Cynthia Thielen: Hawaii’s ‘Eisenhower Republican’ On Ethics, Polarization And Dianne Feinstein - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Richard Wiens

Richard Wiens is an editor at large for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at

She served 30 years in the Legislature and might still be there if the state GOP caucus hadn’t alienated her.

Having recently joined the State Ethics Commission after a long legislative career, Cynthia Thielen is showing no signs of slowing down at age 90. In an interview with Civl Beat that was edited for length and clarity, she talks about her lifelong friendship with the late California senator and how it demonstrated the sort of bipartisanship that is desperately needed these days.

First of all, our condolences regarding the death of your longtime friend and former college roommate, Dianne Feinstein.

You know, it was interesting. It really hit me hard. And I think it’s because it was maybe just three or four years ago that we were together and talking about our memories back in her office in Washington, D.C. And we had kept in touch through the years.

It was a very helpful, wonderful relationship of friends. And we rarely talked politics. It was mostly just personal things. But we did support each other at times, even financial donations.

Former college roommates Cynthia Thielen and Dianne Feinstein at Feinstein’s U.S. Senate office in 2016 or 2017. (Courtesy: Cynthia Thielen)

What do you remember about being her roommate at Stanford?

I’ve been thinking about back in my freshman year at Stanford when we were roommates in Roble Hall. She kind of stood out even back then.

She befriended Stanford’s first recruited black basketball player. His name was Eddie Tucker. And that was when most other students just kept their distance, and she didn’t. She reached out and befriended him. I thought that was really great.

Remember, you have to put that in perspective. That was in the early 1950s. It wasn’t a very diverse campus population back then.

What kind of stuff did freshmen women at Stanford do for fun back in the early ’50s?

Well, we had curfews for one thing. We had a dorm mistress sitting in the lobby, perfect for stopping any boys from going further than the lobby and then making sure to check in all the residents, all the girls. I think our deadline was 10 o’clock on weeknights.

Cynthia Thielen at Stanford in the 1950s. (Cynthia Thielen photo)

We just got about our studies and worked hard. I think we both kind of got involved with the student government, not really running for office. I remember I volunteered at the Stanford Daily and that was my time with the newspaper and the press. And we were just active and studying because, boy, that was important.

She was really sweet. She invited me up to her house for Thanksgiving, which was really thoughtful because at that point I lived in Los Angeles and I wasn’t going to go back home for that.

How close of contact did you keep with her over the years?

I really had a bit of a 20-year hiatus. I dropped out of Stanford after my first year, briefly went to UCLA and then married the love of my life, Mickey Thielen. I made a promise to my single mother that I would go back and finish college. So four children later and living in Hawaii, I went back to the University of Hawaii and then the UH Law School.

I took a summer class at the University of San Francisco School of Law. Dianne was not yet mayor, but we spent a little bit of time together when I was up there.

It never was a problem that I’m an Eisenhower Republican and she’s a Democrat.

And then there were other times we would connect, before the internet, before cell phones and all. You really had to work at it to make the connections. We did that, and once she was back in Congress and I was in the Legislature, I did go back to Washington, D.C., a number of times. Once to brief President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team about wave energy, nationally and internationally and here in Hawaii.

So anyway, all those times I would pop in and say hi and we would have a chance to just catch up on things. We sort of would pick up where we left off. We were friends. And I can remember from time to time, once the internet was up, she would do something that I felt was just excellent and would be getting a lot of flack for it. So I’d send her a supportive email and that would come up later.

I really respected her highly. And it never was a problem that I’m an Eisenhower Republican and she’s a Democrat. We acknowledged it, but that never was a problem. Because you can find common issues and common policy and work on those things together. And that was just fine.

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When you describe yourself as an Eisenhower Republican, does that go all the way back to your Stanford days?

It totally does. I joined the Republican Party when I was 17, I believe.

(President Dwight Eisenhower) focused on protecting our democracy and the public purse. And that basically says it for me, that the social and personal issues are up to individuals, government should not intervene. And that means women’s choices whether to terminate a pregnancy and men’s and women’s choices about who will be their lifelong partner.

You and Dianne Feinstein were both champions of women’s issues. Why do you think that was?

That’s really an easy question because we were second-class citizens in that era. I went to Stanford, and the goal was to become a teacher in case my future husband would lose his job, and I could teach and be able to help support the family.

