How Ethnicity Weighs on Hawaii’s Democratic Primary

Ethnic divisions simmer just below the surface in the toughest Dem contest of the 2014 season.

UNITED STATES - JULY 23: Colleen Hanabusa (Photo By Douglas Graham/Roll Call via Getty Images) UNITED STATES - MAY 15: Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, meets with with students and advocates from Young Invincibles before their news conference in the Capitol to call on the Education Department to put stronger protections for students in career education programs at for-profit colleges on Thursday, May 15, 2014. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
National Journal
Emily Schultheis
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Emily Schultheis
July 16, 2014, 7:30 p.m.

HON­OLULU — The first im­age many Hawaii voters saw from Bri­an Schatz this elec­tion year was of his Chinese fath­er-in-law, sit­ting at the kit­chen table, help­ing the sen­at­or’s half-Chinese daugh­ter make dump­lings.

That ad, which kicked off what has be­come the fiercest Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate primary in the coun­try, was about ex­pand­ing So­cial Se­cur­ity be­ne­fits. But it was also this white Hawaii­an’s way of con­vey­ing that his fam­ily is Asi­an, too.

Neither side in the is­land state’s Sen­ate primary between Schatz and Rep. Colleen Hanabusa is talk­ing ex­pli­citly about race and eth­ni­city. But in the most di­verse state in the na­tion, eth­ni­city per­vades polit­ics — and it in­forms, be­hind-the-scenes, the way cam­paigns are craft­ing their mes­sages and talk­ing to voters.

“It’s al­ways im­port­ant to be mind­ful of eth­ni­city, be­cause at some level, eth­ni­city does mat­ter, even today,” said Randy Per­reira, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the power­ful Hawaii Gov­ern­ment Em­ploy­ees As­so­ci­ation, which has en­dorsed Schatz.

While Hawaii’s pop­u­la­tion is be­com­ing more mixed, and the lines that the di­vide groups are be­gin­ning to blur, race and eth­ni­city re­main in­grained in Hawaii­an polit­ics. There are words and phrases to use, people to get en­dorse­ments from, and im­ages to por­tray, all of which cam­paign strategists ta­citly un­der­stand and ex­ploit in Aloha State polit­ics.

Es­pe­cially this year. In­deed, eth­ni­city has cast a shad­ow over the Sen­ate primary from its in­cep­tion, when long­time Sen. Daniel In­ouye, on his deathbed, asked that fel­low Ja­pan­ese-Amer­ic­an Hanabusa be ap­poin­ted to suc­ceed him. In­stead, the white gov­ernor, Neil Aber­crom­bie, chose Schatz, his lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor.

That de­cision has be­come a cent­ral theme of Hanabusa’s cam­paign as she ar­gues that Hawaii’s Asi­an-Amer­ic­an voters de­serve a choice in who rep­res­ents them in the Sen­ate and that much of In­ouye’s net­work — par­tic­u­larly in the Ja­pan­ese-Amer­ic­an com­munity, known loc­ally as the AJA com­munity — is be­hind her in that quest.

“The whole basis of the Hanabusa cam­paign is, ‘In­ouye picked me,’ ” said one Demo­crat­ic strategist. “This is also about one AJA pick­ing an­oth­er versus a haole gov­ernor pick­ing a haole sen­at­or.”

Jen­nifer Sabas, In­ouye’s former chief of staff who now sup­ports Hanabusa’s can­did­acy, said many Ja­pan­ese-Amer­ic­ans took Aber­crom­bie’s de­cision as an “in­cred­ible in­sult.”

These un­der-the-sur­face ten­sions are noth­ing new. The his­tory of eth­nic polit­ic­al di­vi­sions in Hawaii goes back to what’s known as the Demo­crat­ic Re­volu­tion of 1954, when Asi­an-Amer­ic­an voters teamed up to take on the polit­ic­al power of Hawaii’s white plant­a­tion own­ers. Young Ja­pan­ese-Amer­ic­an sol­diers — in­clud­ing In­ouye — re­turned home to Hawaii after World War II, went to col­lege, and began run­ning for of­fice, cul­min­at­ing in the 1954 elec­tions where Asi­an-Amer­ic­an Demo­crats ous­ted many white Re­pub­lic­an politi­cians.

As a res­ult, all the Asi­an-Amer­ic­an eth­nic groups be­came closely as­so­ci­ated with the Demo­crat­ic Party — a trend that’s still gen­er­ally true today, and con­trib­utes to the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s dif­fi­culty in tak­ing hold in Hawaii­an polit­ics.

Asi­ans are by far the biggest eth­nic group in Hawaii, at just un­der 40 per­cent in the 2010 census. White voters are about 23 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion.

But deal­ing with eth­nic groups is par­tic­u­larly com­plic­ated here be­cause there’s no mono­lith­ic “Asi­an-Amer­ic­an vote” in Hawaii: there are AJAs or Ja­pan­ese-Amer­ic­ans, Filipino-Amer­ic­ans, Chinese-Amer­ic­ans, Korean-Amer­ic­ans, Sam­oan-Amer­ic­ans, nat­ive Hawaii­ans — the list goes on. All these groups have their own in­terests, key is­sues, and even ste­reo­types their can­did­ates must still over­come.

Fur­ther com­plic­at­ing the pic­ture, more and more people, par­tic­u­larly young people, are identi­fy­ing them­selves as mixed-race: Just un­der a quarter of all Hawaii­ans did so in 2010.

