Saturday's election of former state Rep. Ed Case to Congress marks the third major race in a row in which a candidate opposed by labor has triumphed.
ANALYSISUnions losing clout
in local elections
By Richard Borreca
Two years ago, former Councilman Mufi Hannemann lost to incumbent Mayor Jeremy Harris; last year, Linda Lingle beat former Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono; and last weekend, Case won a congressional race to fill the term of the late U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink.
In each contest, the candidate opposed by many of Hawaii's public-worker labor unions won.
While observers say it is too simple to say that Hawaii, the nation's most unionized state, is shunning labor candidates, even pro-union supporters admit that union endorsements are not the potent election force they have been in the past.
Labor wins when it is united; a split union vote has little muscle, observers say.
"I think labor unions still have a certain amount of influence ... the real key is whether they can increase their turnout," said former state Sen. Matt Matsunaga, who lost to Case last weekend.
Matsunaga, son of Spark Matsunaga, one of Hawaii's most famous Democrats, won the support of most of the state's public worker unions but was unable to translate that support into victory.
Few union voters actually voted in the special election to fill Mink's seat, Matsunaga said.
Fellow Democrat Sen. Colleen Hanabusa, a labor lawyer who had support from private unions, was also unable to capitalize on the backing of the unions. The turnout was so low, only 22 percent, that Hanabusa argued that the election is not indicative of any trend.
But she noted both Republican Lingle and fiscal conservative Democrat Case may have tapped a vein of voter dissatisfaction with the status quo.
"The elections may be saying something about how the people feel, irrespective of the unions," Hanabusa said.
William Puette, director of the University of Hawaii's center for labor education and research, however, said labor clout is not what is once was.
"I think there has been an erosion in labor's ability to get a candidate elected," Puette said.
The key for labor to be successful, Puette advised, is to be united behind one candidate.
"When labor is not all on the same page, the pack is greatly diluted," Puette added.
When Harris ran two years ago, the public unions supported Hannemann while the private construction unions backed Harris. In the governor's race, Republican Lingle was able to get the support of the university professors and the police while Hirono garnered most of the other unions. And in the recent congressional race, Hanabusa and Matsunaga split the union endorsements.
"You will still see candidates courting the labor vote," Puette says, "but it just won't be as overwhelming as before."
Veteran labor leader J.N. Musto, executive director of the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, said the clout of labor unions is "overstated."
"Unionized workers in Hawaii are part of the middle class; thanks to collective bargaining, they are not a deprived group.
"There may a constant struggle for them, but it also means that labor is not different from other groups in Hawaii," Musto said. "To say that people are divided by whether or not they belong to union puts too much emphasis on what labor has to do with the outcome of an election," Musto added.
UHPA declined to make an endorsement in the congressional race, although it did support Lingle last year.
Case won, Musto argued, because he had been working for nearly a year in a statewide campaign for governor before running for Congress, not because of a rejection of labor.
"He established a good network, so I don't think a labor endorsement is a litmus test," Musto said.
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