Two months after being ousted as the Hawaii House minority leader for her criticism of President Trump, State Representative Beth Fukumoto resigned from the Republican Party and joined the Democratic Party. In a state where Republicans control only six of the 51 seats in the State Legislature and 80 percent of elected officials are Democrats, Fukumoto’s departure leaves the Republican Party in Hawaii weaker than ever. But this one-party control of Hawaii comes as no surprise to Hawaiians, as the state has been consistently dominated by the Democratic Party since the mid-20th century.
The Democratic Party’s current reign in Hawaii stems from the strength of the labor movement in the 20th century, as well as the concerted efforts of the Hawaii Democratic Party to push for greater inclusivity of the electoral base, specifically aimed towards Japanese-Americans in the 1950s. But while these factors combined to earn Democrats near-complete control of the state legislature, such dominance ultimately resulted in increased voter apathy and increased factionalism within the Democratic Party of Hawaii.
The Labor Movement
Prior to Hawaii’s eventual achievement of statehood in 1959, politics in the region was dominated by the “Big Five,” a group of oligopolistic sugarcane processing companies that heavily favored the Republican Party. Following Hawaii’s annexation by the United States in 1893, these five sugarcane companies took advantage of Hawaii’s elimination of trade barriers with the United States and eventually grew to control more than 90 percent of the territory’s sugar production.
The formation of Hawaii’s modern labor movement began with a number of strikes led by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in the 1930s and ’40s. The mobilization of the ILWU, whose members were primarily dock workers, spurred other labor groups like the sugar and plantation workers of the “Big Five” to mobilize in protest of low wages. Such strikes were often suppressed by the police forces, most of whom were allied with the Big Five. In an incident known as the “Hilo Massacre,” ILWU workers engaged in a nonviolent protest for fairer wages encountered gunfire by the Hilo police force. While workers ultimately failed to engender significant reform in the massacre’s immediate aftermath, such strikes helped increase the prominence of labor organization and helped workers achieve many of their wage demands.
The Democratic Revolution of 1954
Significant reform for other groups did not come until the 1950s, when John A. Burns, then chairman of the territorial Democratic Party, mobilized untapped electoral groups such as the nascent Japanese-American or Filipino-American populations to join the vibrant labor movement. The Japanese-American population, still recovering from its experiences in internment camps during World War II, now faced the challenge of reintegrating into society. In order to manifest his idea of a new progressive coalition, Burns realized that it was necessary to gain the support of Japanese-American veterans, given the broad support that the veterans enjoyed in Hawaii after World War II. By incorporating these veterans, Burns was able to legitimize his coalition, ensuring the successful cooperation and mobilization of the largest electoral group in Hawaii.
Prior to the 1950s, political power was concentrated at the hands of the oligarchical elite. With the end of the war, Japanese-Americans and other Asian-Americans sought to end the decades of repression and control wrought by the wealthy elite. The establishment of the G.I. Bill allowed for the emergence of a new political elite free from the influences of the Big Five by allowing Japanese-American veterans to attend college at little to no cost. To this extent, Japanese-American leaders like former Senator Daniel Inouye, who attended college on the G.I. Bill, agreed to Burns’ idea of a new coalition with labor and other electoral groups within the Democratic Party, which would soon become known as the “Burns Machine.”
To understand Burns’ eventual success, it is necessary to consider the ethnic composition of Hawaii. In 1954, Hawaii was one of the few areas in the United States where people of Asian descent were a majority. According to the U.S Census, in 1950, Asian-Americans totaled 285,066 out of a total population of approximately 500,000—whereas whites totaled only 124,344. Although not all white people were part of the economic elite, the Senate was predominantly white. It is also important to note that while Hawaii is unique in that it is an Asian-American majority state, it would be a mistake to conflate the “Asian-American” vote as a single voting bloc.
The elections of 1954 marked a dramatic shift in power in Hawaii, not only from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party, but also from the wealthy white elite to Asian-Americans. For the first time in Hawaiian history, Democrats wrested control of both houses of the state legislature from incumbent Republicans. Japanese-Americans, the largest subgroup of the Asian-American voting bloc, took nearly half of the newly acquired seats in an event now known as the Democratic Revolution of 1954.
Factionalism From Within
On the exterior, the coalition fueling the modern Democratic Party mirrors the coalition that took power during the Democratic Revolution of 1954. While the power of labor unions has diminished since the twentieth century, Hawaii still ranks second in the nation in terms of union membership, with one out of every five employed workers belonging to a union. Hawaii’s current ethnic composition is also similar to its 1954 makeup. While Japanese-Americans no longer possess a plurality, Hawaii remains an Asian-majority state, where those with at least a portion of Asian ethnicity account for 56 percent of the population. In fact, many current political leaders of Hawaii, like Fukumoto, are the third or fourth-generation descendants of the Asian-American politicians that took power in the Democratic Revolution of 1954. It is important to note that Hawaii has the highest percentage of people who self-identify as two or more races (24 percent) in the United States. The growing diversity of the state disproves the idea that politics in Hawaii can be easily delineated by ethnicity.