There weren’t role models for feminism in the ’50s. It was so different then. And we were still reeling off of the end of World War II, where the veterans were given the first choice on getting into colleges, getting the jobs. I can still remember, “Stay home and raise a family. Give your job to a vet.”

So there weren’t role models. We were learning as we went along. When I applied to law school women were maybe around 22% in some schools, and less than that in others.

(Dianne) was doing the same thing that I was. We were moving ahead with what we felt we should be doing and then contributing to the society and actually to the world.

Cynthia Thielen and a fellow protester at the Women’s March in 2017 after the election of Donald Trump. (Courtesy: Cynthia Thielen/2017)

After the GOP primary winner dropped out, you were chosen at the last minute as Hawaii’s Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in 2006. Although you lost to the incumbent, Daniel Akaka, you could have ended up serving in the same chamber as your college roommate. What do you recall about that?

Oh, my race was a six-week race. That’s the best way to run for Senate.

I focused heavily on bringing wave energy to Hawaii. And that was my whole campaign platform. I spent all my time working hard to promote renewable energy, saying that I would be that voice in Congress. And at that point, we had a Republican president. So I said that I would have more access on these issues.

It went so fast — six weeks for a U.S. Senate race, which was probably crazy, but I loved it.

You decided not to run for reelection to the Legislature in 2020 when you were 86. Did your age have anything do with your decision?

Oh no way. It had absolutely nothing to do with my decision.

I had served from 1990 to 2020. What was really happening was that our GOP caucus was becoming much more of a fundamentalist organization. Any sort of mainstream or Eisenhower Republican feeling to it was really gone. I was the last one. And I’d been attacked by the caucus when I was supporting marriage equality.

You just had your 90th birthday. How do you feel about high-level politicians in their 80s still serving?

The whole difference is how the person’s body is functioning. I’m really lucky. I do mall walks, 2 miles and each mile of the “mountains” are 22 or 23 minutes. We’re not allowed to run in the mall. And then I do an hour of yoga a week. I do two days of tai chi. I do beach walks of a mile, usually, at a minimum.

All of those party leaders should be mandated to take ethics training periodically.

I really dislike it when people lump 80-year-olds or 90-year-olds together and say, “Oh you’re out of here, you’re history.” And I go, wait a minute, I’ve got a lot of information and experience that I think is still worthwhile. I believe I have a very ethical, independent streak that lets me stand up for what I feel is right.

How did you feel about Sen. Feinstein holding on to her Senate seat until the end?

My belief is that she held on to be the deciding vote on the Judiciary Committee to be able to approve President Biden’s judiciary picks. And I admire her immensely for that.

Physically her body was in pretty bad shape — not her mind. I believe she had the determination to hold on to be able to give those votes for mainstream judicial candidates. And for God’s sake, we need those, because we have a dismal Supreme Court. Unethical and dismal.

So by the same token then you don’t necessarily think that Biden or Trump or McConnell are necessarily aged out of consideration either?

I don’t know. I haven’t seen them operate. I can only speak to the people that I’ve seen operate. I’ve seen some people in the Legislature of much younger years who have kind of lost it.

So I just think you have to look on a case by case. There are too many people that can still be helping and providing and contributing.

Let’s switch gears. You were recently appointed to the state Ethics Commission. Why did you take that post at this point? What do you hope to accomplish?

“At this point?” Listen to you. You’re doing the same thing about age.


Why did I take that position? I sought the position because I feel that, unfortunately, so many people have really lost faith in our government. And that’s reflected in the very low, low number of people that actually cast a vote in the elections.

The government and the public really enter into a contract, and the contract is that the government will perform honestly and ethically, maybe not always what the public wants government to do, but they will be doing it in an ethical and a competent manner. Well, that’s not happening now. And it hasn’t been happening for maybe a number of years. So I wanted to participate and I wanted to help. And a lot of it is educating people.

In the House, there was some wonderful collegiality where we could join together.

I think one of the things that’s really important to do is to find a way that we can mandate ethics training for all of the political party officials. So you’ve got a head of the Democratic Party, a head of the GOP, a head of the Green Party. There may be some others out there qualified to be on the ballot.

All of those party leaders should be mandated to take ethics training periodically because sometimes they leave that off their agenda. And that really should be at the top of the agenda.

One of the first meetings since you joined the commission was a joint meeting with the members of all the county ethics commissions as well. As we’ve reported, those county bodies, especially on the neighbor islands, are grievously underfunded. What do you think about that?

