The minority caucus agrees it needs more members to get things done, but there is disagreement on how to get there.

It’s more than midway through the legislative session and Hawaii’s Republican lawmakers find themselves in a familiar spot: not many of their bills have advanced. 

In the Senate, only five bills introduced by GOP lawmakers still have momentum; in the House, that number is three.

In large part, this is because Republicans lack the critical mass necessary to effect change on their own — the 51-member House has only six Republicans and the 25-member Senate has only two. Since statehood, only one Republican, Linda Lingle, has occupied the governor’s office.

“We can’t kill anything or pass anything,” said Rep. Diamond Garcia, a first-term legislator and the chair of the Hawaii Republican Party. “And so we’re using our platform – our ability to speak on the floor – to voice our conservative principles.”

House GOP Caucus presser Jan 19, 2023
From left: Republican Reps. David Alcos III, Kanani Souza, Lauren Matsumoto, Elijah Pierick, Diamond Garcia and Gene Ward at the Capitol Rotunda. (Chad Blair/Civil Beat/2023)

While Hawaii’s perennially challenged Republicans used to issue press releases that they hoped the media would pick up, Instagram and other social media have changed the game with instantaneous posting and easy sharing so that even people who don’t follow party members can be exposed to their ideas.

But this same technology also helps import mainland culture war issues to the islands.

“Now with social media, we can’t really divorce from any part of the world,” said Rep. Gene Ward, who was first elected to office in 1990 and is the most senior elected Republican in the state.

Stirring The Pot

Garcia is perhaps a special case. His style is more vocal than that of most legislators, honed through his previous life in the ministry and the speaking engagements that came with that. During floor sessions, he and fellow freshman Rep. Elijah Pierick often stand and voice their opposition to bills that they believe would negatively impact education or state spending. 

Garcia, for example, has railed against transexual participation in sports and sexual education in schools, which he argues occurs too early and without enough parental involvement. 

He contends that this method of stirring the pot and being vocal has empirically boosted the party’s membership numbers. 

And more members means more legislators elected, which means a future in which the Hawaii Republican Party can actually get things done without being squashed by the Democrats’ juggernaut, he added.

“Prior to 2020, you might get maybe, I don’t know, 25 new members a month,” said Garcia. “These last few months, I mean, we see 75 to 80 on average.”

But while party members seem to agree on the end goal, not all of them agree that the current approach is best.

Rep. Kanani Souza, who considers herself a moderately conservative Republican, sees inaccuracies in these floor speeches. Referring to Garcia’s outspokenness, she said, “he’s trying to raise his profile by being disagreeable.”

She cited misrepresentations about critical race theory and medically assisted suicide and expressed concern that heightened rhetoric will harm the party’s overall standing in the Aloha State.

“You need credibility at the Legislature,” said Souza.

Few Bills Survive

In preparation for the 2023 Legislature, GOP House caucus members listed their priorities as government reform, bringing down the cost of living, creating more affordable housing, getting tougher on crime while enhancing pathways to rehabilitation and strengthening personal rights.

While those include some overlap with the Democrats, Republican measures that have so far survived include Sen. Kurt Fevella’s Senate Bill 262 appropriating funds to support medical residency programs at state teaching hospitals, as well as his Senate Bill 733 to conduct a feasibility study regarding establishing a Native Hawaiian cultural center.

On the House side, Rep. Lauren Matsumoto’s House Bill 1145 to require universal changing accommodations in public accommodations and state building construction is still moving, as is her House Bill 942 that would require schools to implement critical emergency response teams.

House lawmakers react to Rep. Elijah Pierce saying that critical race theory is racism against white people. Rep. Kanani Souza, front left, looks towards Rep. Diamond Garcia, who backed Pierick. Rep. Sean Quinlan, back left, reacts visibly confused. (Screenshot/Hawaii House of Representatives/2023)

Souza’s House Bill 1231, which would include business property damage as a criminal property damage misdemeanor in the third degree, also has advanced.

But Republican initiatives like Matsumoto’s bill implementing a local housing market have stalled, as have multiple bills from lawmakers like Sen. Brenton Awa and Rep. David Alcos that would pose constitutional amendments to the voters on whether board of education members should be elected by voters rather than appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate.

This bottom-up approach to how schools are run — where parents have more discretion over the content their children learn — is something that Garcia has been pushing, especially with regards to sexual education. He’s betting this issue will resonate with families who share his conservative opinions on how children should be taught.

During a floor session on March 2, Garcia and Pierick stood to vote against House Bill 877, which would establish a new institute dedicated to restoration and healing at the University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson School of Law.

“My understanding is that this bill would promote critical race theory, which is basically racism against white people,” Pierick said on the floor, with Garcia joining his no vote.

Crossing Party Lines

After a couple of Democrats stood to rebut Pierick, Souza did too, expressing strong support for the bill and finishing her thoughts with a general note against “sensationalizing the law on the floor, and overgeneralization of the law.”

Matsumoto, the newly minted minority leader, dismissed concerns about internal divisions.

“Our Republican caucus is the most cohesive, unified caucus that I’ve seen in my time in the Legislature,” Matsumoto said.

“Every person gets elected in their own right and they can make the decision that they feel is best for their community,” said Matsumoto. “And I mean, that’s really what we’re all here to do.”

It’s not a new dynamic, Matusmoto said, referencing former Rep. Cynthia Thielen, another more independently minded Republican who a few months ago was on the verge of being booted from the party.

“You need credibility at the Legislature.”

Rep. Kanani Souza

Ward thinks that part of the split has to do with new legislators like Souza having to find their footing. 

“As a freshman, you’re still kind of feeling your way out. So, she’ll probably come around,” he said. 

But Souza feels like the dynamic between her and her fellow House Republicans is good right now. She feels comfortable on her own, and even rejected help from the party while campaigning last year. 

It was a hectic election season, with Republicans more than doubling their number of candidates compared to recent cycles. This was the result of intentional recruitment by then-Chair Lynn Finnegan, an effort that Garcia wants to keep up now that he’s chair.

He’s hoping that his appeals on the floor help with this. 

“If the people of Hawaii will hear us and see us, they will agree with us,” he said. “And it’s been working. So next election, do expect us to win a bunch of more seats.”

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