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.
Campaigns 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.”
Gabbard 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.
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.
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.”
This blog appeared originally on newyorker.com