Oh, absolutely. When you underfund their staffs, you restrict what an ethics commissioner can actually do. So by the lack of funding and the lack of staff, those ethics groups are restricted from really being able to apply research, to investigate and then to act.

I feel very fortunate that our state ethics commission has an excellent staff and we’re able to be quite active, as we need to be.

Rep Cynthia Thielen speaks in support of Hemp during floor session.
Rep. Cynthia Thielen speaking in support of the hemp industry during a House floor session. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

You were a state representative for 30 years, focusing on women’s issues and the environment in general and developing the hemp industry in particular. Would you say that you were generally treated with respect and fairness, even though you were a member of the minority party throughout your tenure?

Oh, yes. For the most part. That’s one of the things I liked, actually, was the collegiality in the House. Not in the Senate. I just never got the feeling that the Senate was collegial. But in the House, there was some wonderful collegiality where we could join together. I could get Democratic leadership sponsor signatures on a number of my bills.

On the hemp bills, of course, I had wonderful cross-the-aisle support on that. Many times, more than in my own caucus, where I had to go explain that hemp is not a drug. You could take a joint the size of a telephone pole and smoke it and wouldn’t even get high from the hemp. So that took a lot of education.

Anyway, the collegiality was great. Former Rep. Jerry Chang accepted my request and became a lead sponsor on the first House bill that established the Industrial Hemp Research Project and Gov. (Ben) Cayetano signed that into law. And Hawaii became the first state in the nation after a 50-year restriction to allow hemp again. And that happened in 1999.

There’s been a lot of talk about the need for reform in the Hawaii Legislature. What do you think would have been the best reforms that would have made the Legislature operate better when you were serving?

Well, first of all, let me tell you I totally oppose a year-round session, and my reason for that is that the citizens need a break from government. And if they have to deal with government in operation year-round, I think it would be pretty overwhelming. So the way it is now with the 60-day session is fine.

The centrist Republican Party that I knew, when Pat Saiki was in Congress and when we had other mainstream Republicans, that’s gone.

(Instead of) term limits, educate and encourage the voters to tie issues that they care about to that incumbent and then vote out those with whom they disagree. Don’t let the representatives and senators just have a free walk.

And some people would say, “Oh, that will never happen.” That’s not true. It’s already happened before.

What about more extensive public financing of campaigns?

I think that would help. But, you know, for the House, from my experience, what’s more important is going door to door. I walked the district. Even on the few occasions I didn’t have an opponent, I still walked. Let’s talk issues. And that doesn’t take money other than for walking shoes.

So I don’t think the public financing is the real key. What I think it is, is getting candidates that are willing and really eager to get out there and talk to all of the people they’re asking to be their constituents.

There was a recent effort to toss you out of the Republican Party for openly supporting a Democrat in the District 50 race. Why did you support Natalia Hussey-Burdick? 

Because Natalia’s opponent was was anti-choice and homophobic. And I couldn’t support an anti-choice, homophobic candidate for the House of Representatives or for any office.

They didn’t actually throw you out of the party, did they?

Not that I know of. I’ve gone through so many different (state party) chairs. But besides that, the centrist Republican Party that I knew, when Pat Saiki was in Congress and when we had other mainstream Republicans, that’s gone. Right now they seem to not remember the church and state are supposed to be separate.

It’s just a whole different thing with them now. It’s not good for America. It’s not good for our democracy. I am worried about it.

And that’s another reason for stepping up to be on the Ethics Commission, because I think we need voices and thinkers out there that are mainstream and not part of these evangelical or fundamentalist groups that have a different agenda. This is not the way that our government functioned all of these centuries.

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About the Author

Richard Wiens

Richard Wiens is an editor at large for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at

Latest Comments (0)

I am sorry that I missed her birthday party. It slipped my mind and I had a medical problem. So happy belated Birthday Cynthia. Enjoy your new adventures. I miss visiting you on opening day, and your quick response to my questions,

buds4fun · 1 month ago

Have spoken with her a number of times.We are very lucky to have someone like her.If her party had more like her, they would dominate Hawaii, instead.You go girl!

Civilbeet · 1 month ago

Cynthia makes a good point here. I hadn't thought about it before, but I actually am relieved when the legislature closes for the session in early May.

Natalie_Iwasa · 1 month ago

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