The Party Line

By Dan Boylan

Why would anyone want to chair one of Hawaii’s two principal political parties? The position pays nothing. Tenure is short, normally no more than one or two election cycles — sometime three.

If the party wins big one year, everyone expects you to win bigger two years later. If you lose, well … you’re branded as ineffectual, out-of-touch with the grassroots, and you’re soon replaced (provided they can find some other damned fool who’ll take the job).

Historically, your organization — Democrat or Republican — tends to be starved for funds. Political donors give directly to candidates these days, seldom to the parties themselves. So party chairs are forever begging for scraps from their better-heeled elected officials.

“It’s a thankless job,” says state House majority leader Marcus Oshiro. “Everybody’s your boss. Everyone’s got an opinion, and you’re the flashpoint for anyone who’s unhappy with the direction the party’s taking.”

And once gone, you’re quickly forgotten. Don’t believe that? OK, name any three of the last six Democratic and Republican party chairs.

Despite its large, wide downside, in Sam Aiona and Brickwood Galuteria Hawaii’s two major parties boast 6-foot-4-inch, handsome, talented part-Hawaiian chairs who could do far better than their woe-begotten political job.

For Aiona, it may be that politics is in his DNA. Born and reared in Hilo, Aiona comes from a large Hawaiian-Chinese-Portuguese family. “I have 42 first cousins, including Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona,” he says.

While the family as a whole wasn’t political, Sam took to politics early. After graduating from Hilo’s St. Joseph’s High School, he majored in political science at the University of Hawaii. And he became a Republican.

“I felt Hawaii needed a two-party system,” he says of his decision to become a Republican. “And it still needs a two-party system. Ronald Reagan gave me hope, made me believe that Republican principles were what the country needed: that government should get off the backs of people and that individuals should have the freedom to prosper.”

A 17-year-old Aiona worked his first political campaign in 1982 — as youth chair for the Andy Anderson-Pat Saiki gubernatorial campaign. If Reagan inspired him, Saiki mentored Aiona. He worked on her 1986 and 1988 congressional campaigns, and also labored in her 1990 United States Senate and 1994 gubernatorial races.

In 1996, Aiona became a candidate himself, challenging incumbent Democrat Jim Shon for a Makiki-Manoa state House seat. He won, but his career as an elected official was short-lived. Two years later he lost to Democrat Brian Schatz. Aiona sought a rematch in 2000, but he lost a second time to Schatz. When a Manoa-Makiki City Council seat became vacant in 2002, Aiona entered the race and lost to Ann Kobayashi.

Despite three successive defeats at the polls, Aiona’s fascination with politics remains high — because he is, in the words of former House minority leader Galen Fox, “one of the great natural politicians in Hawaii.”

Until taking a job with the Lingle administration, Aiona worked as a mortgage broker. This spring, at age 39, Aiona and wife Cherrie had their first child, a daughter Emily, whose picture Aiona whips out faster than a politician’s handshake.

“When you wake up in the morning and see her smiling face,” says Aiona, “nothing can ruin your day.”

Until a year ago this past spring, few connected the name Brickwood Galuteria with politics, Democratic or Republican. The public knew him as a radio personality, one of the guys you listened to on your morning commute.

Galuteria acknowledges the sparseness of his political experience. “But I served as moderator of Kawaiahao Church during three years when we didn’t have a kahu. Let me tell you, that’s training for party politics.”

Galuteria’s political roots grew out of the labor movement. Born and reared in Kapahulu and Kakaako, Galuteria’s father worked for United Airlines and served as president of his union. His mother worked for the City and County of Honolulu and belonged to the Hawaii Government Employees Association.

Born in 1955, Galuteria attended Kamehameha School from kindergarten to graduation. He played football, volleyball and put the shot on the track team. He admits to playing “on a couple of championship teams in volleyball and football.”

He also took part in the Kamehameha School Concert Glee Club, traveling with them as a vocalist and guitarist. After graduation, he tried college for a short time, dropped out, and went to work for Hawaiian Airlines, performing and “selling Hawaii.” He became an account executive with the airline, then a tour director. He refers to his time with Hawaiian as his “burning out the carbon years.”

Galuteria gave up corporate life and went into entertainment. He performed with Marlene Sai at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel for three years, then broke off to form a group of his own. He won a Na Hoku Hanohano Award as male vocalist of the year. He began his radio career in 1980, first with KCCN-FM 100, then with Hawaiian 105 KINE. He’s been a fixture on morning radio for the past 25 years.

Galuteria and wife Lehua have five children and six grandchildren. Galuteria speaks with particular pride of their second son Sean, a Down syndrome young man with a heart condition.

