HAWAII'S NEW POLITICS
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL /
A banner for candidate Dante Verdadero is displayed in Waikele at the corner of Kamehameha Highway and Lumiauau Street.
Filipinos changing isle politics’ equation
"Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa nakaraan, ay hindi makakarating sa patutunguhan."
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.
Loosely translated, the Tagalog proverb goes: He who does not look back at his past will not be able to reach his destination.
To Charlene Cuaresma, the saying applies to the lessons that older generations of Filipinos are trying to impart to their children and grandchildren: Get more involved in the political process.
The younger generation is often inspired by the knowledge that their blue-collar parents were active in unions to secure a better living for their families, she says.
"We try to have our young people know their family's stories and bridge that to policies today that can either hurt or help our families," says Cuaresma, president of the Filipino Coalition for Solidarity in Hawaii. "Once you learn about our history, we become very impassioned to volunteer and make our society better."
For more than 100 years, Philippine culture has been woven into the fabric of the islands' diverse ethnic society.
The "sakadas" who arrived in the early 1900s to work the plantations paved the way.
Local Filipinos largely credit them with persevering to create better lives for their families, allowing subsequent generations to thrive in other areas such as business, education, athletics and, of course, politics.
In the eyes of many political observers, Filipinos have come a long way in recent elections establishing themselves as a voting bloc that is vocal, unified and necessary for aspiring politicians.
"They've grown in numbers, are more knowledgeable and experienced about local politics and have been courted by local politicians," says former Gov. Ben Cayetano, the first Filipino elected to a state's highest office.
Former Gov. John Waihee sees more unity among Filipinos today than when he was in office from 1986 to 1994.
Back then a divisive figure among local Filipinos was former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, who was exiled to Hawaii after being ousted by the "people power" revolt of 1986. His exile divided the Filipino community because many local Filipinos were from the Ilocos region, where Marcos was from, while others who supported his successor, Corazon Aquino, protested his presence. Marcos died here in 1989 at age 72.
Most of that split has "disappeared" today, says Waihee.
"With Marcos' passing and with kind of a blending, I think there's more unity," he says. "Politically, I think the group that's come the longest way in terms of overcoming factionalization is probably the Filipinos."
Politicians have taken note.
In his 2006 re-election bid, U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka's first big rally in Honolulu was at Farrington High School in a heavily Filipino area. His opponent, former U.S. Rep. Ed Case, courted the Filipino vote with commercials in which he spoke their language.
Running for governor in 2002, Linda Lingle received the backing of local restaurateur Eddie Flores, who helped organized large rallies in Filipino communities.
If there was a turning point when Filipinos became more involved in local politics, Mila Medallon points to the special mayoral election of 1994, in which Jeremy Harris defeated Arnold Morgado.
Medallon, editor-in-chief of The Fil-Am Courier community newspaper, was one of Harris' campaign organizers who helped rally support within the Filipino community. She later became part of the mayor's executive selection committee and fought for the inclusion of Filipinos within the Harris administration.
"Similar grass-roots campaign strategies were employed in subsequent elections," Medallon said via e-mail from the Philippines, where she was part of a relief effort to aid victims of recent typhoons.
Historically, Filipinos have supported Democrats, "probably due to residual loyalties and allegiance to the Democratic Party as labor union members," Medallon said.
But Republicans have made a greater play for the Filipino vote in recent elections.
University of Hawaii political scientist Neal Milner says Filipinos have been courted by Republicans, specifically Lingle in her two most recent campaigns, mainly because the more predominant ethnic groups in Hawaii are strongly Democratic.
"However in play the Filipinos were, they were probably more likely to be in play than the other ethnic groups that exist here," Milner says. "People convinced themselves (about Filipinos) that they're next, they're aspiring, they're moving into the middle class, they're getting education -- they're going to change."
Although many Filipinos still vote Democratic, Medallon says she sees something of a shift among younger Filipinos.
"The newer generation of Filipinos who may have very little clue about the labor history of Hawaii or traditional ties to the Democrat Party are independent and are more inclined to vote for candidates with name recognition, not along party lines," she says.
As one of the younger leaders in the community, 27-year-old Michael Dahilig says he believes Filipinos are at a tipping point, where his generation needs to start getting involved or risk losing some of the gains made by Filipinos in politics.
"We obviously have the intellectual capital to be more proactive; it's just whether or not people my age want to make the choice to do it," says Dahilig, a University of Hawaii graduate student who sits on the Board of Regents.
A supporter of Barack Obama, Dahilig says current events have helped him bring more younger Filipinos into the political fold.
"I think the recent downturn in the economy as well as the Iraq war have really kind of put in the back of a lot of (younger-generation) minds that participation in the electoral process is really crucial and can make a difference," he says. "It's only now that I finally see it's easier to compel people my age to participate and get involved."