Why The Dems’ New Head Matters

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - April 16, 2008
| Del.icio.us

This past weekend, former state Rep. Brian Schatz officially announced that he’s running for chair of the Democratic Party of Hawaii.

“So what?” you ask, and your question is a legitimate one.

Hawaii’s Democratic Party hasn’t been much for years. Oh, a lot of folks with “Ds” after their names get elected in Hawaii, but that doesn’t mean much. Hawaii’s Dems lost their edge at least 30 years ago, moving right and embracing within itself folks who are every bit as much Republicans as they are Democrats - on social issues, on economic issues and just about any issue that interests you.

But this year just may be different. The Democratic Party may come to mean something again. Thirty-seven thousand Island residents seem to think so. That’s how many showed up at the Dems’ Feb. 19 party caucuses in order to give favorite son Barack Obama a 3-1 win over Hillary Clinton and 14 of the state’s 20 elected delegates to this summer’s national Democratic convention in Denver.

If you were a local Democratic partisan of long standing, accustomed to a handful of the faithful showing up for the quadrennial presidential caucuses, consider how exciting a night Feb. 19 turned out to be. Four years earlier, only 4,000 or so Dems had shown for the presidential precinct caucuses. This year the lines snaked out the door and down the sidewalk to the parking lot; those who tallied the votes ran out of ballots.

It was partisan ecstasy: hordes of new faces in every precinct - and so many of them so young, so fresh, so eager to have their say in the most exciting Democratic presidential race since ... who’s to say? 1960? 1968?

So maybe, just maybe, who will be the Hawaii Democrats’ chair does matter.

“Feb.19 was an extraordinary moment in Hawaii’s history,” says Schatz. “Whether that outpouring of support will be a one-time event or have long-term consequences will depend on how we Democrats interact with these new people who came out that night.

“Many of them wanted to be heard, but they were stepping into unknown territory. The party leadership has to respond by giving them reason to remain engaged as Democrats.”

It’s unlikely that Schatz will face serious opposition for the party’s top post. The 35-year-old helped lead Hawaii’s draft Obama effort, and he’s frequently served as spokesman for the local Obama presidential campaign. As a result of the Feb. 19 vote, Obama supporters will control every precinct delegation at the party’s May 23-25 state convention.

As party chair, Schatz will go to the Democrats’ national convention in August as a super delegate - one committed to Obama. But Schatz is quick to insist that whoever gets the nomination, he’ll work hard to elect a Democrat president in November.

“I believe in the progressive principles of the Democratic Party, and whether Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton is the nominee, we’re going to be fighting hard to win.”

Schatz readily admits his own ambition to return to elective office. He left a state House seat in 2006 to run for Hawaii’s open Second District congressional seat. Despite an energetic campaign, Schatz ran a disappointing sixth in field of 10 Democrats. “I am planning to run for office again,” he says, “but I’m not sure when.

“The Legislature or the council is not the only way to serve in politics. The Hawaii Democratic Party needs more leadership to create better communication between the party and its members, to focus on winning elections, to secure financial solvency and to bring relative peace among the party’s various tribes.”

With Democrats holding 21 of the 25 seats in the state Senate, 44 of the 51 seats in the House of Representatives, all four congressional seats, most of the County Council seats and Honolulu’s mayoralty, it’s difficult to believe Schatz’s assertion that Hawaii’s Republicans “can’t be underestimated. They remain a potent force.”

By any reckoning, the number of elected Republicans in Hawaii spells “impotent.” But Schatz’s assertions that the 2008 presidential race, the 2010 gubernatorial contest and 2010 and 2012 U.S. Senate and House races pose challenges for Democrats does ring true.

Not very loudly, but true nonetheless.

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