HAWAII'S NEW POLITICS
FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Bon dances once were a staple of politicians and voters. Here, Mayor Mufi Hannemann shook hands with Alan Inada, right, while courting AJA voters Saturday night during the bon dance at the Shinshu Kyokai Mission on Beretania Street.
Ethnic Japanese a ‘weakening’ bloc
SECOND OF THREE PARTS
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The formula for political success in Hawaii used to be simple: Get the majority of the Americans of Japanese ancestry to vote for you, and you win.
The power of the AJA voting bloc has been one of the major reasons the state Democratic Party has remained a dominant force in local politics since 1954.
Today, however, the face of ethnic politics in Hawaii is changing. Filipino-Americans are becoming a powerful voting group, and politicians are learning to adapt to the interests of that group.
At the same time, the AJA vote is changing. While most observers say it is still solidly Democratic, it no longer holds its past political dominance.
RICHARD BORRECA, B.J. REYES
FULL STORY »
It was the year after statehood, and Dan Inouye was running for Congress. Keiji Amemiya, with 5-year-old son Roy in tow, would go door to door in Whitmore Village plantation camp.
Part 1 - Young voters flex political muscle
Observers say such interest has surged in Hawaii in recent years.
Labor unions still hold sway with Hawaii politicians, but the power has shifted from private- to public-worker unions.
It was how campaigning was done. And Americans of Japanese ancestry -- AJAs -- were becoming a potent force in Hawaiian politics.
"I was 5 and it was my first campaign," says Amemiya, a senior vice president at Central Pacific Bank.
Amemiya and son would move from one Japanese-American plantation house to the next talking to voters.
"It was only Japanese. He was bilingual, and he would only go to Japanese households. I bet you every single person he talked to voted for Dan Inouye," said Amemiya, 52.
It was ethnic campaigning at its strongest, and it formed a political engine that powered the Democratic Party for more than 50 years.
National political analyst Charlie Cook described it as one of the enduring political machines, with Japanese-American voters cementing an alliance with the powerful private union, the ILWU, or International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
"Japanese-Americans ... working in unions and government tended to be the heart of the Democratic Party," Cook wrote in 2006 in the National Journal.
If Japanese-American voters voted together, it was not without reason, Amemiya recalls.
"The war generation had a common issue: Their patriotism was being challenged. If they didn't band together, they would eventually been interned like AJAs were on the mainland.
"So they came together and became very strong for the party and the labor unions," Amemiya said.
But today that solidarity is shifting along with voting patterns.
"We all know the Democratic Party started with strong labor and plantation workers, but the voting patterns are changing," said Wendy Abe, president of the Honolulu Japanese Chamber of Commerce.
Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, a 10-year legislative veteran, agrees that the AJA vote is "weakening."
"I also believe it is generational. You find the traditional Democratic votes in rural areas and on the neighbor islands, where people live in the same communities or near the plantations," said Hanabusa, 57.
"The younger generation, those just establishing families or in the 30s, view themselves as being very independent and would say they vote on the issue or the candidate as opposed to the party," she explained.
Amemiya's family tree is a Democratic Party who's who, including former Attorney General Ron Amemiya, uncle; state Intermediate Court of Appeals Associate Judge Corrine Watanabe, sister; and former City Councilman and Sen. Randy Iwase, brother-in-law. But Amemiya said intermarriage and the increase of other groups make the AJA vote a less significant factor.
Part of the shift is simply a change in demographic numbers. Japanese Americans in Hawaii were once 40 percent of the state's population. New census data now puts Japanese Americans at 16.7 percent, although the portion with mixed ancestry is much larger because the Census Bureau counts mixed race as a separate category.
"We still do ethnic mailers, but there a lot of people with Japanese surnames who may not be Japanese," says Amemiya, who was the budget director for former Mayor Jeremy Harris. "It is not like walking around the plantation camp where you know everybody."
Former Gov. John Waihee worked hard to establish himself among AJA voters and political leaders. His first successful race for governor was revived when longtime Democratic campaign worker Dan Aoki joined his campaign. Waihee, 62, said young voters today might say they are independent, but are still likely to vote Democratic.
"When you look at the results, they are still voting the same way. The guys in the Legislature are still getting elected with AJA votes; it just may be that the difference is not as noticeable," Waihee said, adding that he thought "voting trends are blending."
Abe, 49, said that in the last two races for governor, Republican Gov. Linda Lingle could not have won without Democratic votes.
"I saw a lot of my friends voting for Lingle even though they are Democrats at heart," Abe said.
In 2002, political polls showed that while Lingle's opponent, Mazie Hirono, had more than half of the AJA vote, a large minority of the voters said they were undecided, showing a possible shift toward the Republican.