“He’s our center,” says Galuteria. “He provides us with a certain level of unconditional love. He grounds us. I tell people every home should have a Sean. He’s a black belt vacuum cleaner. He calls me whenever he finishes vacuuming, and I always take the call.”

Aiona has worked for the state for the past two years. He’s the executive director of the Office of Community Services. There, he and his staff help non-profit organizations like Catholic Charities and Goodwill with employment training.

Last May, Aiona took on a second major responsibility: the state Republican Convention meeting on Kauai chose him as its chair. He will shepherd Hawaii’s Republicans in their attempt to re-elect Gov. Linda Lingle to a second term.

“We have to focus,” says Aiona of his 20,000 member party, “first, on re-electing the governor; second, on re-electing our incumbents; and third, on electing as many other Republicans as possible.”

It will require focus, and in recent history Hawaii’s Republicans haven’t always been capable of that. In election year 2004, for example, they devoted much attention to George W. Bush’s candidacy for president, including sending Gov. Lingle to the continent to campaign for him; and that likely contributed to their dropping five seats in the state House of Representatives.

Aiona almost admits as much: “When polls showed President Bush close in Hawaii, the Democrats mobilized; the Democrats came out to vote. But it was close. If 874 votes had gone the other way, we would have picked up three seats.”

They didn’t, and 10 Republicans now face 41 Democrats in the House; five Republicans confront 20 Democrats in the Senate. Those numbers — and similar ones during the first two years of her administration — have made it difficult for Lingle to see her legislative agenda into law.

Still, Aiona sees some good in the 2004 numbers: “Bush got 47 percent of the vote on Oahu. He won Kalihi, a former Democrat stronghold. Where people were voting for morals and values, they voted Republican.”

Aiona himself certainly won’t lose focus in 2006. It’s all about re-electing a governor.

“Linda Lingle has made Hawaii proud again,” he says. “She’s done a lot. Hawaii’s unemployment rate is the lowest in the nation. Our state budget will show a $156 million surplus. When Gov. Lingle came into office, she faced a $200 million deficit. We’re recording record tourism numbers this year.

“Gov. Lingle brought honesty and integrity to state government. She’s proven that electing a Republican is a good thing. We intend to remind voters that thanks to Gov. Lingle they’re better off today than they were four years ago. She’s done well for this state.”

Part of Lingle’s appeal, of course, has been her moderation. In 2002 independents and disaffected Democrats felt comfortable voting for her. But recently conservative Republicans have criticized her for her failure to veto a hike in the state excise tax to build a mass transit system and her support for the Akaka bill.

According to Aiona, those differences won’t hurt Lingle. “The Republican Party contains a diverse group of individuals, and we welcome varying points of view,” says Aiona. “But at the end of the day our membership will see the low unemployment, see that she truly wants to reform education, and that in itself will overcome any differences and re-elect her.”

Re-electing Lingle heads the GOP’s list of 2006 priorities — and will probably be the easiest to realize. But gaining seats in the state House and Senate has proven an illusory goal for Hawaii Republicans. As recently as 1992, the Republicans boasted only four House seats. They went up to seven in the 1994 election and 12 in 1996 — Aiona among them.

In 1998, Lingle came within 5,300 votes of defeating incumbent Gov. Ben Cayetano. But the Republican legislative count remained the same. In defeat, Lingle accepted the Republican Party Chair. In 2000, she engineered a pick-up of seven House seats. Nineteen represented the largest number of Republican seats since statehood in 1959. The Republicans defended their three Senate seats that year, but still stood at an embarrassing 22-3 disadvantage to the Democrats.

All eyes were on Lingle’s second run for the governorship in 2002, and she and Sam Aiona’s part-Hawaiian cousin — Duke — trounced an ethnically unbalanced Democratic ticket of Mazie Hirono and Matt Matsunaga.

The Republicans also talked confidently of picking up a bundle of legislative seats. They did win two state Senate seats. But they lost four in the House, slipping back to 15. Gov. Lingle had demonstrated no coattails.

But she now provided the Republicans with patronage, a slew of state-appointed positions in which would-be legislative and congressional candidates could be provided with employment between attempts to unseat Democrats: a practice the Democrats themselves had used for years.

As the acrimony of the 2004 legislative session grew, Lingle promised retribution against Democrats who opposed her proposals. Instead, despite a slate of promising, well-funded candidates, the Republicans lost six House seats in 2004.

Aiona blames the GOP’s 2004 losses — six incumbent Republicans went down — on Democratic falsehoods. “When the Democrats send out eight brochures telling outright lies about incumbents, of course they’ll pick up seats,” says Aiona. “We emphasized the substance and content of issues in our mailings. The Democrats’ brochures didn’t do that.”

