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.

The former state representative’s success is a good reminder that you don’t need to be a proud extrovert to run for office.

Former state Rep. Marilyn Lee’s formative years were marked by extraordinary social change. From the rising Civil Rights Movement to a growing awareness of gender inequality, American politics were ripe with potential, and Lee was watching closely.

So it’s no surprise that her lifetime of public service as a nurse and active community leader eventually led her to public office. She’s loved politics since she was a teenager.

Growing up in Mililani, I knew Lee and her husband, Sam Lee, as our town’s royalty. Sam, who preceded his wife in the House from 1986 to 1996, sponsored my softball team when I was in the sixth grade. The bright yellow jersey emblazoned with his logo and our cringeworthy team name, “Special Spice,” is still sitting in my childhood closet.

Marilyn Lee replaced Sam in 1996 and served until 2012, when I defeated her in a result few would have predicted. In fact, when Republicans first approached me about the seat in 2010, I laughed in response. Lee was an institution. It was impossible.

That year, I ran in a neighboring district and lost. At the time, I didn’t intend to try again, particularly when my house was redistricted into Lee’s constituency. But, in May 2012, I decided it was worth risking another loss for the chance to serve in the Legislature, and I filed my candidacy paperwork just days before the deadline.

Our history is complicated, to say the least.

Lee and I faced off in three general elections. She and her long-time supporters were rightfully wary when I switched parties five years after our first contest. Then, when the Democratic Party hired me to run their 2018 coordinated campaign, we targeted her district with a mailer to support her House race, and, hopefully, I rebuilt a little bit of trust.

Hawaii State Womens Legislative Caucus breakfast held at the YWCA.
As a lawmaker, Lee lists her proudest accomplishments as her work with the Hawaii Women’s Legislative Caucus and her influence on key legislation. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018)

Despite our on-then-off rivalry, I always respected Lee’s conscientious service and passion for women’s empowerment. After 16 years in the House, she’s developed valuable insights into political candidacy and legislative processes.

So, she was high on my list for the first of what I hope will be a series that chronicles lessons from Hawaii’s women leaders.

As a lawmaker, Lee lists her proudest accomplishments as her work with the Hawaii Women’s Legislative Caucus and her influence on key legislation, including a bill to make it illegal to leave a small child alone in a parked car. But her advocacy work wasn’t always easy. To this day, she can clearly remember her knees shaking as she gave her first speech on the House floor. 

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A self-described “rather shy person,” Lee says she developed many of her political and social skills on the job. Her success is a good reminder that you don’t need to be a proud extrovert to run for office. In my experience, politicians with atypical backgrounds often have the most to offer. Lee believes her work as a nurse taught her to listen well and find points of connection, particularly on health issues. 

If Marilyn Lee was running the hearing, it would end on time because she and Sam ate dinner together every night.

That sense of empathy is evident in the lessons she has to share with those interested in getting involved. Staying in touch with your community, keeping an open dialogue across parties and developing personal relationships are among her top recommendations. As an Olelo Community Media host, she found that interviewing new colleagues was a good way to break the ice.

While building relationships is key, maintaining them is more important and more difficult. Money in politics, which Marilyn says is one of the greatest challenges to democracy, requires politicians to form relationships with donors whom you sometimes need to disappoint if you want to maintain your independence and follow your conscience. The same is true of constituents, advocates and other legislators, because you can’t agree with everyone all the time.

Democratic nominee for House District 38 Marilyn Lee smiles at the camera.
Marilyn Lee says prioritizing dinner with her family helped to keep her balanced,. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022)

In Lee’s career, she says she navigated tricky issues by following the “cardinal rule” at the Legislature, which is to “keep your word.” Lee, who lists honesty, loyalty and sincerity among her closely held principles, says she tried hard to be compliant with that rule. If she needed to diverge from a commitment, she maintained her relationships by speaking to the person in advance.

In my own career, I’ve learned many of these lessons too. But Lee mentioned one that I never successfully achieved as a legislator – retaining a sense of balance. 

For me, serving in the House felt all-consuming, and my work spilled into every other aspect of my life. Whenever I started to think it was an unavoidable consequence of the job, I would remember the tip I was given when I was just a temporary session analyst tucked away in the corner of Finance Committee hearings watching Lee speed through agendas. If she was running the hearing, it would end on time because she and Sam ate dinner together every night.

Lee confirmed that she and Sam tried to have their evening meals together ever since they were married. Though she couldn’t always make it home in time, he would have dinner ready when she returned late. Prioritizing dinner with her family helped to keep her balanced, as did maintaining community relationships, keeping up with her garden and working as a nurse on weekends. 

As someone who failed epically at balancing my own life in my early-30s, I know how hard it must have been for Lee to maintain her own sense of balance. These may seem like simple tips, but they can feel impossible to enact when you’re being pulled in multiple directions, fighting for influence and knowing that you might miss an important late-night discussion if you leave the Capitol at a reasonable hour.

Anyone entering political life would do well to learn from her example.


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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)

Reading this, and the example of Marilyn Lee, I’m reminded of some counsel I once received: the most important work we can do occurs at home with and for the ones we love.

Dayle_Turner · 1 month ago

"honesty, loyalty and sincerity" Sadly these principles seem to have been lost among some current political leaders who have succumbed to pressures in their efforts to gain political clout. ‘Politics’ appears to have degenerated from public service to self-service and has become a difficult career to pursue. Those who hang in there with similar principles deserve the continued support of their constituents. Others not so much. Vote wisely.

cbyay · 1 month ago

Asa legislative staffer, I had the opportunity to observe many legislators to see how they acted when they were not posing for the cameras. I remember one year when there was a bake sale at the capital, with each office donating something. Marilyn Lee herself brought brownies to the check-in table, and the newbie staffer there chirped "and whose office is this from?" Rep Lee paused, and then, instead of shaming, the staffer, merely said "these are from Marilyn Lee’s office." I admired her class in not having to trumpet who she was and embarrassing the new staff.

CBsupporter · 1 month ago

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