Dems’ Obscure Rule Is All Politics

Laura Thielen wants to run for the state Senate as a Democrat. The Central Committee of the Democratic Party has said “no.”

Turns out an obscure party rule requires that a would-be candidate must be a card-carrying party member for six months prior to the election in which they wish to run. Thielen signed her party card too late to meet the deadline for this year’s Aug. 11 primary.

Too bad. Thielen is smart, earnest, articulate and experienced. A lawyer by training, she’s served on the state Board of Education, as executive director of the state Office of Planning, and as chairwoman of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. That’s a powerful resume for someone who seeks election to Hawaii’s humble state Senate.

And, despite a line of descent from longtime Republican state Rep. Cynthia Thielen, and doing her planning and DLNR as an appointee of Republican Gov. Linda Lingle, Thielen insists that she’s always thought of herself as a Democrat.

So why didn’t the Democratic State Central Committee make an exception, waive the rule and allow Thielen to run in the Democratic primary? It’s simple, and oh so complex.

The simple part: A Democratic incumbent already holds the seat in the 25th Senatorial District (Lanikai-Waimanalo). Except for moral turpitude, the true-blue party loyalists who make up the party’s central committee are loath to turn their backs on an incumbent of their own, particularly to enable a Democrat who’s kept intimate company with Republicans literally from the womb.

The complex part: Thielen must contend with the history of Hawaii party-switching (whether she is, in fact, doing that or not). Currently, two state legislators – Mike Gabbard in the Senate and Karen Awana in the House – have crossed the aisle from the Republican side to the Democrat.

Few feel entirely comfortable with these conversions. Republican Party loyalists don’t like to see their colleagues depart, thinning their already thin ranks in the process. And Democrats look with suspicion on those joining who make the move. “What,” the suspicious Democrat asks, “do these people want?”

Influence, of course. Being in a minority as small as Hawaii’s Republican law-makers have endured is no fun. No Republican has chaired a Hawaii legislative committee in decades. Neither have many enjoyed the views from a corner office.

They also look to get elected more easily. Hawaii remains, in all but a half-dozen or so legislative districts, decidedly Democratic. Elected as a Republican in a swing district may mean you will be a one- or-two term lawmaker. A “D” in back of your name simply means greater job security.

Party-switching is not confined to office-holders or political candidates. Hawaii has an open primary, and voters switch camps every primary season. Usually it’s Republicans who do the switching. They don’t do it because of some philosophical epiphany – but because that’s where they can have influence.

Republicans and Independents will vote in droves in the Aug. 11 Democratic primary, knowing full well that they may be choosing the next United States senator in Ed Case or Mazie Hirono – or, among the craftier of them, hoping to choose the Democrat a Republican can more easily beat. Then, four weeks later, they will cast their ballots for Linda Lingle.

Thus Democrat Laura Thielen, however worthy, stands suspect in Democratic eyes.