Japanese American state legislator upsets incumbent Hawai’i governor

Hawai’i Governor Neil Abercrombie (on the right) congratulates opponent State Senator David Ige (second from right) on Ige’s victory in the state’s Democratic primary on August 9, 2014.

Saturday’s primary election in Hawai’i saw AAPI candidates win impressive victories in top races. How do these races impact national AAPI politics?

Voter turnout was extremely low likely due to Tropical Storm Iselle, which hit the islands on Friday, and the impending arrival of Hurricane Julio. However, absentee voter turnout was up 12 percent.

State Senator David Ige, a veteran Japanese Amercian state legislator, upset incumbent Governor Neil Abercrombie in the Democratic primary. The last time an incumbent governor lost a primary was 1962. Hawai’i’s first governor, Republican William F. Quinn, was defeated by Democrat John A. Burns, a former Delegate to Congress. Burns led a new coalition of labor and Japanese Americans that turned the 50th state blue after years of Republican domination.

Although he chaired the powerful Senate Ways and Means committee, Ige was not a household name. Despite a campaign war chest a fraction of the size of Abercrombie’s, Ige leveraged a strong grassroots campaign to tap into constituent dissatisfaction with the governor’s style and controversial decisions. Ige notably had the support of former governors George Ariyoshi, the first AAPI governor in the U.S., and Benjamin Cayetano, the first Filipino American governor.

AAPI electoral power is still strong in Hawai’i, but voters don’t cast their ballots strictly along ethnic lines. Gov. Abercrombie counted numerous AAPIs as supporters, including former State Senator Randy Iwase, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 2006.

Ige will meet Republican Duke Aiona, a former lieutenant governor, in the general election. Should Ige win the general in the heavily Democratic state, he will be one of the few AAPI governors in the union. Ige hasn’t played much on the national scene before and likely lacks ambitions for higher office. One of the most tech-savvy officeholders in the country, I suspect that we will see his influence more in public sector innovation than on the national AAPI front.

Sitting Lieutenant Governor Shan Tsutsui, a Japanese American from Maui, comfortably won his primary and will join Ige on the Democratic gubernatorial ticket in the general election. It will mark the first time since 1974’s ticket of George Ariyoshi and Jean King that two Japanese Americans were the top-ticket team of any political party in Hawai’i. Governor Abercrombie picked Tsutsui as LG to replace Brian Schatz, who was appointed U.S. Senator following Daniel Inouye’s passing.

Senator Schatz faced a vigorous primary challenge from Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa. As of this writing, the race was still too close to call with Schatz leading with only 1,635 votes and a number of precincts still to vote because of polling place shutdowns due to the tropical storm.

Senator Inouye asked Governor Abercrombie to appoint Hanabusa as his successor, but the governor instead went with Schatz, his LG at the time. Inouye loyalists were shocked at the governor’s decision, but others supported Governor Abercrombie’s selection.

Abercrombie later inflamed the issue by seemingly calling into the question the validity of Senator Inouye’s wish, raising questions about whether Japanese American voters would respond with support for Ige. It’s not clear how much this issue played into Abercrombie’s defeat, or in the Hanabusa-Schatz match-up.

If Hanabusa crosses the finish line ahead of Schatz, she will join Senator Mazie Hirono, and Hawai’i would have two AAPI women Senators representing it in Washington. Hirono and Hanabusa have been comfortable appearing on the national scene, appearing at progressive gatherings like Netroots Nation.

All the top candidates for Hanabusa’s seat in Congress were AAPIs. State Senate President Donna Mercado Kim (Filipina/Korean), State Representative Mark Takai (Japanese), and Honolulu City Councilmember Stanley Chang (Chinese) ran strong campaigns and gave voters distinctly different options. Kim was the early-on favorite and the fundraising powerhouse. Takai, a 20-year veteran of the state house and a Lt. Colonel in the Hawaii National Guard, eventually prevailed and will likely win the general.

If elected, Takai will likely be quite interested in the national AAPI political movement. His previous engagements on the national scene were largely as an advocate for veterans and our servicewomen and men. But once he makes the transition from being the political majority to the ranks of the politically under-represented, Takai will quickly see roles he can play in advancing AAPI empowerment.

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