Denby Fawcett: Hawaii’s political campaigns have lost all the fun and excitement

Political campaigns are a long way off these days. Not face to face. Our contact with candidates is mostly limited to seeing their electronic faces in TV commercials or listening to their pre-packaged policy statements in TV forums.

No one is to blame, not even the candidates, for what has happened to take the fun and excitement out of election season, leaving many voters disengaged.

The decentralization of politics as a fun sport with deeper meaning did not happen overnight. It took decades to make political campaigning the dead zone it is today.

It’s impossible to return to territorial Hawaii when election season centered on festivities such as campaign luaus with tables laden with steaming laulaus, smoked kalua pork and squares of homemade prune cake — Hawaiian hospitality offered in the hope of winning the goodwill of a political party or a particular candidate.

Or the crowded political rallies in public parks where candidates would often surprise crowds by jumping onto the stage to hula dance or sing their favorite Hawaiian song. Even funny moments, like GOP nominee Ben Dillingham in his run for Honolulu County Supervisor in 1946 singing “Three Blind Mice” in Hawaiian.

More recently, I recall unexpected and sometimes engaging visits from politicians, knocking on doors, presenting their candidacies and offering small gifts such as potholders, pencils or sewing kits.

Today, my own longtime state representative, Bert Kobayashi, never seems to walk around the neighborhood. Instead, he sends us flyers boasting about his legislative accomplishments – junk mail that gets thrown in the trash with letters from insurance companies looking for business and brochures from real estate agents urging us to sell our house.

Shirts from Mayor Kirk Caldwell's campaign headquarters.  April 16, 2016.
People want to belong to something bigger than themselves, says academic researcher Russ Roberts. Pictured is former Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s 2016 campaign headquarters. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Political campaigns of the past offered more than just a fun break from daily routines, they could also spark deeper thinking about creative ways to fix festering ills in the community – to figure out where we want to go in the future and how we could work together to get there.

As academic researcher Russ Roberts wrote Sunday in an essay for the New York Times: “Human beings want purpose. We want meaning. We want to belong to something bigger than ourselves.

Politicians’ lack of personal contact with the community today has made them weaker, disconnected from the people they hope to represent.

“As it has become less personal, politicians are less able to know what their constituents need,” says lawyer and lobbyist Rick Tsujimura.

Tsujimura is the author of “Campaign Hawaii: An Inside Look at Politics in Paradise,” a book that traces the lessons he has learned from half a century of involvement in campaigns from John Burns to Kirk Caldwell.

Interestingly, Tsujimura’s first campaign job was as head of the supply room during Burns’ 1970 gubernatorial campaign – a room he said was filled with bumper stickers, magnets, sewing kits, pencils, potholders and other types of political paraphernalia to distribute to voters.

He said different campaign workers are constantly raiding the room, hoping to get more stuff to hand out to voters in their own neighborhoods.

Sure, political hopefuls today are getting an ear of verbiage from critics on social media and via coordinated email blasts, but that kind of remote connection is easier to dismiss as tirades. special interests or cranks rather than a sincere question from someone looking a candidate directly in the eye and asking, “What will you do specifically to stop the homeless from continually raiding our neighborhood park?” I don’t feel safe going there with my kids.

Tsujimura says the pandemic has been put forward as a reason for the lack of personal interaction in campaigns, but he says politicians in Hawaii were already heading in that direction, distancing themselves from the concerns of the proverbial ‘stop man’. bus”.

“Personal contact takes a lot of time. A lot of candidates just don’t want to take that time. Today, politics is more about winning than a true crusade to improve Hawaii. It’s more about wanting to be in power and, once elected, clinging to power,” says Tsujimura.

There is also technology. When he started working on campaigns in the 1970s in Honolulu, Tsujimura says there were only three TV stations and no internet. There are now dozens of ways for a politician to deliver a political message electronically on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and cable TV without having to show up to speak to people directly.

Tsujimura says it has given rise to a sense of unease among voters that no one is listening to them.

Political writer Tom Coffman says the lack of enthusiasm for local politics today is rooted in the tripling of the population after the statehood that changed Hawaii’s political scene from a social affair of small town into a more impersonal and remote activity.

He recalls the days when it was de rigueur for politicians to show up daily for community coffee hours and to hold regular rice stew dinners in public school cafeterias.

Coffman is a former journalist who became a researcher and documentary filmmaker. He has written about Hawaiian politics in numerous books, including “Catch a Wave,” a case study of Hawaii’s early statehood political campaign.

He says another key factor that has made residents less enthusiastic about politics is the absence of two strong political parties.

Hawaii’s GOP first began to lose its grip after the 1954 Democratic Party revolution in the return of Asian American World War II veterans as Democrats first took control of the Republican territorial legislature and have held that power ever since.

A further decline in power for Hawaii’s GOP occurred during Pat Robertson’s so-called revolution in the late 1980s, when the conservative National Party faction aligned itself with the party’s leading candidates to fight against the right to abortion. This prompted popular Republican female politicians, including Donna Ikeda, Virginia Isbell and Ann Kobayashi, to become Democrats.

Coffman points out that while Democrats had a lock on victory, politics was more exciting back when Democrats had cross-party splinter groups such as the John Burns faction against Tom Gill’s more progressive group working hard against each other. the others during the 1970 gubernatorial primary and the state senate faction in the 1980s that then included the Sens. Neil Abercrombie, Ben Cayetano and Charles Toguchi whose reformist ideas were constantly at war with Senate Speaker Richard Wong’s old guard faction.

There are dozens of reasons why Hawaiian politics has become boring rather than fun, including the power of public workers and construction unions and special interest groups to determine the outcome of elections, and the huge contributions campaign needed to win any election, even a seat on the Honolulu City Council.

And fewer political reporters doing in-depth candidate analysis and instead paying inordinate attention to televised candidate debates, political polls, and candidate questionnaires to which aspiring politicians often respond with predictable positions that sound alike.

I don’t know how to make political campaigns in Hawaii more exciting, fun, and meaningful. I would like. But maybe there’s a suggestion for candidates to get started: engage with members of the public in person to offer one or two immediate and actionable ways – no pie in the sky – to change their lives for the better. . And voters, hold the candidates’ feet to the fire. If you don’t, you will end up with the government you deserve.

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