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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 21, 2002

Democrats seek new image

By Lynda Arakawa
Advertiser Capitol Bureau

After seeing a long line of fellow party members linked to corruption, some Democrats believe it's time to rehabilitate the image of the party, and of politicians in general, by infiltrating the old guard with a new wave of young, reform-minded Democrats.

Newcomers take the lead
Rep. Sylvia Luke gives hope for the party's future.

House Majority Whip Brian Schatz wants to overhaul the system.

Rep. Scott Saiki is among the party's newcomers.

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But first they'll have to win some elections.

The movement appears to have picked up steam in the state House, where a handful of lawmakers in their 20s and 30s banded together to push for issues such as civil service and campaign-spending reform.

This group is also touting several young, like-minded Democrats who are hoping to break into politics and boost the ranks of this so-called new generation in the House.

"It's important to get more talented people in the building who have progressive ideas," said House Majority Whip Brian Schatz, D-24th (Makiki, Tantalus), who at 29 is running for his third term in the House. "The more the better, and what I'm real clear about is that people want a new kind of Democrat — one that still holds those Democratic values dear to (his or her) heart but wants to push for change."

The party's image has been bruised by several scandals involving prominent Democratic politicians: State Rep. Nathan Suzuki, D-31st (Salt Lake, Moanalua) was recently indicted by a federal grand jury on tax fraud charges; former Honolulu City Councilwoman Rene Mansho was recently sentenced to a year in jail for misusing campaign contributions and City Council staff; City Councilman Andy Mirikitani is serving a federal prison term following corruption convictions; and former state Sen. Marshall Ige, was convicted of theft and tax evasion charges. Others who have served time behind bars in recent years include former state House Speaker Daniel Kihano and former state Sen. Milton Holt.

"I don't think we can just ignore all the scandals that have been happening and pretend that it has had no effect on the party," said former Democratic lawmaker Annelle Amaral. "The voters are smart enough to know that these are leaders in the Democratic Party just by virtue of them being elected. I'm deeply troubled by this and deeply troubled with the effect it may have on the upcoming election."

But Amaral said, "We have some really fine candidates emerging.

"It was wonderful to meet all these wonderful young people," she said. "They represent something exciting happening in the party."

Schatz said this new generation in the House and like-minded young Democratic candidates would mean "a complete overhaul in the way the House of Representatives does its business, and the transition will be complete from the old boys to the new guard."

Among the first-time candidates he cited: Legal Aid lawyer Maile Shimabukuro, who is challenging Rep. Emily Auwae, R-44th (Wai'anae, Makaha); lawyer Jennifer Waihee, the former governor's daughter who is running against public school teacher Corinne Ching, a Republican, in a district that covers Liliha to Pu'unui; former TV reporter Glenn Wakai, who is running in Salt Lake for the seat now held by Suzuki; and lawyer Scott Nishimoto, who is challenging Rep. Mindy Jaffe, R-19th (Waikiki, Kaimuki, Diamond Head).

Former Democratic lawmaker Jim Shon considers the handful of young House Democrats — including Schatz and Reps. Sylvia Luke, D-26th (Punchbowl, Pauoa), Scott Saiki D-20th (Kapahulu, Mo'ili'ili), Eric Hamakawa D-3rd (S.Hilo, Puna) and Blake Oshiro D-33rd ('Aiea, Halawa Hts, Red Hill) — as a counter to the GOP's message that the majority party is full of "fat cats." But Shon said "not everybody is a fan" of theirs because they have not yet engaged themselves in social issues, which traditionally has been at the forefront of the party.

"This group is bright," Shon said. "They're very political. They're very committed to the idea that a certain amount of change is required. I think they are an influence — perhaps a growing influence — but part of their influence relates also to the sense that some of their issues also resonate among Republicans, which is a growing number.

"They make the case that there is a new progressive, consumer-oriented" Democratic Party, Shon said.

However, he said that while the group might enhance the party's image as one helping to bring about reforms, it ran the risk of disconcerting some of the party's traditional supporters, especially unions.

Hawai'i Republican Party chairman Micah Kane said he doesn't see any change in the Democratic Party and that the young House Democrats have not demonstrated a departure from old-thinking lawmakers and special interests.

Kane criticized them for not fighting to override the governor's veto of the campaign finance reform bill, which the younger Democrats in particular had advocated.

House leaders said they would return next year to pass an improved campaign finance reform measure, but Kane wasn't impressed.

"Nothing's changed," Kane said.

Political observers are not sure if the message of "progressive reforms" touted by the Democrats is reaching voters.

Amaral said the younger Democrats in the House "are a good sign of things being well handled," but that she was doubtful the general public would recognize that and translate it to the rest of the party.

"I don't know if their voices are loud enough to be heard," she said. "I think as individuals the constituents know them as remarkable, and those of us who spend a lot of time at the legislature know that they are credible, but I don't know that . . . their voices are clear enough for people to recognize that they can make a difference."

Shon agreed.

"The question is, is the public listening? I'm not convinced yet that it's even time that they would begin to listen carefully. And to the extent that they've listened, they've listened to the indictments. There's a kind of mountain to be climbed."

Reach Lynda Arakawa at larakawa@honoluluadvertiser.com or at 525-8070.