In response to last week’s column, “Confessions of a centrist and a call for civility,” I received this reply:
“I also support these core values, however I left the Democratic Party and became an independent because I could not see Democrats fervently supporting the items on your list. If Democrats ever get back to being Democrats, I’ll consider rejoining their party.”
My response is that I also am extremely disappointed that at both the state and federal levels, too many candidates will run under the Democratic Party brand, then when elected will do little to nothing to move forward policy in support of those core values listed on the party platform.
I can only think that a majority are either liars or wimps. Either they do not really believe and support the values or they are too timid to take action. Yes, there are strong and bold legislators who truly believe and support these values but, unfortunately, they are not in the majority.
The term “majority” is used intentionally here because that is who drives all policy-making at all levels. At the state level the majority of legislators have chosen Kaua‘i Sen. Ronald Kouchi as senate president, and Rep. Scott Saiki as speaker of the House.
If these two men and the respective majority of legislators who back them believed that workers in Hawai‘i deserved to earn a living wage or at least $15 per hour, it would happen. Ditto to a long list of policy initiatives that include food self-sufficiency and much more. By virtue of running under the Democratic Party banner, both have pledged their support of these issues, AND they control a majority of the votes.
The American Conservative Union Foundation conducts an annual, in-depth analysis to rate all 8,000 lawmakers in America, revealing their positions on a wide variety of issues:
O‘ahu Rep. Sam Kong and Kaua‘i Rep. James Tokioka, both Democrats, are rated at the top of the ACUF scale, matching that of House Minority Leader Republican Gene Ward.
In the state Senate, O‘ahu North Shore Sen. Democrat Gil Riviere actually has a more-conservative voting record than the lone Senate Republican, Kurt Fevella. Tied for second place with Fevella is Democrat Sen. Mike Gabbard.
We have a state Legislature dominated by members of the Democratic Party who refuse to assertively move forward a policy agenda in support of their own party values.
So what can and should we do? How do we motivate Democrats to be Democrats?
While nearly every political organization requires a questionnaire and an interview as part of their endorsement process, the Democratic Party of Hawai‘i requires only membership in the party. Anyone can join the party, regardless of ideology or values, or a lack thereof. And it’s free.
When proposing to tighten up membership criteria or hold policy-makers accountable, the argument pushing back is always based on the concept of having a “big tent” and wanting to be a party that everyone can be part of.
It’s all a bit surreal. The big-tent concept is appealing, but at the same time both counterintuitive and self-sabotaging. If the goal is to have a values-driven organization supported by values-driven candidates and officeholders, then it would seem that membership would also be values-driven.
Otherwise, what is the point? Why even have a party when no candidate or officeholder is required to support its core values? The current state Senate president voted “no” on marriage equality. The current state House speaker has consistently failed to support increasing the minimum wage. Both of these issues represent core party values.
While some will argue to leave the Democratic Party and join a third-party effort, I am not there yet. I think about it sometimes, but am not there yet.
My hope and goal would be to see the Hawai‘i Democratic Party recognize and confront the challenges presented by incumbent officeholders who are essentially conservatives and corporatists masquerading as Democrats.
My further hope at the moment is that those in leadership positions in the Hawai‘i Legislature, even if they are not true believers, would see the pragmatic value of reaching out to frontline advocates working on social-, economic- and environmental-justice issues. Engaging in a meaningful conversation and establishing a meaningful 2021 policy agenda is the first step.
The results of the 2021 legislative session will set the stage for the 2022 elections. Every seat in the state House and Senate will be up for election in 2022. New candidates and their campaign teams will no doubt begin mobilizing in May of next year, as every candidate prepares for the following 15-month sprint to the August 2022, all-important primary election.
Unfortunately, Hawai‘i is a one-party state. While I am a Democrat and believe wholeheartedly in the core values upon which the party is based, I believe the lack of a viable second or third party in Hawai‘i is inherently unhealthy — from a basic civics perspective.
So until the Republican Party or the Green Party or the Aloha ‘Aina Party is able to grow their own base of credibility, we must count on the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party to provide the necessary competition at the ballot box.
Gary Hooser is the former vice-chair of the Democratic Party of Hawaii and served eight years in the state Senate where he was majority leader. He also served for eight years on the Kaua‘i County Council, and was the former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control. He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawai‘i Alliance for Progressive Action and is executive director of the Pono Hawai‘i Initiative.