Slouching Toward the Caucus in Hawaii

It’s hard to tell in Honolulu that a Presidential election is happening. The only evidence of the upcoming Democratic caucuses, on March 26th, is near the University of Hawaii and other spots, where, at rush hour, young people and a few retirees stand at intersections, grinning and waving signs for “Bernie 2016” to get drivers’ attention. Since the nineteen-twenties, Hawaii has banned billboards and other forms of outdoor advertising. Legend has it that, in 1968, Charles Campbell, a schoolteacher who was running for Honolulu’s city council, made a sign and waved it on the main street of town. The rest is history. Volunteers are taught to smile and to acknowledge drivers who honk by waving or flashing the shaka—a fist with thumb and little finger extended.

Bernie signCampaigns in Hawaii are unique, and not just in their sign-waving. It’s effectively a one-party state, where almost every elected official is a Democrat.  Presidential candidates rarely campaign here. There’s no ethnic majority, and many residents are hapa, or mixed, in their backgrounds. The state is five hours behind Washington and New York (six hours when it’s daylight-saving time), and twelve hours away by plane. At dawn in Hawaii, your inbox is already flooded with e-mails, but it goes silent after 4 P.M.

It was 5:30 A.M. Honolulu time, on February 28th, when the somnolent campaign was jolted awake by the thirty-four-year-old Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who announced on “Meet the Press” that she had resigned as a vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee to endorse Bernie Sanders. A veteran of two deployments in Iraq and Kuwait, Gabbard said she wanted a Commander-in-Chief “who will not waste precious lives and money on interventionist wars of regime change.”

Tulsi blueGabbard had been warned that her action would have political consequences, but, she told me on Sunday, “it was not a hard decision. . . . It was deeply personal to me, as a soldier and veteran.” Before Gabbard resigned from her post in the D.N.C., she had tried to draw attention to what she sees as “the core issue of this Presidential election: war and peace. But that message was not being heard,” she said. “The tough questions were not being asked. I needed to resign and endorse Senator Sanders to communicate to voters that there was a clear choice—a clear difference of position—between Sanders and Clinton.”

The congresswoman fears that, if elected, Clinton “will escalate the civil war in Syria.” She pointed out that Clinton “was the head cheerleader and architect of the war to overthrow the Libyan government of Qaddafi, which has resulted in chaos, a failed state, and a stronghold for ISIS and Al Qaeda.” She said that the domestic programs the candidates are advocating—“education, infrastructure, growing our economy—are not possible if we continue throwing trillions of American taxpayer dollars . . . on these wars.”

Gabbard, who was born in American Samoa, moved with her family to Hawaii at age two and had what she calls a “very conservative” upbringing. She was home-schooled and, at twenty-one, became the youngest person ever elected to the state legislature. Against the advice of colleagues, she resigned in 2004 to deploy to Iraq with the Hawaii National Guard.tulsi uniform3

Gabbard, who won her House seat in 2012, is the first Hindu member of Congress, and one of four female veterans currently serving there. Glamorous and articulate, she speaks in a warm, persuasive voice, and has a seventy-five-per-cent approval rate. Richard Borreca, a columnist for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, who has followed her ascent, told me, “She gets better all the time—more polished, more able to get across her thoughts in a likable way.”

Sanders supporters hope her endorsement will help bring out new voters for their candidate, but others are more doubtful. Neal Milner, who taught political science at the University of Hawaii for four decades, told me that voter turnout is perennially low, and described the political climate as “murky and disinterested.”

An exception was in 2008, when new voters swamped the caucuses, causing traffic snarls and long lines, to support the man who would become the first Hawaii-born President. Although the revered Senator Daniel Inouye and other Democratic Party leaders had endorsed Clinton, Obama defeated her seventy-six per cent to twenty-four per cent.

