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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 20, 2006

Ethnicity plays a role in race for Congress

By Jerry Burris
Advertiser Columnist

The old discussion of how much ethnicity matters in Hawai'i politics is back at full boil these days with a focus on the race for the 2nd Congressional District.

The Democratic primary for this race offers up no fewer than 10 intriguing and potentially qualified candidates. Eight of the 10 have served in various state or county offices.

Two, Hanalei Aipoalani and Joe Zuiker, have not yet held public office. But they, too, offer interesting and well-considered reasons why they should be chosen.

So it is a field where anyone holds the potential of winning. That's particularly true because the primary winner will only have to grab a plurality of the vote.

With so many candidates and the likelihood that relatively few votes will separate the winner from the rest, folks are looking at ethnicity as a possible deciding factor.

As statistician Jeff Smith wrote in a seminal report on the impact of ethnicity on local politics years ago, ethnicity is "not destiny" for candidates in Hawai'i. Many people have been elected from districts that do not match them ethnically.

But no one, least of all the candidates, has any doubt that one's ethnicity counts for something.

A recent study of election results against various demographic trends conducted by The Advertiser suggested that the controlling factor, if there is one, is income rather than race, education, gender or other variables.

That is, there seems to be a stronger correlation between income and voting behavior than any other factor.

Nonetheless, it is impossible for people not to handicap the congressional race through the ethnic lens. When there are so many qualified candidates, so little time and no clear dominant person, could ethnic background be the deciding factor?

Here's where it gets interesting.

The race offers two people of Hawaiian heritage (although not pure Hawaiian): state Sen. Clayton Hee and newcomer Aipoalani. There are three of Japanese-American back-ground: Mazie Hirono, Matt Matsunaga and Colleen Hanabusa. Two have Filipino roots: Ron Menor and Nestor Garcia.

And three candidates are Caucasian: Joe Zuiker, Sen. Gary Hooser and Rep. Brian Schatz.

Any thoughtful voter would look beyond the ethnic background of the candidates to make a choice. Hanabusa, Hirono and Matsunaga, for instance, bring distinctly different backgrounds and histories to the table.

The same can be said of Menor and Garcia and any of the others.

But at the end of the day, many voters are likely to be bewildered by the choices and uncertain about who will do the best job in the U.S. House, if elected. That's where ethnicity comes into play. They'll go with the candidate "most like them."

But because no one has a free ride on this front, it will be up to each candidate to break through the noise and the chatter to create a distinctive, even unique, political profile that will transcend ethnicity and other elements.

Reach Jerry Burris at jburris@honoluluadvertiser.com. Read his daily blog at blogs.honoluluadvertiser.com.