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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, June 6, 2001

Hawai'i's Democrats, Republicans looking more alike

 •  Democratic agenda leans right into new century

In the mid-'60s, agreements between Gov. John Burns, far left, and labor leader Art Rutledge reflected a solid rapport between Democrats and organized labor. By contrast, Gov. Ben Cayetano, right, has angered labor by pushing to privatize certain government services.

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First of two parts

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Capitol Bureau Chief

In Hawai'i politics in 2001, the Democrats and Republicans are almost impossible to tell apart.

In the last legislative session, Republicans joined Democrats in fretting over the environment and advocating raises for public school teachers who went on strike. Democrats joined Republicans in privatizing public services and voting to raise the legal age at which juveniles can consent to have sex.

As recently as the 1990s, the issues on which the two parties disagreed were easier to track. The GOP protested tax increases and worried about the growth of state government. The Democrats rallied behind programs to protect union members and to help the poor.

But now, in the scramble for political middle ground, Democrats from Gov. Ben Cayetano on down have embraced more fiscally and socially conservative policies. Republicans are more moderate than conservative. All of this makes for a growing body of public officials who are beginning to think and sound similar.

These days, Hawai'i's Republicans and Democrats alike oppose tax increases, advocate public education as a top priority and call for the protection of the environment. And members of both parties declared the 2001 session at the Legislature a success.

"I think it's a reaction to the voters, who themselves are tending to be more centrist," said Don Clegg, a political consultant who has polled for Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris, Gov. Ben Cayetano and former Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi.

"They have to find positions they think the voters will accept. The successful candidates are the ones who lean toward the center and those who avoid appearing to be in the pocket of special interests."

The statewide Republican convention on Maui last weekend was a case in point: Republicans passed resolutions that opposed Hawaiian Electric Co.'s plan to string power lines along Wa'ahila Ridge and endorsing Hawaiian sovereignty.

For Republicans to thumb their noses at such a powerful, politically connected local conglomerate would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

Alex Vine, a 32-year-old University of Hawai'i graduate student, said Republicans and Democrats are easy to tell apart on the Mainland, but not in Hawai'i.

"You can't really tell what the difference is," he said. "They're playing the same games. Republicans try and act like they're going to do reform, but not really. I think basically they're in it for power."

Jed Sasaki, a lifelong Democrat who works for the state Department of Health, said he will probably vote Republican in the next election. In general, he said, he believes that the state Republicans "come across more compassionate, more people-oriented."

Sasaki couldn't readily identify any policies he would expect the Democrats or Republicans to pursue. But he said he's unhappy with the "hardball" approach the Democrat-controlled state took in the last round of union negotiations.

"I feel it's a change. Maybe a different party gives a different perspective. Give them a chance, and see what they can do," Sasaki said of the Republicans.

Decade of transition

Hawai'i's relatively liberal political center unmistakably shifted during the past decade. Voters became increasing critical of the Democrats as the Mainland economy boomed and Hawai'i was left out of the prosperity. New generations of middle-class voters demonstrated they have little loyalty to a particular party.

The old plantation-era memories have faded since the alliance between the unions and the Democratic Party brought the Democrats to power in the 1950s and 1960s.

For nearly 30 years, from the administration of John Burns in the early 1960s through John Waihe'e in the early 1990s, state government was the benevolent provider of generous entitlement programs, plentiful and well-paying public jobs and strict adherence to a liberal, Democratic social agenda. While Reagan Republicans ruled the Mainland through the 1980s, Hawai'i stuck to the paths laid out by John F. Kennedy's "New Frontier."

The Democratic Party, once seen as a powerful agent of social change in Hawai'i, now appears cautious and restrained.

The Republicans, once accused of representing the plantation oligarchy, now promote themselves as upstart reformers. Ira Rohter, associate political science professor at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, said the GOP has fielded more moderate, thoughtful candidates in recent years, offering a viable alternative to Democrats.

U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye said political parties must always evolve to reflect changes in society.

"Can you imagine if the political parties remained the same for the last 50 years philosophically? It would be terrible," Inouye said.

" ... Remember, it wasn't too long ago when Hawai'i was home to 12 plantations. Today there are three. That shows that there are a lot of changes."

The senator went on to say: "If the political parties do not reflect the changes in society, then they are foolish. They don't deserve to serve the people."

The shift was obvious in the past three local election cycles, which had to be frightening to Democrats.

In the mid-1990s the Democrats dithered over the "liberal" social issue of same-sex marriage while the local economy tanked, and many voters took their anger the polls in the 1996 election.

Republicans such as Mark Moses, Galen Fox and Bob McDermott were elected; left-leaning Democrats such as Annelle Amaral, Jim Shon and Mary-Jane McMurdo quit or were ousted. In all, the Republicans strengthened their position in the House from seven seats to 12 in the 1996 election.

In 1998 Linda Lingle nearly upended Hawai'i politics by winning the governor's race, losing to Cayetano by only about 5,000 votes. And in 2000, the House Republicans increased their numbers from 12 to 19, electing many GOP moderates who hugged the center.

New-look Democrats

During those same three election cycles, a more conservative brand of Democrats was elected to the House and Senate. Lawmakers such as Sen. Norman Sakamoto, R-16th (Moanalua, Salt Lake), Sen. David Matsuura, R-2nd (S. Hilo, Puna), and Sen. Jonathan Chun, R-7th (S. Kaua'i, Ni'ihau), won election and assumed leadership positions in the Senate, helping to reshape its agenda.