This year, Hawaii politics has returned to its default state. A few hours after Gabbard’s endorsement, about eighty Democrats gathered for the opening of Clinton’s campaign headquarters, on the fifth floor of a downtown office building. The crowd ranged mostly from middle-aged people to seniors.


Gov. Ariyoshi, center, at Hillary campaign launch

Joy Kobashigawa Lewis, a member of the Hawaii Democratic Party State Central Committee, said, “Everyone here has worked in many campaigns, sometimes on opposing sides. So we always show respect to the opposition. We know we’re going to work together again.” Asked if Gabbard’s action would hurt Clinton’s chances, Lewis shook her head. “It’s a bit of a disappointment. But not a blow.”

Three former governors and the mayor of Honolulu, Kirk Caldwell, endorsed Clinton because, as the former governor George Ariyoshi told the group, “Congress is changing, and [Clinton] is best suited to deal with it. She knows how to negotiate—that concessions are necessary, but you must make the right ones.”

The campaign leaders planned to start phone banks to identify Clinton supporters and make sure they get to the caucuses. But, after the meeting, only a few signed up to make calls.

Bart Dame, a community organizer and veteran of the anti-Vietnam War movement, helped organize Sanders supporters before paid staffers arrived in Hawaii. Dame said that the Clinton campaign is “old school,” relying on elected officials, Party members, and unions. “They don’t have to be visible, they just flip a switch and the word goes down the line: here’s how and where to vote.”

By contrast, the Sanders movement is a patchwork of independents, students, Facebook friends, and aging boomers. “It’s like herding cats, and some are barely housebroken,” Dame said. He asked the national campaign to send yard signs. “They thought I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. He had to explain the importance of sign-waving.

“It’s easy to demonize the opposition,” Dame said. “But, with sign-waving, you can see they’re nice-looking people with lots of energy, like your neighbors.” The most important social unit in Hawaii is the ohana—extended family, in which everyone is an auntie or uncle. When people meet, they run through their relations and background: “Where you grad? . . . I think my auntie went to that school.”

Dame grew up in Kailua and became an activist at the University of Hawaii. Many of his colleagues there, he said, “have gotten tired and moved on to more practical work. But I stuck to it, and now there’s oxygen coming back.” He said that Sanders is the most progressive candidate for President in decades. “If he does well, it will embolden progressives locally.”

On a recent Tuesday at the university, students were joined by older volunteers, like Kenneth Hipp, a retired labor lawyer, who was appointed by Bill Clinton to the National Mediation Board. In 2008, Hipp donated to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, but this year he’s on the street waving for Sanders. “I’m concerned about the racial divide and the class divide. He addresses that,” Hipp said. He expects that Clinton will win the caucuses, “so this is a fool’s errand, right?”

A horn blasted. Hipp laughed and waved at the driver. “The nice thing about being seventy,” he said, “is that you can tilt at windmills.”

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24 thoughts on “Slouching Toward the Caucus in Hawaii

  1. ExitAisle

    Excellent reporting and writing. You dig into specifics and personality, giving us important insight, shining light on a world mostly ignored by the MSM. I hope you will continue burrowing into this slice of American politics since it mirrors a lot of other places and people. I particularly like the scene setter opening putting Hawaii in perspetive to the East Coast.

    Very telling details: “…after the meeting, only a few signed up to make calls.” “He had to explain the importance of sign-waving.”

    Having read “Leap” and followed you for quite a few years, I Imagine you must have found some satisfaction in the quote: “The nice thing about being seventy,” he said, “is that you can tilt at windmills.”

    Glad you are still tilting….

  2. Richard D. Lake

    tis a great article and I love Gabbard; too bad she is not positioned to be our 1st female president. I am 78 so this is not a flirt!

  3. Vicky

    Thanks for this, Sara. When I was a kid growing up in Hawaii I always enjoyed seeing the candidates with their big carnation leis standing and waving on Kalanianiole Highway. Mahalo.

