About the Author

Beth Fukumoto

Beth Fukumoto served three terms in the Hawaii House of Representatives. She was the youngest woman in the U.S. to lead a major party in a legislature, the first elected Republican to switch parties after Donald Trump’s election, and a Democratic congressional candidate. Currently, she works as a political commentator and teaches leadership and ethics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach her by email at bfukumoto@civilbeat.org.

Even rivals unite as the promise of making Hawaii a better place prevails.

Opening day at the Hawaii Legislature is infused with hope, determination, and anticipation. It’s like the first day of school for grown-ups, but instead of backpacks and lunchboxes, legislators are armed with bills, agendas and a hefty dose of political ambition.

No one can convey the mix of hope, determination and anticipation that permeates the start of the Legislature as well as a new lawmaker.

When asked to describe her inaugural opening day, Rep. Trish La Chica said her office was “buzzing with energy” and listed a slate of policy goals for the next 60 legislative days. La Chica, who was appointed in February to replace longtime Mililani Rep. Ryan Yamane, will experience her first full session this year. And, as she points out, “It will be our first opportunity to deliver on issues that directly impact the district.”

Opening day takes place each year on the third Wednesday of January as mandated by the Hawaii State Constitution. For elected officials and advocates alike, it’s an opportunity to make progress on new priorities or resurrect bills that didn’t make it through last year’s session.

But what do legislators do on opening day? For me, it was a sampling of each of my legislative duties added to a concoction of ceremonial pomp, cultural expectations and image calculations.

My office started planning for opening day a week in advance, and each item on our checklist came with a list of considerations. First, we had to order the food we’d serve visitors after the ceremonies on the House floor.

According to my dad, food represents significantly more than calories and ingredients. It tells people who you are and how you feel about them. We needed hot food that should, at least, include fried noodles and protein. Mochiko chicken was our go-to favorite. Of course, we also needed chichi dango lest someone forget I’m half-Japanese. As our family’s one and only chichi dango supplier, Nisshodo Candy Store was the only exception we made to our district-only food rule.

Next, we had to choose a flower arrangement and lei. In a bad economy, adorning your floor desk with flowers was frowned upon. But, in good years, an empty desk stood out in a chamber filled with large, expensive flower arrangements. One year, to split the difference, I made paper flowers from a copy of “Anna Karenina” which, on reflection, was an overly broody book choice.

Choosing a lei was always an ordeal. Was pikake too expensive? Would a ginger lei flip over while I made my speech? Should we get more lei in case no one else gives me one? Like a high school graduation, multiple lei show you have friends.

And, as the minority leader, I also needed to deliver a speech. To my staff’s chagrin, I tended to write the speech less than 48 hours in advance, and I was still making changes the morning of the session. An opening day speech sets the caucus’ agenda. Its tone reveals how you plan to accomplish that agenda. Will you be bipartisan or oppositional? I kept it cordial.

The House of Representatives Sonny Ganaden greets a colleague before opening day of the legislative session Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024, in Honolulu. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2024)
Rep. Sonny Ganaden greets a colleague before opening day of the legislative session. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2024)

Two photos provide an excellent representation of my opening day experience. In the first, I’m sitting at my office desk curling my hair while practicing my speech. The other shows me sipping Ensure as I make my way to the House floor because it seemed then that eating a full meal took time I didn’t have.

As a legislative leader in my early 30s, I needed to look serious yet fun, intelligent yet approachable, and attractive but not too attractive, which took a lot of preparation. Meeting this ridiculous double standard seemed even more important with more experienced men leading the opposition. I hope I would be less compliant today.

Delivering speeches always lifted my spirits even though I never fully rid myself of nerves. Despite the rushed wordsmithing and inadequate practice, I was proud of what my office and I managed to deliver. Of course, as an introvert, standing up in front of a chamber filled with dignitaries and mingling with them afterwards took most of my energy. So it took sheer will to return to my office where members of the public would circulate for hours.

Although I consider myself an awkward socializer, I was always thankful for the people who stopped in to wish me luck during the session. Familiar faces eased the fear that no one would show up. And new faces suggested that I was either gaining in legislative influence or, at least, chose food that people wanted to eat.

Regardless of the reason, a full office was a relief. No one wants to look out the door and realize the lobbyists and other well-wishers visited everyone but you. The first session that the governor showed up in my office to say hi, I knew that I’d finally made it past the “just another Republican” stage of my career.

Despite the politics, stress, and insecurities that abounded on opening day, I was always just as excited as the first day I stepped into the Capitol. It was a reminder of the responsibility my Mililani district entrusted to me and another chance to make their voices heard.

Opening day was also an opportunity for legislators, despite our differing ideologies, to renew our shared bond – our commitment to a better Hawaii – that unites even the fiercest rivals.


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About the Author

Beth Fukumoto

Beth Fukumoto served three terms in the Hawaii House of Representatives. She was the youngest woman in the U.S. to lead a major party in a legislature, the first elected Republican to switch parties after Donald Trump’s election, and a Democratic congressional candidate. Currently, she works as a political commentator and teaches leadership and ethics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach her by email at bfukumoto@civilbeat.org.


Latest Comments (0)

Perhaps the best grasped idea regarding the futility of political power & counter-productive state of being popular is found in Luke 6:26 of the good book.Anyway, I don't know if intent or motive & such really matters or if we get "points" for trying, but anyway it's a start - of sorts.... but suspect the first "deals" have been done before the first fist gavel

TipoListo · 1 month ago

Food and Flowers! And then it's all downhill to maintain the Status Quo. Wash, Rinse, Repeat.

smedleybutler · 1 month ago

And no leis, sadly, mark the unadorned as "losers." Though I’ve always appreciated receiving congratulatory and celebratory lei, I also had to learn to be okay with myself for those (many) times I didn’t.

Dayle_Turner · 1 month ago

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