Increasingly, Democrats took positions that had long been advocated by Republicans. Moderate Republicans and fiscally conservative Democrats began to sound an awful lot alike.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie said his party's core values haven't changed but the circumstances facing government leaders have.

"I don't think the Democratic Party is changing in the sense of philosophy," he said. "What constitutes economic and social justice today is different obviously than it was 50 years ago."

One fiscally conservative Democrat who helped the transition along was Gov. Ben Cayetano, who for years has demanded that the public worker unions agree to steps to cut the cost of government and make it more efficient.

Yas Kuroda, professor of political science at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa, traces many of the changes to Hawai'i Democrats who are trying to adapt to a money squeeze. As the public struggled through the slow growth of the 1990s, voters understandably were unwilling to accept higher taxes.

Voters were in an uproar in 1998 when Cayetano and the Legislature proposed an increase in the state excise tax — and raising taxes hasn't gotten any easier.

Many Democrats responded by becoming more fiscally conservative, Kuroda said.

"They're taking over the more or less Republicans tradition, so Republicans have to look for something else to fight for," he said.

Without the ability to raise more money, it became more difficult for lawmakers to cope with issues that used to be relatively simple, such as public worker raises.

The state is also under a federal court order to improve special-education services, and pressure is mounting for lawmakers to make other improvements in the public education system.

Indirectly, the need to find money without raising taxes helped break the logjam over privatization, Kuroda said. The state's financial problems meant lawmakers were more willing to use private companies to provide public services to save money.

They disregarded the objections from the public worker unions that had stalled the privatization issue since 1997.

'97 ideas catching on

One of the most powerful examples of this shift can be found in the fate of the governor's Economic Revitalization Task Force, a largely pro-business group that put forward a series of initiatives, including privatization and paring public worker benefits, that were largely ignored in 1997. In four years, many of the most significant initiatives have become politically palatable.

The vote to reduce the cost of public worker health benefits by overhauling the Public Employees Health Fund was another effort to find money for other things that the voters are demanding.

Democrats and unions have helped each other for decades, and anything that splits them might seem risky for Democrats. But Kuroda doesn't think the quarrel over the health fund and privatization really endangers the Democrat-union alliance because "labor unions have no other place to go."

Micah Kane, executive director of the Hawai'i Republican Party, disagrees.

The Republicans, he said, have made a tremendous effort to appeal to the unions, as demonstrated by the vote tally on the health fund bill. The unions adamantly opposed the bill, which supporters said would save the state $65 million a year by reducing the cost of public worker health benefits.

The measure barely passed in one of the closest votes of the session, with 11 of the 22 Republicans in the Legislature voting against it.

The university faculty union endorsed Lingle in 1998, and the teachers' union very nearly endorsed her. After a 19-day teachers' strike with Cayetano at the helm of the state, a Lingle endorsement by the teachers doesn't seem farfetched.

"Being Republican doesn't mean that you're anti-union," Kane said. "That's the boogieman mentality that longtime Democrats tried to push forward."

Kane said the GOP worked hard to appeal to union rank-and-file, with House Republicans arguing the state should give the teachers a raise, and should also honor last year's arbitration award that granted raises averaging 14.5 percent to 23,000 members of the white-collar public workers union.

Kane noted the state GOP included language in its party platform last year that pledges support for collective bargaining.

"I think if we're able to keep a lot of the unions neutral, that's a success on our part," he said.

The GOP also distanced itself from some contentious social issues such as abortion. The 2000 state party platform expresses opposition for partial-birth abortions, but does not directly address the abortion issue.

It was leading Democrats who decided to hold a public hearing in the Senate this year on a measure that would have required physicians to notify parents before they perform an abortion on a minor. The bill later failed.

Rohter said the Republicans aren't posing as moderates. Most of the Republicans who have joined the party, run and won in recent years really are moderates, he said.

The message, Rohter said, is "these are the compassionate conservatives. The Republican argument here is, we're not the mainstream Neanderthals that you see in Congress."

Clegg contends that the Republicans and Democrats each have "millstones" they carry with them into each election. The Democrats have left-wing throwbacks to the 1960s, and the Republicans have the religious right. Both extremes make a sizable percentage of the voters uncomfortable.

Poseurs perceived

Both Republicans and Democrats argue the other side is posing, essentially pretending to be more centrist than they really are.

Kane argued that the Democratic party is moving to the middle in response to the Republicans.

"I think the only reason why you've seen legislation pass that was business-friendly was because of a new Republican presence," he said.

Rep. Scott Saiki, D-20th (Kapahulu, Mo'ili'ili), suggests the Republicans have suddenly become attentive to organized labor and workers for political purposes. He said the GOP sees collective bargaining as a "wedge issue" that can divide the Democratic Party base.

In the push to appear free of special interest influence, Republicans clearly have an advantage. In Hawai'i the very term "special interest" has almost become synonymous over the years with public worker unions, and Democrats are strongly linked to the unions in many voters' minds, Clegg said.

That's why the actions of the votes by Democrats to allow privatization and to cut the cost of public worker health benefits were critical, Clegg said.

Both votes defied the wishes of the public employee unions, "much to the chagrin of the Republicans, who have lost an issue that they dearly love," Clegg said.

"The Democrats in the Legislature took a good chunk out of the Republicans' image," he said, "and added to their own image."