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Hawaii’s Strange Politics

If you’re going to be visiting Hawaii between now and November fourth, you’re sure to discover that politics are done a little differently here.

A mob of eager sign wavers along the road, arrogantly brandishing the names and slogans of their candidates at passing cars, probably would be wantonly run down by a Jaguar in Beverly Hills or by a semi in Alabama. When you drive your rental car on any of the islands, be aware of curbside candidate supporters who literally will lean out in front of you to smile and wave as you go by.

No candidate in Ohio gets shoulders full of lei just for showing up at a neighborhood gathering. Few denizens of Southern California have heard of any local political candidates in the Bay Area. In Chicago, Houston, Detroit, New York and Philadelphia, the city races are paramount; the state races secondary.

Here in Hawaii, everybody seems to know everybody else. If your cousin’s fiancé is running for office on Kauai, you call your friends on the Garden Isle and urge them to “support” that candidate. We tend to vote for “familiar” names, even when we have no idea whether those names represent ideas and philosophies we agree with. If an elected official in any part of the state does something embarrassing, he or she becomes a pariah statewide. It’s fair to generalize that we ordinary citizens in Hawaii are among the most aware political observers in the whole country. We know the candidates, at least superficially, and in many cases we know their capabilities. We want “action” and “change.”

But almost half of us don’t bother to vote! Somebody who lives in Kakaako (near Downtown Honolulu) is seriously affected by tourism issues, industrial growth and residential glut. The City Council and State House races will dramatically affect their lives. Pick the area: Downtown, Windward, or East Oahu; Central Oahu, Leeward Oahu or the North Shore; either side of the Big Island or any of the other neighbor islands. There are things going wrong, festering problems, ideas needed, opportunities to seize, broken things that need fixing and vacancies to fill. In election years, local strategists at every level of government lecture their candidates about the demographics of the constituents to whom they must appeal. Accordingly, candidates dress properly, say the right things at coffee hours, put the right “key words” into their brochures. Almost all of us are familiar with the key issues, be they local ones or statewide. The newspapers publish candidate profiles and where they stand on the issues. All the incumbents have Internet links to the state government and city government Web sites.

The election process has been improved, modernized, made more accessible and promoted with energy. Still, almost half of us haven’t bothered to vote. Both presidential candidates have ties to Hawaii. Obama was born and raised here. McCain met his wife here and they honeymooned here. Media coverage is at an all-time high. Turnouts at rallies and fundraisers have never been greater. Social gatherings are full of political talk. Maybe this year most of us will actually vote.

Posted by: Jamie Winpenny on Sep 11, 2008