Q&A: Hawaii Political Reporter Dan Boylan

“It’s the most chaotic election we’ve ever had.”

Professor and political reporter Dan Boylan recently retired from teaching history at the University of Hawaii—West Oahu campus; but there’s no rest for the politico this election season. Boylan, who writes a political column for Hawaiian magazine MidWeek and moderates PBS Hawaii’s Insights program, has been kept busy covering campaigns for Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District, a competitive and sometimes nasty Democratic gubernatorial primary, and the inevitable re-election of untouchable local hero, Senator Daniel Inouye.

Boylan spoke to CJR assistant editor Joel Meares earlier in the month about island politics, the local media, and today’s Hawaiian primaries, the last in the country before the midterms. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.

When I hear Hawaii, I don’t immediately think politics. Can you give us a primer on what politics is like in the Aloha State?

It’s the most unique politics in the country, I think. And it’s mainly because of the enormously diverse population. No single ethnic group here has a majority. Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Samoans, Caucasians, you name it; nobody constitutes fifty percent by themselves. And there’s an enormous amount of intermarriage. So no one can make a blatantly ethnic appeal; if you do, you’re dead. There are certain districts that may have more Japanese people, for example, and so if you have a Japanese surname you have a better chance of winning. But blatantly racial appeals are pretty hard to do here.

And yet black, white, yellow or purple, everybody seems to love your senior senator, Daniel Inouye. Why has he proven so popular and untouchable?

He’s been around forever; he broke into politics in 1954. He’s a one-armed Medal of Honor winner, a certified American hero who lost his arm running up a hill in Italy fighting Germans. Plus, he’s articulate, he’s crafty, and he has tremendous loyalty among people who work for him. He is enormously popular and the Republicans don’t usually attempt to put anyone up against him of any weight. He wins with seventy or seventy-five percent of the vote, always. He’s had one scare when someone accused him of sexual harassment in the early ’90s, and he had a down vote, but generally he’s overwhelmingly supported.

His ethnic group, Japanese Americans, constituted about forty percent of the population back in 1950s. Now they’re down to about seventeen or eighteen percent, but he has delivered for practically everybody. He is enormously good at getting things for Hawaii—federal money for Pearl Harbor, for military housing, grants for native Hawaiians, for education, for the university. You name it; Danny can find a dollar for it in the federal till. He’s been on the Appropriations Committee for a long, long time; he and Ted Stevens practically ran the whole thing. Now it’s just Danny.

Sounds impressive.

He’s very approachable. He’s eighty-six years old and you can still call him “Danny.” He’s a smart guy and loyal. Loyalty might actually be his greatest fault. While the rest of the state was going gaga over its native son, Barack Obama, when he was running for president, Danny had made a commitment to Hillary Clinton and he stuck by it until the bitter end.

Did it damage him it all?

No [laughing], you can’t damage Inouye.

Senator Inouye recently found himself at odds with Democrats in Washington over his support of Colleen Hanabusa in the special election for Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District—a seat again up for grabs this November. D.C. leaders seemed to want Ed Case to take the seat, and the Democratic vote ended up being split between the two, giving the seat to Republican Charles Djou. Why did Inouye go against the mainland Dems?

He didn’t like Ed Case very much, mainly because Case challenged Danny Akaka, Inouye’s mate, in the Senate primary in 2006. So he supported Colleen Hanabusa, who is our senate president.

The problem in the race between Hanabusa and Case was that when Case was in the U.S. House between 2002 and 2007, he cultivated the Hill papers and the media. And Ed Case is a Caucasian fella who talks real well and is media friendly and he’s smart. So the DNC says, ‘Smart guy!’ Colleen Hanabusa is a local girl, a local born-and-reared Japanese American, smart as hell, but she’s not a media hound and the DNC doesn’t know her. But Danny Inouye is for her. She ran second four years ago in our Second District race, and I think if she had have had a couple more weeks she would have won that one and she’d be representing our Second District. It’s more confusing than it appears.

Was Djou’s win in that district a sign of the GOP gaining ground in Hawaii?

Well we’re going to see here in the fall. That race had two Democrats and one Republican. This is a heavily Democratic state. The two Democrats outpolled Djou considerably when combined. Consequently, we will see what it all means. I think Hanabusa is going to run very strongly against Djou this time [Case dropped out of the new race in May] by arguing that he’s been opposed to things that Obama has been doing.

So no questions in Hawaii about whether Obama is an asset to use in your campaign?

Obama is still very popular in the state. A state this size doesn’t get its own president. We’re still very proud of the guy. The first non-Caucasian to be president of the United States originally learned something about how to live with other people in a state that’s very diverse, where people live together very well.

Has Obama’s popularity slipped in Hawaii at all in line with the rest of the country?

Yes, it’s slipped, but it has to when it’s at seventy-four percent when you’re elected. I think the last thing I saw was sixty-three percent, which is very high.

There is some token opposition to Inouye in the Senate race from the GOP. Do the two Republicans facing off in the primary, Cam Cavasso and John Roco, have any chance for an upset?

They’re socially very conservative. They have no chance. You can take that to the bank.

How liberal is Hawaii?

It’s growing in terms of social conservativism. We have more big box churches, and like the rest of the country, we have a strong Mormon community. There’s a small Mormon college on the windward side of Oahu, part of Brigham Young. We also have a large Filipino and Portuguese population, the majority of whom are Catholic, and the Catholic Church under the new pope has become more conservative. I would say we’re socially significantly more liberal than any other state in the country. It’s changed since the ’70s and ’80s, but does it make the Republican Party viable with socially conservative candidates? I think that’s yet to be seen. I doubt they’re going to pick up much.