That dy­nam­ic is play­ing out in the Demo­crat­ic primary, where Schatz is gain­ing sup­port from the state’s young­er, more pro­gress­ive Demo­crats and Hanabusa still does well among older and more work­ing-class voters.

“At one time, you could al­most count the num­ber of votes you would get from the Ja­pan­ese-Amer­ic­an com­munity, the Korean-Amer­ic­an com­munity, the Chinese-Amer­ic­ans and the [nat­ive] Hawaii­ans,” said Pat Saiki, the cur­rent state Re­pub­lic­an chair­wo­man who served two terms in the U.S. House in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “You could di­vide it up ac­cord­ing to pop­u­la­tion and guess who would be ahead, but today our young people have be­come mixed and mar­ried to the point where “¦ polit­ic­al lean­ings are not ne­ces­sar­ily de­term­ined by your eth­ni­city but your at­ti­tudes.”

But things were chan­ging even when Saiki, who’s Ja­pan­ese-Amer­ic­an, ran for of­fice. When she ran for gov­ernor against the Filipino-Amer­ic­an Demo­crat Ben Cayetano in 1994, Ja­pan­ese-Amer­ic­an voters were forced to choose between their eth­ni­city and their polit­ic­al party.

Polit­ic­al views won out in the end: Cayetano won the race, be­com­ing Hawaii’s first Filipino-Amer­ic­an gov­ernor. But “it wasn’t im­me­di­ate,” Sabas said. “Ben Cayetano won even­tu­ally — but the month lead­ing up to that, the AJA com­munity was hugely in the ‘un­de­cided’ cat­egory.”

The Schatz cam­paign made a sim­il­ar ar­gu­ment in a wide-ran­ging memo on the race last Oc­to­ber, say­ing that ideo­logy trumps eth­ni­city in mod­ern-day Hawaii­an polit­ics. “Al­though some pun­dits have the­or­ized that eth­ni­city de­term­ines Demo­crat­ic primar­ies, re­cent his­tory clearly demon­strates that pro­gress­ive ideo­logy is the more dom­in­ant factor,” the memo said.

For cam­paigns, ap­peal­ing to dif­fer­ent eth­nic groups must be done care­fully and im­pli­citly.

“It’s very cir­cum­spect,” Sabas said. “It’s been more through third-party val­id­at­ors or key phrases.”

Per­reira and the HGEA are one ex­ample of a key en­dorse­ment, Sabas said: While Per­reira him­self isn’t Ja­pan­ese-Amer­ic­an, his pre­de­cessor at the uni­on was — and many gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees are also Ja­pan­ese-Amer­ic­an voters. For Schatz to pick up that en­dorse­ment was a big boon to his chances at win­ning over that eth­nic group of voters.

There are also ways not to handle the is­sue in Hawaii­an polit­ic­al cam­paigns: Too-overt ref­er­ences to a can­did­ate’s eth­ni­city or ori­gins can back­fire. That’s a les­son Mufi Han­nemann — a Sam­oan-Amer­ic­an in­de­pend­ent can­did­ate for gov­ernor this year who ran in the 2010 Demo­crat­ic primary against Aber­crom­bie — learned four years ago.

In the primary, Han­nemann re­leased a cam­paign mail­er that asked voters to “Com­pare and De­cide” between him­self and Aber­crom­bie. The mail­er fea­tured side-by-side bio­graph­ic­al facts about each can­did­ate, de­signed to paint Aber­crom­bie as an out­sider: Han­nemann was born in Hon­olulu, for ex­ample, while Aber­crom­bie was born in Buf­falo, N.Y. The mail­er also in­cluded each can­did­ate’s edu­ca­tion and the names of their spouses.

Aber­crom­bie and oth­ers im­me­di­ately called foul.

“He’s ask­ing you to com­pare the fact that he was born in Hawaii and I was born on the main­land,” Aber­crom­bie said at the time. ” “¦ He even asks you to com­pare our wives and de­cide. Com­pare and de­cide? What’s the mes­sage here?”

Those di­vi­sions are also rel­ev­ant in Aber­crom­bie’s race this year, in which he faces a tough primary chal­lenge from Ja­pan­ese-Amer­ic­an state Sen. Dav­id Ige.

“Hawaii is so dif­fer­ent than any oth­er state: It’s the only state where we’re all minor­it­ies,” Ige told Na­tion­al Journ­al in an in­ter­view in his Hon­olulu cam­paign headquar­ters, adding that in­ter­ra­cial mar­riage has meant more fo­cus on “find­ing the best can­did­ates” rather than vot­ing based on eth­ni­city. Ige had just come from a de­bate with Aber­crom­bie at the Hon­olulu Ja­pan­ese Cham­ber of Com­merce.

Des­pite the still-com­plic­ated eth­nic polit­ics of the Aloha State, can­did­ates and con­sult­ants alike say that the right can­did­ate can get elec­ted today re­gard­less of his or her eth­nic back­ground — and that eth­ni­city is now just a piece of a much big­ger puzzle.

“I was a Jew­ish-Amer­ic­an wo­man from the main­land,” said former GOP Gov. Linda Lingle, who served two terms dir­ectly be­fore Aber­crom­bie took of­fice. “[Eth­ni­city] is not an over­whelm­ing de­cid­ing factor. Oth­er­wise, I could have nev­er been elec­ted.”

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