Taking advantage

The news coming down that two former lawmakers – J. Kalani English and Ty Cullen – were indicted for taking bribes while in office, moved like St. Elmo’s Fire through the political establishment in Hawaii.

From the release of the indictment, which happened on a Tuesday, through the resignation of Ty Cullen from the House, to the revealing of who was “Company A” and the disclosure that this individual was a prolific donor to all sorts of politicians in Hawaii, all made for a whirlwind week in Hawaii politics.

By Friday, when most of the “who, what, where, and when” information came out, one could not be blamed for feeling they just went through the spin cycle in the wash a couple of times. It was breathtaking the speed of both the revelation and the actions by others to contain the damage.

However, a level below this activity, in the area where political activism occurs, there was also a great deal of movement. And unlike how the indictment came down and its resolution – Both English and Cullen will be pleading guilty to the charges – the activists are just ramping up their activity.

The glass mosaic floor mural “Aquarius,” designed by Tadashi Sato at the Hawaii State Capitol, Honolulu, Hawaii - a 360 degree equirectangular VR
Will the “Septic System” scandal cause a philosophical shift in Hawaii’s State Government? Two parties may try to do just that.
PC: “The glass mosaic floor mural “Aquarius,” designed by Tadashi Sato at the Hawaii State Capitol, Honolulu, Hawaii – a 360 degree equirectangular VR” by Kanalu Chock is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

THERE ARE TWO political groups, as seen by this blogger, that is working hard right now to take advantage of the situation put before them. The situation is that long-established politicians who were looked upon as leaders in the body have been found to have dirty hands and whose reputations may sullen others. Those two groups are the “disruptors” and the progressives.

The first group mentioned here may be new to many readers. As this blogger has been researching the political span of Hawaii as of late, one thing became very clear – that the traditional group that one could call “republican” or “conservative” has been supplanted in a way by what some are calling “disruptors”.

Who is a disruptor? It turns out that this is not a group of people that are driven by simply one political or social philosophy. They are in many ways “pan-philosophical” spanning the gamut from social liberal/fiscally conservative to socially libertarian/fiscally liberal. They are not about looking at a ballot and seeing the first name on a party list and voting for them, nor are they simply looking for a person of a similar ethnic group like their own and just voting for them. Instead, they latch onto general themes, and instead of those themes defined by a higher power (party bosses, union leaders, etc.) they instead incorporate the theme and define it for themselves.

For instance, let’s talk about COVID mandates. Person A and Person B are both “against mandates” (the overarching philosophy). Person A says “I am against all mandates whatsoever that limit my freedom of expression and movement”. Person B, though might say “I am against them but in certain circumstances, like wearing a mask in a hospital or having limits on visiting kupuna in a care home, I can live with that”. In the end, they want a lessening the imposition of mandates – the common denominator that drives their voice.

This group might coalesce around a certain political direction that is general, like anti-corruption, define what their line in the sand is on that, and then advocate for a candidate, bill, or resolution that will address it. This group may be powerful in providing a new social direction since “anti-corruption” due to the indictments (and possible future judicial actions) most likely will be an issue going forward in the 2022 election.

And broad messages that allow the individual to define it for themselves, attract the liberal, conservative, libertarian, and even the centrist, thus another factor of how disruptive this group can be.

The second group – liberal progressives – is a more framed, definable group that most people can identify. They are a group that, for the last few years, has worked on consolidating its power and leadership. While all progressives are all not led by one person, a group of liberal-focused groups including Gary Hooser’s “Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action” and to a lesser extent, the “Progressive Democrats” attached to the party and pretty much every large union in the state, starting with Unite Here Local 5.

Recently, upon the news of the indictments, Tweets started coming out suggesting that the progressives are looking to secure candidates to take out more centrist Democrats. The most pointed one came from Hooser, in a tweet on February 10, asking for candidates to take on Mark Hashem for House District 18  in East Honolulu. For those pols that are in the know, Hashem has been a juggernaut of an incumbent since winning his seat in 2010. So for this pundit, seeing Hooser try to find someone to take Hashem on says that they are emboldened.

TechCrunch Disrupt NYC 2011
Political disruptors have entered the fray in Hawaii politics, both taking over narratives by the right and attracting some in the center sick and tired of government overreach during COVID.
PC: “TechCrunch Disrupt NYC 2011” by Scott Beale is licensed under CC BY 2.0

HOW MUCH OF THAT BOLDNESS translates into wins by either the disruptors or progressives, based on the fallout from the scandal will depend a lot on how organized each side gets in putting out a message. The most recent situation that could be seen as an equivalent is the 1997-2001 Bishop Estate “Broken Trust” / Honolulu City Hall scandals. During that time (generally) lawmakers were indicted with the side effect being the revitalization from the dead of the Hawaii Republican Party. With the development in the political world, the party became organized, primed, and had a pool of candidates that could go toe to toe with incumbents. They used the scandals as a campaign message to flip democrat voters and grab more of the 40% that see themselves as independents.

Of course, that drive didn’t last, but that is a story for another post.

If one were to score which side has the better advantage here, progressives get a point more than the disruptors simply due to the fact they have more established leaders. They also have a bevy of candidates that are known quantities. They have bigger mouthpieces, currently than the disruptors. But that could easily change as the political landscape continues to change throughout the election.

For the disruptors, the key for them to do well and really go toe-to-toe with the political establishment is to pivot away from activism (demonstrations) to advocacy (focused policy items over the long term). Without that pivot, disruptors will continue to be seen more like a bunch of noisemakers than influencing policy, which progressives have done.

As said by Shakespeare in Henry V, the game is afoot, complete with new Hawaii political players looking to influence and level up.