Neighbor island campaigns can decide candidates' fate


POSTED: Sunday, June 14, 2009

George Yokoyama—slight, gray-haired and usually dressed in a worn aloha shirt and nervously smoking a cigarette—doesn't fit the stereotype of a political power broker.

But if you're a politician from Honolulu, he's the man who can help you.

Yokoyama, director of the Hawaii County Economic Opportunity Council, is the go-to guy in Hilo. Don't bet on winning Hilo without Yokoyama on your side.

He embodies the political dilemma facing two successful Honolulu politicians, Mayor Mufi Hannemann and U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, as they start their quest for the governorship in 2010.

Experienced Honolulu politicians learned quickly while campaigning on the neighbor islands that not only do you have to know people, you have to know the right people and they have to get to know and trust you.

Hawaii Democratic Party Chairman Brian Schatz lost in a 2006 race for the 2nd Congressional District, which encompasses the neighbor islands, but says the campaign taught him the fine nuances of neighbor island politics.

“;It can be a baptism of fire. You can't just show up in an election year and assume that people know your name from Oahu politics,”; Schatz said.

“;The key to organizing on the neighbor islands is relationships. It is not just about showing up at a bon dance or senior citizens center. It is coming with the right people and coming recommended by the right people,”; he said.

Asked about the coming race, Yokoyama chuckled.

“;Hey, they are coming out like flies, man,”; Yokoyama said. “;Abercrombie come see me, Hanabusa come see me, Mufi Hannemann wants to see me.”;

Senate President Colleen Hanabusa has not decided if she will run for governor, but the Waianae Democrat recalls after coming in second in that 2006 congressional race that campaigning off Oahu is a distinct art form.

“;As much as you think you are going to address their concerns, the most difficult part is to know you are not,”; Hanabusa advised. “;The first thing you have to do is listen, and when you listen, you have to hear what they are saying.”;

What many neighbor islanders are saying is that they want a piece of the action.

“;There is a feeling among many that Honolulu is the power base and they are looking for political leaders that make sure neighbor island views and people are represented when decisions are being made,”; Schatz said.

The neighbor islands will be more important in Hawaii politics because there has been a population shift off of Oahu. Since 1990 the population of Oahu has fallen from 75 percent to 70 percent of the state total.

Democratic political organizer and adviser Andy Winer said the neighbor islands have always been a key part of Democratic strategy. Since the days of famed political organizer Bob Oshiro, Democrats have always figured on splitting the vote evenly on Oahu and then beating the GOP with rank-and-file union votes on the neighbor islands.

Although normal Democratic politics can be complicated, Winer noted that neighbor island Democratic politics takes a special finesse. “;There is a friction that exists between groups that would be traditional Democratic voters,”; he said.

“;It boils down to growth versus no growth, especially on Maui and Kauai. You have traditional Democratic labor and public employee groups and progressives who are also Democrats and they have a different view of how things should be.

“;If you gravitate to one group and do it too much, you can alienate yourself with other groups,”; Winer warned.

Hanabusa agrees, saying that even a small island such as Kauai can encompass areas as “;diverse as Waianae and Waikiki.”;

Maui County is especially tricky because of its three islands with three distinct sets of issues.

“;The most unique is Molokai—it has an innate toughness with much warmth and you only appreciate it if you spend the time to sit with people,”; Hanabusa said.

Schatz added that the rural nature of the neighbor islands lends a slower pace and voters expect their politicians to be at the same speed.

“;It may take years to build a relationship and the expectation is you don't bounce around. You don't stay for an hour and then jump into your rental car,”; Schatz said.

“;Set aside a few days to just spend time. Your first move should not be to hold a rally, you should visit the community leaders one-by-one and listen,”; Schatz said.

Neighbor island political friends are valuable, Hanabusa added.

“;When someone from the neighbor islands says they will commit to you, you can take it to the bank. You find they do not do it readily, but when they do, they would really sacrifice part of their life to you,”; Hanabusa said.

Yokoyama agreed, recalling the campaign between former Rep. Cec Heftel and then-Lt. Gov. John Waihee, who grew up on the Big Island.

“;We worked our okoles off for him and he won,”; Yokoyama said.


Outer-island pushes take a unique touch

Attention, Rep. Neil Abercrombie and Mayor Mufi Hannemann: If you are campaigning for governor on the neighbor islands, here's some advice from experts and some city slickers who learned how to campaign country-style:

» Brian Schatz, Hawaii Democratic Party chairman: “;If you go to the Makawao parade on Maui, remember you are in a neighbor island environment. If you come over in slacks and loafers, you are going to stand out like a sore thumb.”;

» Senate President Colleen Hanabusa: “;Don't go to a senior center without bringing something, and you have to get up early to go get something to share or make it the night before.”;

» Andy Winer, Democratic Party campaign tactician: “;Be respectful of your neighbor island campaign team. If you are too top-down it can cause dysfunctionality. The neighbor island people know their islands.”;

» George Yokoyama, Hilo community organizer: “;You need someone for each House district on the Big Island, someone who can get 20 people together. You don't need money—maybe just coffee and doughnut money, but you need seven good people.”;