  4. Linda

    Sara, loved this newsletter! Nice to see politics covered in an un-aggressive way. If you don’t agree with the position and content, often rabid comments and letters are offensive, and so this is exactly what I like to read. I love the Hawaii history as well.

  5. JoAnn Richi

    Congrats on landing that New Yorker Magazine article, it is always great to follow your thoughts in whatever medium you choose to share them. Wonderful article. Jo.

  6. Jocelyn

    Fabulous New Yorker article on Tulsi! In it you also capture Hawai’i politics perfectly. I also enjoyed reading about “December Project” and can’t help thinking how Neil Tepper would have enjoyed it. Mahalo for sending me your articles! Cheers and aloha, Jocelyn

  7. Greg

    You really don’t want to hear my thoughts, Sara. Because Hilary is a manipulative duplicitous liar. That fact that anybody even considers that she “could be a candidate” is statement on the sad state of affairs we are in. She believes that she was “ordained to be president ” and will let NOTHING stop her. NOTHJNG! She is totally unfit for any public office, having demonstrated her total disregard for even minimal discretion in dealing with matters of state. She belongs in jail.

    Now, you didn’t really want to hear that, did you? ?

  8. Reynold Feldman

    As a Bernie supporter here in Boulder, I was glad to get this report from my home of 17 years. In fact, one of the people you cited, the newspaper reporter Richard Borreca, was one of my English students at the U. Of Hawai’i in Honolulu. Aloha and mahalo,

    Ren Feldman

  9. ArielJoy

    Hi Sara,
    I enjoyed the article and am a fan of your journalism. Also congrats on getting your article accepted by the New Yorker.

    I am very concerned about “The Donald Drumpf”. He will deliver the death knell to the U.S. There has been talk for years about a revolution happening in the U.S. and usually when we hear “revolution” we think “shoot-outs” and blood running from the Beltway to Wall Street. But I think that Drumpf is playing to the under-educated and disenfranchised citizenry of our nation and he is lending legitimacy to the racism and divisiveness that has been brewing for many years in the emotional cauldrons of the lower socioeconomic minions. If Drumpf is elected they will not need to buy “ammo”.

    Having said that, here are my thoughts: Can Bernie Sanders win over Drumpf? If not, then isn’t a vote for him in the primaries actually a vote for the Republican candidate who, at this point looks possibly like Drumpf.

    As much as I don’t care for Clinton and her status quo politics, I would rather deal with her than with “The Donald”. So which is the best action to take for the country as a whole, regardless of party politics?

    1. Sara Davidson Post author

      I share your concern, Arieljoy. That’s the great unknown – can Bernie beat Trump? The right wing prefers him over Hillary as an opponent. They will go after his radical past, when he supported Castro and was an elector for the Socialist Workers Party. I’m interested in hearing what others think.

    2. Greg

      Hi Ariel, I really don’t think you need fear Trump. He will be more centrist than you think. Is he bombastic in his rhetoric, yes but he is merely expressing what many people (millions) feel about our government. It has been hijacked, “both sides”, with “big money” calling the shots. We’re sick of it! Do you really think Trump is going create the kinds of extreme that you suggest? I don’t think you do. You’re just buying into the fear of those who are “fighting for their political life” to stay in “business as usual”. Take a breath, it will be ok. And certainly he would be infinitely better the the lying cheAting duplicitous Hilary Clinton.

      1. JD Jung

        There is only one candidate that scares me more than Trump . That is Ted Cruz. Being a Christian is more important to him than being an American.

        Re Trump: A foreign leader will be able to manipulate him just by stroking his ego. This was proven by Putin. He also doesn’t have the character that I want in a president.

        Most importantly, do you want a pro-choice, anti-Citizens United Supreme Court?

    1. JD Jung

      Yes, and WWII also taught us that that hate from our politicians just doesn’t end there. “Illegal immigrants are taking our jobs”, so we don’t let Mexicans in. Then we need to keep out Muslims. Next it will be all non-Christians.

