a chore and would show up looking like they’d rather be somewhere else, often knee-jerk voting “no” at best and indifferently voting “yes with reservations” at worst, not fully considering the matter at hand.

By contrast, Thielen had a commanding presence that seemed to declare “the Republicans have arrived” when she would enter hearings with a here-to-work expression on her face.

One could tell she thought carefully about both her votes and her voters when she was making decisions on the floor of the House.

As a moderating influence within her party, which stalwart bipartisans like her may have felt was moving in the wrong direction with the election of Donald Trump, Thielen opposed the dethroning of Republican Minority Leader Beth Fukumoto in 2017 after the firebrand representative chose to participate in the Women’s March in Honolulu.

Her floor speech opposing the leadership change characterized Fukumoto as someone Thielen “deeply, deeply respect(ed)” and “the face of Republicanism as it should be, but it won’t be, anymore.”

In her own family, the Kailua legislator unabashedly supported the 2012 Democratic candidacy of her daughter Laura Thielen — formerly GOP Gov. Linda Lingle’s pick to lead the Department of Land and Natural Resources — who would go on in Senate District 25 to defeat Republican Sen. Fred Hemmings in a blowout victory.

A  Stateswoman In Action

I first met Thielen in 2006 when I was a Democratic committee clerk for Rep. Alex Sonson, and was immediately impressed by her legislative style. Though Thielen’s bill introductions always had a bold, activist streak in their written word, in person she was a calm, discerning listener, not prone to interrupting others, and often picking up on granular policy details that were easily overlooked by colleagues. No matter what party one worked for, Thielen treated everyone with respect and courtesy.

Even when agitated by those across the aisle, Thielen had a habit of smiling while voicing her disagreement, never taking legislative matters personally and leaving the sense that she was approachable.

In 2007, when Rep. Rida Cabanilla appointed me to be her committee clerk for International Affairs, Thielen became our Capitol next-door neighbor on the fourth floor, making her the first Republican to see our pre-introduction bills on a signature collection run.

One could tell she thought carefully about both her votes and her voters when she was making decisions on the floor of the House.

In typical Thielen diplomacy, she would sometimes emerge from her inner office after a brief read-over to personally hand bills back to the majority staffer requesting her signature, smiling as she might politely explain, “I’m sorry I can’t sign this, but thank you so much for thinking of me.”

Later, when I became a Republican analyst for House Minority Research in 2010, Thielen was one of the best representatives to work with, both in one-on-one settings and in caucus meetings, always taking the initiative, always keeping herself informed on policies, never asking researchers to do anything she herself was not prepared to do.

This was not a career legislator on life support.

In rare instances where Thielen would request  a written floor speech, she had an uncanny ability to deliver a knockout address that maintained precise message discipline, never drifting off into extemporaneous tangents or adding unnecessary commentary as some legislators were prone to do.

During elections, Thielen was willing to go the extra mile to mentor up-and-coming Republicans, even going so far as to take candidates door-to-door with her as a walking endorsement. In times when parties often overlook lesser known, underfunded candidates, Thielen gave everyone a big helping hand. When I managed Republican Senate District 24 candidate Tracy Bean’s unsuccessful campaign, Thielen graciously walked with us, turning every encounter into an amazing lesson in constituent relations.

Without going into the nuances of platforms or policies or individual candidate personalities, Thielen would simply smile, come straight to the point, and confidently say to residents, “She’s the one. Vote for her.” Many of them did, just on trust alone.

There may be Republicans who decry Thielen as too moderate, even too liberal on some issues.

But as President Ronald Reagan famously scolded his staff, “The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally, not a 20 percent traitor.”

In Thielen’s case, she is 100% a leader and a role model for young Republicans to follow.

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