Twenty years ago the North and South Kona communities were mostly represented by Republicans, or by Democrats who had switched over from the GOP. To hear former state Rep. Jim Rath tell it, the story of how Kona flipped to complete control by the Democrats is a subtle tale of the power of reapportionment.
Rath, a Republican who represented Kona in the state House, traces his personal political demise to the reapportionment of 2001. That year the rapidly growing population on the west side of Hawaii County was awarded an extra state House seat, prompting an overhaul of the district maps there.
The town of Kailua-Kona was the bedrock of Rath’s political support, but the 2001 reapportionment commission drew new district maps that placed Rath’s home just outside the border of the newly created District 6, which included the largely Republican Kailua village.
Rath, a well-known politician who had also served on the Hawaii County Council, landed inside an adjoining district that included parts of Waimea about 30 miles away. The neighborhoods in Rath’s new district leaned more toward the Democrats, and were populated by people Rath had never represented.
“They knew that I wasn’t going to win that seat — the Democrats — when they did it,” Rath said, recalling his efforts to connect with his new community. “Basically, you’re seeing all new people. It’s not like it’s where you live. The issues, the concerns of the citizens up there are not the same as the concerns of the citizens of Kailua.”
To most people the reapportionment process that is playing out again this year is an obscure exercise that is quickly forgotten. But reapportionment is vital and fascinating to political insiders because it can make them, or break them. Some bitterly remember decisions from decades ago, and they are watching the process closely this year.
Politicians are elected by neighborhoods, and neighborhoods often have distinct political leanings. Those leanings may be driven by the history of who settles in particular areas to be close to kin or specific types of jobs, or factors such as housing availability and prices.
The U.S. Census spits out new neighborhood population counts every 10 years, and the maps of each congressional district along with county councils and state House and Senate districts are then redrawn each decade based on the new head counts.
Redrawing the boundaries is done to ensure each district has approximately the same population so that every resident gets equal representation. That sounds like simple arithmetic, but becomes fantastically complex when specific politicians and their relationships to the neighborhoods are added to the mix.
Dylan Nonaka, a Republican who has served on the reapportionment commissions in 2011 and this year, said the process is fundamentally political. After all, eight of the nine members of the commission are appointed by the speaker of the House, the Senate president and the minority leaders in the House and Senate.
“That’s crazy to me that people think it’s going to be this non-political, objective process,” Nonaka said. “That’s impossible.”
As just one example, Nonaka cited the way the lines were redrawn in urban Honolulu in 2011 to put Democratic Reps. Scott Saiki and Scott Nishimoto into the same district representing McCully, Moiliili and Kapahulu.
At the time, Saiki was part of a group of dissidents in the House that opposed longtime House Speaker Calvin Say, and many observers believe Say shaped the outcome to take a swipe at a rival.
But Say insists he did not engineer that shift in the boundaries, and said putting Saiki and Nishimoto in the same district was simply a function of population shifts and where they lived. According to Say, his only instructions to the reapportionment commissioners he appointed were that they should “take care of Democrats.”
Saiki opted to move from the Moiliili area to Kakaako after the lines were redrawn that year, which allowed him to avoid a primary contest with Nishimoto. Saiki’s House faction then removed Say as speaker after the 2012 election, and Saiki still represents Kakaako.
In reapportionment parlance, what Rath describes in Kona in 2001 looks a lot like the tactic known as “packing,” or the practice of deliberately drawing district lines to consolidate the supporters of a particular party in a district.
That can be an effective political play. When the heavily Republican neighborhoods in Kailua-Kona were consolidated in the 2001 reapportionment, the voters in House District 3 elected freshman Republican Mark Jernigan by a wide margin in 2002.
But Rath — who was the more established Republican figure — was severed from much of his political base. Rath ran in the adjoining district, but lost the 2002 general election to Democrat Cindy Evans by 128 votes. The Democrats won two of the three newly drawn Kona districts that year.
Rath was effectively sidelined from the Legislature by that loss in 2002, and in the following election cycle an energetic young Democrat and physician named Josh Green, now the lieutenant governor, defeated Jernigan in House District 3 that includes Kailua-Kona. The Democrats have held all three of those West Hawaii state House seats ever since.
Hawaii Republicans held 18 seats in the state House in 2000, and Rath contends reapportionment has had a significant role in whittling that down to just four GOP House members today.
Former U.S. Rep. Charles Djou, another Republican, got a taste of the power of reapportionment that same year.
Djou was representing District 47 in Windward Oahu in the state House in 2001 when the 2001 reapportionment commission chopped his district up into four pieces, and created a new district in Leeward Oahu.
Two of the areas Djou represented were grafted onto a district held by Republican Rep. Colleen Meyer. Another chunk was attached to the district of Republican Rep. David Pendleton. The fourth and smallest piece was merged with the district of Rep. Ken Ito, an established Democrat.
Djou acknowledges Oahu’s population had shifted from 1990 to 2000 in ways that justified eliminating a Windward Oahu House seat and adding a new seat in the Ewa area, but said the new maps smelled of party politics.
“I was an up-and-coming, young, Republican state House member, so I’m sure there was an axe to grind with me, and that contributed to my district getting carved up the way it got carved up,” he said. Djou was forced to adjust his sights and made a successful run for the Honolulu City Council in 2002.