In present-day Hawaii, the name of the Democratic Party evokes a strong sense of power among the electorate. “Hawaiian politicians owe a great deal to the Democratic party—the label of the Democratic party essentially helped them attain power,” said John Bickel, one of four Electoral College electors in Hawaii and president of the Hawaii chapter of Americans for Democratic Action, in an interview with the HPR. Regardless of ideology, politicians in Hawaii have thus run under the banner of the Democratic Party in order to increase their odds of attaining political office. Many former Republicans have also switched party allegiance to the Democratic Party. Although many cite conflict of ideology, like State Representative Aaron Johanson in 2014 or State Senator Mike Gabbard in 2007, the benefits enjoyed by Democrats in the state are likely large motivations behind these changes in party allegiance. As Republican Party Chair Pat Saiki stated in a comment on Johanson and Gabbard’s switch to the Democratic Party: “it is no secret that running as a Democrat in Hawaii makes life much easier for any politician.”
While it would appear that politics in Hawaii could be described as monolithic, a growing split between moderates and progressives within the Democratic Party has emerged in recent years. While the old coalition of 1954 was centrist, a progressive wing of Hawaii Democrats has surfaced, as evidenced by Bernie Sanders’ decisive victory over Hillary Clinton in the primaries, in which Sanders received 70 percent of the vote. Politicians like Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who notably resigned from her position as vice-chair of the Democratic National Convention to endorse Sanders’ presidential campaign, represent a new strain of progressivism in Hawaii.
Nowhere has this conflict between the party’s moderates and progressives been more apparent than in the controversy following the death of Inouye, one of Congress’s longest-serving senators in 2014. Prior to his death, Inouye expressed his desire for then-State Representative Colleen Hanabusa to succeed him. Like Inouye, Hanabusa was heavily influenced by the same groups of the old coalition of 1954, including labor unions and the Japanese-American community. However, then-governor Neil Abercrombie directly contravened Inouye’s wishes by appointing Brian Schatz, Abercrombie’s lieutenant governor at the time, to Inouye’s former seat. Unlike Inouye or Hanabusa, Schatz garnered much of his support from young progressive voters in the party. Ultimately, more progressives than moderates turned out to vote, granting Schatz the victory with a slim margin of 1,769 votes, one of the closest primaries in Hawaii electoral history. The controversy over the Senate position demonstrates the growing influence of the party’s more progressive wing over the original coalition of 1954.
Hawaii possesses one of the lowest voter turnout ratings in the country. During the primaries of the 2016 election cycle, only 35 percent of eligible voters casted votes, setting a record for the lowest voter turnout in an election primary. Even during the 2016 general presidential election, only 55 percent of Hawaiian eligible voters turned out to vote.
One reason voter participation rates are on the decline is because of the relative lack of options. On the state level, the repeated victories of the Democratic Party at the polls has left some feeling unsatisfied. On the national level, Bickel attributes low turnout in presidential elections to Hawaii’s lack of representation in the Electoral College (only four votes) and the vast time difference between Washington D.C. and Hawaii.
Voter participation would have been further hindered if the Hawaii Democratic Party were successful in its recent lawsuit, Democratic Party of Hawaii v. Nago, which attempted to replace Hawaii’s current open primary system with a closed primary system. In Hawaii’s current open system, any registered voter may cast their votes without any formal party allegiance. However, the Democratic Party’s advocacy of a closed primary system would limit participation in the primary election to registered Democrats only. While the party claims that “the open primary system allows people from opposing parties to influence their party’s candidate selection,” the power exerted by Republicans and other third-parties in Hawaii is incredibly limited. Ultimately, in forcing voters to register as Democrats to vote in the Democratic primaries, the Democratic Party would further decrease voter participation rates.
While the modern Democratic Party in Hawaii struggles to deal with factionalism from within, increasing voting participation rates has been a secondary goal. While both factions of the party have reconciled in the aftermath of Inouye’s death, the party needs to recognize the issue of voter apathy. Besides encouraging easier access to the voting booths by implementing same-day voter registration, it is imperative that Hawaii’s open party primary system be preserved. Because the Democratic Party is so deeply entrenched in Hawaii state politics, the Democrats must reform from within to implement policies that encourage the citizenry to vote.
Additionally, Hawaii’s status as a one-party state has been exacerbated by the lack of a legitimate Republican challenge in the state. Beyond the party’s botched handling of Fukumoto’s case, which mainly stems from the Hawaii Republican Party’s decision to toe the national party line, the GOP’s failure to effectively mobilize and connect with Hawaii’s voter bases also weakens its position in state politics. Ultimately, the failure of the Republican Party to effectively present itself as legitimate political opposition only solidifies and guarantees the continued dominance of the Hawaii Democratic Party.