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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, January 23, 2005

State's Democrats refocus, this time on needs of middle class

By Jerry Burris
Advertiser Editorial Editor

Hawai'i's dominant Democrats are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the historic 1954 "revolution" that swept them into legislative power and set in motion a sea change in the political landscape of this state.

The Democrats elected in 1954 were sworn in to the 1955 Legislature determined to bring their version of economic and social justice to the Islands.

A half-century later, the Democrats are still firmly in charge at the Legislature, and their dominant concern is ...


Well, traffic, plus more housing and perhaps a middle-class tax cut. Those, at any rate, were the themes of opening-day speeches by Democratic leadership at the 2005 Legislature.

What's going on here? Have the Democrats lost their fire? Or is it simply that they have succeeded too well?

To be sure, there was a serving of nostalgia for the passionate Democrats of decades past during Wednesday's speeches. The best came from House Majority Leader Marcus Oshiro, the son of one of the architects of those early Democratic political successes.

As those Democrats convened for the first of what would be many years of majority dominance, Oshiro remembered, they stood for living wages and equal opportunity for all, a commitment to help the needy and less fortunate and a society built on freedom and tolerance.

The ensuing five decades witnessed enormous progress on all those fronts. The core of the Democratic Party today is relatively comfortable, middle-aged, stable and concerned more about conserving things than changing things.

In short, they're middle class.

And that was the pointed theme of another opening-day speech, from Senate President Robert Bunda.

In remarkably direct terms, Bunda said the task of Democrats in this and future legislatures will be to respond to and meet the needs of the middle class.

He made the appropriate sounds about remembering the needs of the "guy on the bottom rung" and dealing with the social problems that continue to plague the state.

But Bunda's overall theme made it clear that the primary task of the Democrats now is to care for the needs and desires of the middle class they have built in this state.

He spoke of an income-tax cut aimed at the middle class, improvements to traffic and housing, beefing up an education system that — while less than perfect — is unarguably equally accessible to all.

The "politics of inclusion" have succeeded, Bunda argued, but government has been slow to respond to the changing needs and changing face of the society the Democrats helped build.

So this is where the Democrats now stand. One theory might hold that they have succeeded, perhaps too well, and have run out of steam.

The other — and don't bet against it just yet — is that they are in the process of reinventing themselves, yet again.

Jerry Burris is editor of The Advertiser's editorial pages.