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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, September 17, 2002

GOP strives to attract Filipinos

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

Filipino ballroom dancers spun on the cafeteria stage at Kalakaua Middle School as an overflow crowd of Filipino American voters — voters who overwhelmingly went Democratic in the past two gubernatorial elections — stuffed themselves into the sweltering room to meet a Republican.

Observers say Linda Lingle is gaining the Filipino vote, which has been Democratic in the past two elections for governor.

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Some of them wore the T-shirts of the "Filipino Friends for Linda Lingle." Others clearly were waiting to be convinced. All of them filled paper plates with free adobo, pancit and lechon, or roast pork.

When Linda Lingle stepped inside the cafeteria, she broke from her usual routine of immediately taking to the stage. Instead, she spent the next 30 minutes trying to shake the hands of most of the nearly 500 people there, including some who couldn't squeeze into the room.

The food and Lingle's personal touch represents a serious effort to turn Filipino voters her way. It's an effort, political observers say, that could result in a significant swing of votes going from Democrats in 1994 and 1998 to Republicans in 2002.

"The forgotten vote, and I think Lingle knows this, is the Filipino vote," said Chad Blair, a political science lecturer at Hawai'i Pacific University and the author of "Money, Color and Sex in Hawai'i Politics."

In 1994 and 1998, Ben Cayetano, the country's first Filipino-American governor, captured nearly all of the Filipino vote.

"This year, it's wide open and Filipinos could make the difference in a close race," Blair said.

With 275,728 people in Hawai'i claiming full or part-Filipino heritage, Filipinos are the third largest ethnic group in the Islands, according to the latest Census. They represent 22.8 percent of the population but are the fastest growing ethnic group with a higher-than-average birth rate and 4,000 new Filipinos arriving every year through immigration.

"We don't have the money to contribute like other groups," said prominent Filipino businessman Eddie Flores Jr., a recent convert to the Lingle campaign. "But we have the manpower and we bloc vote. In a tight race, we can win it for you."

Filipino leaders also are working hard to naturalize Filipino immigrants and register them to vote. Like the last election, they're also organizing transportation on Election Day to drive hotel workers to polling booths so they can vote during their work breaks.

"Within the community, there's been an increasing effort to get more Filipinos involved," said Dean Alegado, chairman of the University of Hawai'i's ethnic studies department who is active in Filipino issues.

Lingle's message of cleaning up government and improving the economy and education is reaching Filipino voters, Alegado said, and causing some of them to rethink their Democratic loyalties.

"We have the manpower and we bloc vote," said Eddie Flores, Jr., a Filipino businessman.

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But Lingle shouldn't feel comfortable yet.

The Honolulu Advertiser Hawai'i Poll published Sept. 8 found that more than 70 percent of the Filipinos surveyed said they intend to vote in the Democratic primary this week. Of those voters, more than half said they plan to vote for Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono, who is the frontrunner in the three-way primary race.

State Rep. Willie Espero, (D-41st, 'Ewa Beach), who is running for the state Senate seat that represents the heavily Filipino communities of 'Ewa, 'Ewa Beach and lower Waipahu, said Democrats like him are working to remind Filipino voters about their historical connections. "... We're doing our best to keep it at home at the Democratic Party." Espero said.

State Sen. Ron Menor, (D-18th, Waipi'o Gentry, Wahiawa), said he believes that the majority of Filipino voters will stay with the Democrats this election.

"The efforts of the Republican Party to try and woo Filipino voters, who have been a very important part of the base of the Democratic Party, is a concern during this election because all of us are anticipating a very close gubernatorial election and the Filipino vote will be critical," Menor said. "Having said that, I'm still optimistic that the majority of Filipino voters will vote Democrat and vote in sufficient numbers, to the point that the Democrats will prevail in November."

Flores, the founder and owner of L&L Drive-Inn, with 47 restaurants in Hawai'i and another 13 on the Mainland, is courted every election year by candidates to get his backing. Earlier this year, Flores encouraged his Filipino friends to vote for Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris for governor. When Harris pulled out of the race, Flores considering endorsing no one.

"Then Linda approached me and I thought she was the right candidate to turn the economy around," Flores said. "Personally, I'm still supporting a lot of my Democratic friends (in other races) but I support Linda for governor 100 percent."

Flores' support cannot be underestimated, said Rep. David Pendleton, (R-50th, Maunawili, Enchanted Lake), whose grandmother immigrated from Ilocos Norte to Hawai'i in 1930.

"With prominent guys like Eddie Flores way out there on a limb actively and energetically supporting Lingle, you're going to see the largest switch over this year among Filipinos than ever before," Pendleton said. "Filipinos as a group are very ripe compared to four years ago."

Lingle campaign workers nervously wondered what to expect Sept. 5 at Kalakaua Middle School.

Hirono had organized a similar Filipino rally the month before and only 150 people came to Waipahu High School.

Flores and Lingle's campaign attorney, Nelson Befitel, and others organized nearly $2,000 in food and advertising, mostly in the Filipino press. They also threw out Lingle's normal "talk story" template. Her message was the same — that Democrats are running a bloated and often corrupt bureaucracy that is not improving schools or the economy. But gone was the pre-packaged sushi, chicken-and-rice bento and a rather formal presentation. Instead, there was decidedly Filipino food, music and dancing.

Lingle uncharacteristically removed her purple jacket and introduced Befitel's family — the Filipino family she rented a room from for 10 years when she lived on Moloka'i 20 years ago.

And when she spoke of education, Lingle put her hand on a young Filipino girl's head and blamed the Democrats for the state of Hawai'i's schools.

"Linda usually goes in and just does her speech," said Befitel, who first met Lingle when he was an 11-year-old playing Little League on Moloka'i. "But Filipinos like to shake hands and get very close. Linda's been to a lot of Filipino parties and she's comfortable with Filipino families. I think she walked into that room, saw all of those faces and said, 'Wow.' "

Belinda Aquino, director of UH's Center for Philippine Studies, said Filipinos tend to gravitate toward charismatic politicians who take an interest in them, regardless of party affiliation.

The most obvious and recent example is former Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi, who enjoyed widespread Filipino support for mayor and governor as a Democrat, Republican and independent.

"Filipinos had an intensely personal relationship with Frank Fasi," Aquino said. "He appealed to them as a colorful, very, very engaging kind of politician, whether it was with the Best Party, Democrat or Republican. That's the kind of politics they're used to seeing in the Philippines."

Like many others who came to Kalakaua Middle School the night of Lingle's event, Jose Garma, 59, has always voted Democrat, ever since he left the Philippines in 1970.

Now Lingle can count Garma among the converted. Garma, an accountant for the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, liked what he heard from Lingle.

"She said she'll eliminate waste in government and improve the schools," Garma said. "For the first time I'm going Republican. I'm going for Lingle."

Advertiser capitol bureau chief Kevin Dayton contributed to this report.