Today all of the Windward Oahu House districts are held by Democrats, and Djou says the Hawaii Republican Party has been decimated. Only four of the 51 state House seats and one of the 25 state Senate seats are held by Republicans.
Djou, who has quit the Republican Party himself, said GOP losses have changed the nature of the reapportionment struggle. Partisanship often drives the process in other states, but party is not a great factor in reapportionment here “because of the one-party monopoly,” he said.
“I think this time around, rather than partisan, it’s personal,” Djou said. “It’s very much individual legislators — who’s in favor, and who’s not.”
The basic arithmetic driving reapportionment this year is rapid population growth in West Oahu, including Ewa and Kapolei, while the population in the East Honolulu and Windward Oahu districts have declined or stagnated.
In the shuffle to adjust the maps so that each House district has about 27,000 residents, a number of districts in urban Honolulu need to expand, and one House district in East Honolulu will likely be moved to West Oahu.
Observers say there probably won’t be great changes in the state Senate districts, but the big loser in the redrawing of the East Honolulu House districts will likely be Democratic state Rep. Bert Kobayashi, who now represents District 19, including Waialae, Kahala, Diamond Head, Kaimuki and Kapahulu.
According to sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because they fear political retribution, new draft maps scheduled to be unveiled this week would divide up Kobayashi’s territory in District 19, and parcel out those neighborhoods among the surrounding House districts.
Kobayashi declined to say if he had heard such a proposal is in the works, but said he has not been watching the reapportionment process closely this year.
He said the population shifts on Oahu dictate some districts will need to expand and others will contract, and “given that, (identifying) which districts will disappear is a bit speculative.” Kobayashi said he has “no plans to retire” from the House.
In another proposed shift with political implications, sources who asked not to be identified said the draft maps would adjust the boundaries in the Ewa area now represented by state Rep. Matt LoPresti to put LoPresti into a new district with state Rep. Sharon Har, who lives in Kapolei.
Both LoPresti and Har are Democrats, but each has had differences with House Speaker Scott Saiki. As House speaker, Saiki appointed two members of the reapportionment commission redrawing the House and Senate district maps, and he is positioned to have influence over the final product.
Har was a committed supporter of former House Speaker Calvin Say until Say was overthrown almost a decade ago, and Har has been estranged from the new House leadership for years.
LoPresti is the outspoken founder of the Progressive Legislative Caucus, which some observers believe might one day pose a threat to Saiki’s control of the House. The left-leaning, self-described “progressives” are still a minority at the Legislature, but the group is organized and apparently growing.
When asked if he is being placed in a district with Har, LoPresti replied, “That would be news to me.”
Given the growing population in his Ewa Beach district, “I honestly don’t see how it could rationally make sense” to expand his district to include Har’s home in Kapolei, he said. But he added: “If they wanted to come at me, I guess they could do that.”
“The important thing is that we have proper representation that matches our population on the west side,” he said.
Har said she has not heard that she might be shifted into the same district as LoPresti. “We’ll just have to wait and see how the lines come out,” she said.
One of Saiki’s appointees to the reapportionment commission is Diane Ono, who sits on the four-member technical committee that actually moves the lines around to create the new districts.
Ono did not respond to a request for comment last week, but Republican commission member Dylan Nonaka said it is routine for the appointing lawmakers to convey their preferences for how the lines should be drawn to their appointees.
Saiki added to the reapportionment anxiety earlier this year when he instructed all House members to provide their current home addresses, ostensibly to update their emergency contact information. But Saiki then remarked in a closed-door Democratic caucus last month that the request for current addresses was related to reapportionment, sources said.
The specific addresses of sitting lawmakers are available to the reapportionment commissioners as they move the lines around, according to a source familiar with the process.
Saiki declined a request for an interview on reapportionment last week, but said in a written statement: “There are so many conflicting rumors about proposed changes. I want to wait until I see the map that the Reapportionment Commission will supposedly release next week.”
The commission is expected to release draft maps when it meets on Thursday, and will then hold a series of public meetings to accept community input.
The only House district in urban Honolulu that is expected to shrink geographically is Kakaako, where dense new high-rise developments increased the population there during the past decade. Several observers said the Kakaako district is expected to become more compact, and that shrinkage may be helpful to Saiki if he seeks reelection.
Not everyone agrees that the reapportionment process is steeped in politics. Kevin Rathbun, who was appointed to this year’s reapportionment commission by Republican Sen. Kurt Fevella, contends that the reapportionment rules are too rigid for much political shenanigans.
“I would tell you there is little to no political bearing when we do our work,” Rathbun said.
Nonaka warned that this year the “massive” shift in population into the Ewa and Kapolei areas dictates that a district must be deleted from the Honolulu urban core and moved to the Leeward area, which means many lines will be redrawn, and people will be unhappy.
Elected officials who are reapportioned into other lawmakers’ districts often gripe that the reapportionment process is driven by politics, Nonaka said, “but if our starting point is to protect you, isn’t that just as political?”
“No matter what, people are going to be pissed, and there’s nothing we can do about it,” he said.
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.