The Latest Politician To Switch Sides

Gil Riviere, GOP

Gil Riviere switched from the GOP to the Democratic Party. Photo courtesy Gil Riviere

As the Hawaii Democratic Convention wound down two Sundays ago, a former state legislator looked over the convention hall, shook his head and asked, “What went on here? Something’s ending, but I can’t figure out what’s emerging.”

Wonderment could be the appropriate response to both Hawaii political conventions. After the May 17 Republican conclave, conservative Tito Montes of the Hawaii Republican Assembly excoriated GOP chairwoman Pat Saiki and National Committeewoman Miriam Hellreich for tripling “down on neutrality, silence and inaction for another two years by retaining an official party platform … destined to keep Hawaii’s tiny minority party in the political wilderness of irrelevance through 2016.”

Montes’ complaint notwithstanding, tea party conservatism already has won the struggle for the soul of the Republican Party, here and across the nation. Nationally, that victory, with the aid of congressional redistricting by conservative state legislatures, has led to control of the U.S. House of Representatives. This year, Republicans will likely win a majority in the U.S. Senate as well.

But in Hawaii, it’s meant an ever smaller Republican presence in elective office.

The Hawaii Democratic Party circa 2014 also lacks definition; something may be ending, something may be emerging. Nobody seems to know. But they do know that Hawaii’s Democratic Party is where you go to win.

Consider, for example, former state Rep. Gil Riviere. In the spring of 2012, Riviere attended the Hawaii Republican Convention. He was coming off his second legislative session as one of the Republican Party’s rising stars.

Ten days ago, Riviere attended the Hawaii Democratic Convention as a candidate for State Senate District 23 — stretching along the North Shore from Kaneohe to Kunia with everything in between as a Democrat. What happened to Republican Riviere?

Reapportionment got him. “It cut Waialua, where I live, out of my district,” says Riviere. “My friends, many of whom were Democrats or moderate Republicans, were fired up about beating Mufi (a candidate for Congress in 2012), so they voted in the Democratic primary. Complacency set in. Everybody assured me I was going to win, but I saw it coming.”

And come it did. On primary election night, Aug. 11, 2012, the incumbent Riviere lost to fellow Republican Richard Fale by 76 votes, 727-651.

“Richard has a good ground game,” says Riviere.

It also might be noted that he’s decidedly more conservative than Riviere.

How does Riviere reconcile switching parties?

“I grew up in Southern California as a Republican,” says Riviere. “My dad was a retired policeman; my mom was a homemaker. I was raised a Republican. But at some point in life, we all make a decision about our politics. I’m not the first Hawaii Republican to switch parties — just the most recent.”

Indeed. The list is a long one. At this year’s Democratic Convention alone, both U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and her father, state Sen. Mike Gab-bard, first won elective office as Republicans. Add City Councilman Ikaika Anderson, whose grandfather Whitney and Uncle Andy both wore R’s on their chests. This year the younger Anderson seeks the Democrats’ 1st Congressional District nomination.

“Look, I want to represent the district,” says Riviere. “My soul and my conscience are with the district, and I think I represent the sentiments of its people.”

State Sen. Clayton Hee, who’s vacating the seat Riviere seeks to fill, thinks so as well. In announcing his candidacy for lieutenant governor, Hee endorsed Riviere as his replacement.