If Rep. Elijah Cummings had his way, the passing of this giant of Congress would lead to a rising.

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In a commencement address delivered at Morgan State University just five months earlier in May 2019, he had reminded the class of graduating students of the urgent need to be engaged if they wanted to continue to enjoy the freedoms and rights of a democracy.

“I beg you to go out and stand up for this democracy,” said Cummings.

He recalled what Benjamin Franklin said when asked, after the first national Constitutional Convention in 1787, if the framers had proposed a republic or a monarchy. Franklin’s response?

“A republic — if you can keep it.”

At a time of repeated attacks on the institutions of democracy in this country, by enemies both domestic and foreign, Cummings reminded his audience that “we must once again assert the full measure of our citizenship.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings, shown here speaking at a conference in Washington, D.C. in 2017, would probably be pleased with heightened political activism in the islands. 

Trying to decipher his mother’s last words to him as she lay dying after a stroke, he realized she was pointing to a traditional ballot next to her bed and was trying to say: “Do not let them take away your right to vote.”

I think this good man would be pleased to see the awakening across the Hawaiian Islands by people who may not have engaged fully in the civic square before. The mobilization of ordinary people who are tired of being trumped by corporate interests must fill us with hope for a better future in these dark times.

It augurs well for the health of a democracy under siege. In Hawaii, that democracy is short on stalwart champions in the corridors of power where corporate lobbyists wield way more clout than low income, rural voters, many of them native Hawaiian.

Getting Everyone Engaged Early

People who are struggling to keep body and soul together with two or more jobs in a state where we still do not have a living wage or gender wage parity or paid family leave do not want to spend their time in protests and marches and camping in the cold.

They do that when their elected leaders fail them. They do that when their voices are not heard. They do that when their needs go unmet. They do that when money trumps the environment or the lives and safety and health of ordinary people.

People are starved for authenticity.

They do that when their children’s future is in peril. They do that when promises prove hollow and ordinary people get short shrift. They see corporations, another kind of “people,” operate on a higher register. They appear to have voices that carry further and are able to penetrate the fog of government bureaucracy with the help of well-placed contributions to our elected officials.

Corporate executives do not zip tie themselves to other corporate executives to make their views prevail. They take out their checkbooks. Corporate executives do not place their bodies in the middle of the street to obstruct unwelcome construction vehicles. They take out their checkbooks.

Corporations do not spend cold nights on a mountain. They fight their battles with the help of expensive lawyers in air-conditioned courtrooms. Rather than follow the will of the people, some politicians — Mayor Michael Victorino comes to mind — appear inspired by corporate behavior to appeal to the courts for a judgment that might be better suited to their purposes — or their patrons.

People have had enough. And it is reflected in the fact that many are stepping up to run for office because they are tired of seeing elected “representatives” fail to represent the best interests of the community.

They include leaders like Oahu teacher, Amy Perruso, and Maui businesswoman, Tina Wildberger, both new additions to the state legislature. Three others — Shane Sinenci, Tamara Paltin, and Keani Rawlins-Fernandez — got elected to the Maui County Council. Rawlins-Fernandez, a lawyer from Molokai also assumed the duties of the vice chair for the Council. All are graduates of  Kuleana Academy, an initiative of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action.

The neighborhood boards on Oahu gained at least seven Kuleana Academy graduates. Already these newly elected leaders have dived into issues like pesticide regulation, the need for a living wage, and protection of the environment. Their goal is clear: to serve the greater good.

Public Policies Should Reflect Values

People are starved for authenticity. They want the simple — but so far elusive — justice of a living wage. They want everyone to be encouraged to vote to ensure better representation of the community.

They wonder how something as potentially helpful to improving civic engagement as automatic voter registration could sail through several committees with virtually no opposition — yet fail inexplicably at the end.

Heidi Low, who has started Eye on Kauai to track issues on the Garden Isle, laid out the benefits of AVR, obvious to her, less so to our legislators apparently, in a recent published commentary. The desire to be heard, really heard, is palpable across the islands.

Hope is hard to come by these days. But again, Rep. Elijah Cummings, invoking Martin Luther King Jr., reminds us that “our nation’s darkest hours have been just before the dawn.”

I believe that we are seeing leaders, some surprising themselves, rise from the community, who are helping to usher in that dawn. We owe it to each other to help them do that in defense of our wounded democracy. Rep. Elijah Cummings would surely bless that effort.

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