Former Republican House Majority Leader Galen Fox agrees. “The Democrats got really serious after their legislative losses in 2000,” he says. “They blackened the records of incumbents. They used attack campaigns. These Mainland guys came in to help the Democrats, and they told lies about Republican candidates. They did the same thing last year. I really believe Hawaii’s politics has been changed forever — for the worse — by the campaigns of 2002 and 2004.”

In the face of the disappointments of the 2004 campaign, Aiona’s task is to find Republican legislative candidates to challenge incumbent Democrats. “We’re proud of the candidates who ran as Republicans in 2004,” says Aiona. “In 2006 we will have another strong list of candidates. We’re going out into the community now, talking to people and identifying candidates.”

Elected chair of Hawaii’s Democratic Party, Brickwood Galuteria presided over the Democrats’ legislative victories of 2004. He attributes the Republican losses to the hard work of Democrats.

“We had glazed looks in our eyes after Lingle won the governorship in 2002,” he says. “We went back to our natural constituencies. Everybody worked harder. Many of our legislative candidates walked their districts three times, pulled in their belt buckles a couple of notches.”

Galuteria rejects the charge that Democrats ran attack ads: “Depends on what you call ‘nasty.’ We call them truthful. The Republicans put Rep. Sol Kaho‘ohalahala’s picture on a brochure beside that of Saddam Hussein. Against Tommy Waters, they had a picture of a gloved arm reaching through the back door of someone’s home.

“This party is tired of a party that plays dirty but whines because they can’t take a hit themselves.”

Galuteria sees the Democrats’ loss of the governorship in 2002 as the “best thing” that could have happened. “It stunned us, and we decided to do things differently. The party turned to a communications professional like myself, someone from the outside.

“Voter apathy was our problem in 2002. People didn’t vote. Lingle won with 2,000 fewer votes than she received in losing to Cayetano in ’98. Our own base didn’t show up. We made mistakes. It’s my job, our job, to galvanize our base, to reach out to elected officials, labor, business, the grassroots of the party.”

The Democrats’ election of Galuteria as chair last year undoubtedly had much to do with his background in radio. The leaders of a party faced with a media-savvy governor in Linda Lingle and her close adviser, communications director Lenny Klompus, felt they needed Galuteria’s skills.

“Brickwood is the right person at this time for the job,” says Rep. Marcus Oshiro. “He’s articulate. He’s quick on his feet. And he’s always on message. He’s doing a good job.”

Loss of the governorship in 2002 may have been, in Galuteria’s telling, good for the party, but the Democrats very much want to take the office back next year. Their major problem is that, at this date, no one’s stepped forward to run. Talk has centered around banker Walter Dods, former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Eric Shinseki, Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim, U.S. Rep. Ed Case, state Sen. Colleen Hanabusa and former state Sen. Mike McCartney.

Galuteria sheepishly admits that, at the moment, there’s no one in sight. “Running for governor is not for everybody, but I’m confident we will emerge with a strong candidate — hopefully soon,” he says hopefully.

How do the Democrats beat a moderate Republican governor whose approval ratings are high? “We’ll talk about a better quality of life for all of Hawaii’s people, not just for the few,” says Galuteria. “Democrats want to see all boats rise, not just the yachts.”

Galuteria doesn’t get much more specific than that. He mentions that 80 percent of the state’s population lives on Oahu, is snarled in traffic at least twice a day, and favors building a mass transit system. “Gov. Lingle flip-flopped on that issue,” he says. “First she was for it, then she threatened to veto it, then she let it become law without her signature.”

Galuteria and the Democrats, however, face a money problem. Campaign fund-raising scandals, most of which involved Democratic candidates, have plagued the party and its candidates for the past three years.

Republican Lingle recently reported $2.2 million in her campaign coffers. She spent $5.4 million in 2002 — more than double that of her opponent — and she’s expected to raise and spend considerably more next year.

But Galuteria sees increased support coming from the national Democratic Party. “Gov. Howard Dean (chairman of the Democratic National Committee) has committed the party to a 50-state strategy,” says Galuteria. “For Hawaii, that will mean three field directors and some financial support for next year’s campaign.”

Next year’s campaign will test to the limit skills of both Galuteria and Aiona. Galuteria needs to find a formidable gubernatorial candidate to go toe-to-toe with Lingle. Aiona needs to find attractive, energetic legislative candidates.

Galuteria and the Democrats would be helped if the economy slowed a little — or if inflation caused folks to have second thoughts about Lingle. Aiona wants to see that unemployment rate stay low, those visitor numbers continue to soar, and state revenues to grow.

In the end between Galuteria and Aiona, one will win, one will lose, and neither will receive many thanks.

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