  10. Gloria Cowan

    It’s easy for someone to criticize in hindsight. At the time, with so much human suffering in Libya to know what would have happened. Sanders is totally ibexperienced in foreign policy. His tiresome manta is how he voted about the war. He was a very insignificant player on the world scene.

    1. Beverly Kai

      I am grateful for this particular report on my home town, Honolulu. The local media mentioned the caucus, but with a different slant. The,WWII vets who led the Democratic Party and the State are dying off, and their devoted heirs did not expect anyone like Barak Obama or Tulsi Gabbard to appear with the chrism. “Interesting Times,” with outliers and upstarts. Tulsi saw combat, and refers to it often as the source of her views. No one yet has articulated an opposing response to her reasons, only to her stance. The more she rebels, the more traction she gains. Her career suicide is expected by the Old Guard. It ain’t gonna happen.

  11. Ken Haliburton

    I am a fellow Berkeley grad., class of 1968. Working class voters in this primary are, in both parties, engaging in revolt against the 2 Parties of the 1%. That’s the good news. In the Repo party you have the outsider radical engaging in JOBs, the major issue, using opposition to immigration & outsourcing/globalization, both of which lower wages of US workers, i.e., the 99%. And leaving darn few jobs, despite what the media & White HOuse say. In the Demo party, you have the old radical guy with the Flatbush accent, who is taking on inequality, and to some degree outsourcing, unlike Elizabeth Warren, who takes on the same issues, but without tying the anchor of “socialist” around her neck. Too bad she’s not running. Darn, darn, darn. No guts, no glory? Then the major issue of the Demo party, the glass ceiling, would not have as it’s champion a former First Lady who has barely escaped many financial corruption indictments by the skin of her teeth, and has used the “nuts and sluts” defense to defend her philandering husband against the many women who feel misused, and some even worse, allegedly. The polls show that the 2 most mistrusted and judged-unqualified candidates are the two likely nominees, Trump and Clinton. These are the 2 most hated politicians in America. And this is our choice? If they wanted us to vote, they’d have given us candidates.

    Nevertheless, I’m going to show up and vote for the Semitic guy. Why? Because my Dad was born in a house in Flatbush. Then after Clinton gets the nomination, if the FBI hasn’t indicted her by then, I’ll vote for the Semitic lady doctor from the Green party. Trump loses against any Demo badly. Plus I live in a heavily Demo state. The election gets decided in Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania. Maybe there, but only there, lesser of evils? And then take a shower and scrub it off. Eewww. Yuk.

    The only thing that can stop Clinton from the White House is if the FBI can get a Justice Department attorney to indict. Not likely, as they are appointed by the party in power. A lot of resignations from the FBI & other security services are to be expected. Yet more big scandals.

    This is not the future that the Sixties generation had in mind. Is it what feminists had in mind?
    What’s the word for when the former “great heros” of the socialists, Stalin, Lenin, Mao have the truth finally told? You have to take the good with the bad? Eewww, I need another


  12. Jane fyrberg

    You nailed it! You truly understand the essence
    of the Hawaii political scene. I enjoyed every word. favorite was the closing sentence.
    How perfect.
    J fyrberg

  13. Linda Newton

    We in our 70’s and those in their 20’s seem to have a lot in common. Go Bernie!
    Lovely article about a lovable state. Thanks, Sara.

  14. Joan

    Bernie Sanders social liberal voice is like a cheerleader. To actually be the president of the United States it requires an ability to negotiate many issues and many pathways in a quagmire maze of power , opinions and stonewalling for control. I like many of his philosophy’s. however i appreciated the struggle that Obama had in moving foreword making good ideas actualize. The Republication blockade and unwillingness to work as a team, continues. The realistic literal fact is that Sanders socialistic liberal ideas will not be accepted or financially feasible or allowed to manifest in our large political government .

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