Do you foresee a time when that might change?

No, I don’t because the feelings about tolerance in a society this diverse, which also has at its base a host culture, in the Hawaiians, who are an extraordinarily tolerant people, are strong. I don’t see it happening, but I could be wrong.

Republican governor Linda Lingle recently vetoed a same-sex civil unions bill. How did that play in Hawaii?

That depends whom you’re talking to. Social conservatives got big crowds to go after the legislature. Our governor has long said she is against same-sex marriage; this civil unions bill did not use the word marriage at all and it passed the state House and Senate with healthy majorities but not quite enough to override her veto. Lingle is retiring from office after November and my guess is if Neil Abercrombie wins the Democratic primary for governor and then the general election, that same bill will be introduced in the coming sessions. He has said he will fight for it.

That said, if his rival Mufi Hannemann wins the nomination and the general election, he is a Mormon and he will veto it. The Republican, Duke Aiona, is a very devout Catholic and has said he will veto it too.

This is not the first time Hawaiian Democrats have had to pick between Abercrombie and Hannemann.

No it’s not. Abercrombie was elected to the state house in the early ’70s and was later elected to the senate. He made a run for Congress in 1986 and he was opposed in the Democratic primary by Mufi Hannemann, who was younger, and that was the first race Hannemann won. There was a special election involved because the congressman had quit to run for governor. It was quite a dirty race. Hanneman won the Democratic nomination, but lost the special election. A Republican held that district for two terms.

In the meantime, Abercrombie came back and was elected to the city council. When the house seat became open again, Neil ran and won it. He’s been in the U.S. Congress since 1991. He’s been in politics for thirty-five years at the state and federal level and he’s a very colorful figure. He’s short but loud, he can be very articulate and very funny. He was quite a radical in the ’70s; he opposed the war in Vietnam and he went on to vote against the war in Iraq. And yet he’s been very supportive of the troops, contributing a lot to building housing for military personnel in Hawaii.

Has he done much to change that radical image?

He’s had to sober himself up. Some people didn’t like that more radical image; they still see him as a campus radical. All politicians do their attitudinal studies, and he’s pretty sober now, and I find it boring compared to the old Neil.

Mufi Hannemann hasn’t been very boring. He recently came under fire after his campaign released a mailer that asked readers to compare him with Abercrombie, and made a point of noting Abercrombie, who is white, was not born in Hawaii. Why did that anger people so much?

Mufi has a record of this, going back to ’86, and to when he was first elected mayor of Honolulu in 2004. Back then, one of the unions supporting him brought up some nasty stuff about his opponent’s wife—it was alleged she and her mother had defrauded an elderly Japanese man. Mufi is a very competitive guy, a former basketball player at Harvard, and he plays hard. He has to: he comes from a small ethnic group [Samoans], he’s a bright guy, politically very astute.

But sometimes he gets a little too clever and a little too cute, and he stumbled recently with that mailer. It was meant to accentuate that he was more local, his roots were deeper than Neil’s, he was browner, his wife had a Japanese surname, Neil’s was a pasty Caucasian like Neil. And there were a couple of other things that were sophomoric. You found yourself thinking, “Did you really have to do that?” He took it on the chin, not just from me, but everybody responded to that. Even Inouye went after him—and Inouye hasn’t endorsed him, but he definitely wants him to win.

Does race often get brought into elections in a nasty way in Hawaii?

Not compared to what you folks do up there on the mainland. You wouldn’t see that crap they’re pulling on poor Obama. Sure, ties that bind matter. Filipinos don’t have many candidates in office, so if there’s a good-looking Filipino candidate, they will vote that way. But that can only win in a few districts. It’s the same with the Japanese population. Nobody’s got a good enough hold, except in state legislative districts, to do it. People might say, “You nasty this!” or, “You effing that!” over a beer. But you don’t see it in the public square very often.

Polling has Abercrombie up by as much as seventeen percent. Is it over for Hannemann?

Neil’s been up in the polls but that’s not necessarily good enough to win in this state. When we have an undecided vote, it often is not undecided. It might be Asian-American folks who don’t like to answer polls that are called in. I am telling anyone who asks me that I think it’s going to be very close and I won’t be surprised if either one of them wins. And Mufi’s got significantly more money and he really owns the airwaves. That’s going to be a big factor.

Duke Aiona on the Republican side has his nomination locked up. How would he fare against either Democrat?

All the polls that have been run so far with Aiona against Abercrombie or Hannemann show either Democrat will beat Aiona rather handily.

You wrote in a recent post that the Hawaiian media has been missing a lot of the key issues this election. What have they been missing, and what have they focused on instead?

My criticism really had to do with something we’ve been talking about ad nauseum on my PBS program: the media’s been shrinking. We were a two-newspaper town until about six months ago; we’re now a one newspaper town. A lot of good journalists were left out in the cold. The one newspaper is doing as good a job as it can. But there aren’t as many voices out there asking questions and writing profiles.

We have four television stations and two of those have been combined to one newsroom. I’ve worked for both of these organizations as a stringer, and now there just aren’t as many reporters, and that causes trouble. It’s also a younger generation of journalists and I just don’t think we’re getting to as many of the issues that are important. We’re talking too much about civil unions and not enough about education. We have educational challenges out here that are very, very, real; that’s half of our state budget. The state pays for education in Hawaii, not local areas.

And it hasn’t been a major campaign issue?

I think both the candidates for the Democratic side, and Aiona on the Republican side, haven’t said much about it, and I don’t think they’re getting asked about it.

What’s the net effect of this media shrinkage?

It’s the most chaotic election we’ve ever had. There are so many open seats at various levels—boy, some of the races are really getting lost.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.