The Hawaii Dems’ Very Bad Idea

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - December 19, 2007

An item from the morning paper last week gave me reason to pause - that old, wrapped-in-cynicism, “gimme a break” pause.

It’s the proposed suit by some Hawaii Democrats that their party go to a closed primary system. Why? Because too many Democrats win elections, take office, then don’t fit the definition of Democrat held by those doing the suing. And the Democratic faithful fear that it’s because of Republicans crossing over and voting in their precious primary, thus changing the definition of “Democrat.”

The history of the Democratic Party, on both state and national levels, is multi-definitional, to say the least. In 1892, for example, the national Democrats ran Grover Cleveland for president. Cleveland was a Bourbon Democrat who willingly welcomed the money-lenders - so long as they adhered to the gold standard - into the Democratic temple.

Four years later, the Democrats ran William Jennings Bryan, a champion of debtors both rural and urban, who would willingly inflate the currency and tear down the temple - among other radical measures.

Cleveland won in 1892, just as he had in 1884. Bryan lost. Win or lose, both were Democrats, and the latter would run twice more - unsuccessfully - for the presidency and resigned his post as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson over the decision to enter World War I.

Or consider the post-Depression, post-New Deal Democracy. It included the solid support of the former Confederate States of America - every single election; but it also produced Northern liberals like Minnesota Sen. and later Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Illinois Sen. Paul Douglas.

And Hawaii’s Democratic Party history tells the same story. The first Democratic senatorial primary I witnessed pitted certifiable campus radical Neil Abercrombie against certifiable environmental tree hugger Tony Hodges against certifiable successful businessman Cec Heftel.

The last had been recruited to run by certifiable Democrat Dan Inouye, Class of Democratic Revolution of 1954. Cec lost that year, but six years later won a congressional race and represented Hawaii’s 1st District for the next decade.

How certifiable a Democrat was he? Cec used to argue that he received a 50 percent rating from liberal lobbies and a 50 percent rating from conservative lobbies and that’s just where he wanted to be.

Hawaii’s modern Democratic Party includes social conservatives like Mufi Hannemann and Mike Gabbard - the first of whom can claim strong union support, the latter of whom claims impeccable environmental credentials.

So who’s a Democrat? And why can’t a Democrat, an Independent or a Republican vote in a Democratic primary?

“Because you’re a Republican,” shout the suing Democratic faithful.

Pleeeeez! If I read Hawaii’s political history correctly, where else does someone who wants be part of the electoral process go? Democrats have won almost everything since 1954 - everything.

Cec Heftel could easily have run as a Republican. So too could Mufi Hannemann. Mike Gabbard did.

So did Linda Lingle. Both won. But they are part of a very, very small band who can claim the distinction of winning as members of the GOP: Pat Saiki, Hiram Fong, Frank Fasi, maybe four score legislators, councilpeople, and Neighbor Island mayors (maybe not that many).

So if a red-blooded citizen of Hawaii wants to vote in a Democratic or Republican primary, they should have the right to do so.

And in this age of choice and movement toward non-partisan-ship in various electoral contests (particularly on the municipal level), Hawaii’s Dems would indulge in a form of political wrist-cutting if they chose to close their primary in election year 2008.

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