by Andrew Walden
Will Hawaii Democrats’ dispute over whether to allow former Lingle Cabinet member Laura Thielen to run for State Senate as a Democrat propel the Hawaii Democratic Party to finally file a long-awaited lawsuit to enforce Democratic Party rules which require that only Democratic Party members be allowed to vote in Democratic Primary elections?
Comments in an email discussion amongst Democratic State Committee members indicate that both supporters and opponents of Thielen may favor changing Hawaii’s open primary system. For Thielen’s supporters, a Democrats-only primary is an alternative to the system which they believe wrongly excluded their candidate. To her opponents, the Democrats-only primary is a ‘bright line’ rule which makes it more difficult for non-Democrats to influence the Democratic Party’s choices. To both sides a change in the Primary system is a fairer and less capricious method of candidate selection.
On the Party website, Hawaii Democratic Chair Dante Carpenter writes: “The time for this discussion is fortuitous (perfect)! Our Biennial Democratic Party State Convention will run from May 25th thru 27th, preceded by County Conventions across the State. In fact, Kaua`i County has its convention this Saturday, April 7th. This is, indeed, the perfect time to propose and make changes for future elections if the majority of you feel we should.” Oahu County Democrats hold their convention May 5.
Unite Here Local 5 Chair Tony Gill is front and center in the email debate. The dispute comes just months after Gill won the support of UHPA—and $20,000 in financial backing—to file the Democratic Primary lawsuit. Describing Gill’s UHPA meeting, Ian Lind explains:
In November, Oahu Democratic Party Chairman Tony Gill appealed to the board of the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, the faculty union, to support a federal lawsuit challenging Hawaii’s open primary.
Gill, who also serves as UHPA’s legal counsel, told the board of directors the open primary “allows voters from one party to unfairly influence the outcome of another party’s primary if they so choose,” according to a report of the meeting mailed to all UH faculty.
In a closed primary, voters must declare their party preference before voting in the primary election of their designated party. Hawaii had a closed primary system until it was overturned by the 1978 Constitutional Convention, which proposed a constitutional amendment doing away with the party preference requirement. The amendment was approved by voters, and we’ve been an open primary state ever since.
According to the UHPA board report: “Mr. Gill explained that the freedom of association provision of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution supports a process that allows political parties to determine who can vote in their primary and that Hawaii’s primary election law is out of compliance with the freedom of association provision in the U.S. Constitution. In order to rectify this error, a lawsuit must be filed and Mr. Gill asked UHPA to consider supporting this federal litigation.”
After what was described as a “lengthy discussion,” UHPA voted to cover up to $20,000 in out-of-pocket expenses related to the legal challenge.
Here are the comments leaked in an April 10-13 exchange of emails between Hawaii Democratic Party State Committee members (emphasis added):
Lance Bateman: “…when ‘inclusion’ means we have no standards at all, that’s over the line for me. But I do believe this ‘waiver’ was included to give us more flexibility than was shown in the latest huhu. And I believe she (Laura Thielen) will still file to run for the seat, and I do not see the legal standing we’d have to go to court – or the budget. Not all party rules are referenced or acknowledged by the law. Making progress toward a ‘party primary’ might address that, but that’s a project that has been going on for years now, and I don’t know the current status.
Tony Gill (Unite Here Local 5 Boss and Chair of Oahu County Committee): We inhabit a peculiar political era in which even prominent members of our own Party denounce anything connected with a) allowing members of our own Party to decide who best represents us and b) insisting that people who want to run to represent the Party have some connection to it.
We have to recognize that this is a degenerate era, and have to get back to first principles.…the discussion so far creates a natural bridge to the more important rules changes needed.
(He lists several proposed rules changes including…)
…finally get the primary election system fixed so that D members and publicly-declared D sympathizers decide who represents the D party.
These changes are easy to make, long overdue, and should be extremely simple for sincere D candidates and incumbents to comply with.
…we have an opportunity to reflect on the motivations that cause some people to object to the six-month rule. One thing we must confront, as a party, is that many cadres or groups find any party discipline interruptive of their agenda. Suppose there’s a group (not the formal Democrats, another group) which thinks it is the ‘true’ custodian of D values. (There are several such groups). Such a group wants the ability to a) just put up one of its own as a D, without interruption, and run him or her for office, appropriating the name of the D party, and b) drive its group membership (many of whom would never join the D party) into the primary to ensure his or her election. This system, which ahs been in place for decades, depreciates actual party membership, and leads to the intrusion into the party of people who basically do not wear the D hat. They wear the X hat instead and pose as Ds. We then have the breakdown of the party into tribes, resulting in the strange situation extant since the end of the sixties. Personally, I accept Ds of all ideological stripes, but I want them to wear the D hat when they are in our house.
…the most fundamental problem is: how to give party membership some value. We do not exist to serve the electeds. We do not exist to serve the interest groups that support the party. We do not exist to prance around praising whomever self-anoints to run in our name. We exist to give our members a voice. That is our legal and moral duty.
…so many of the tribes have become accustomed to the party itself having no structure and no spine. We can fix this, without imposing doctrinal litmus tests, by imposing simple, bright-line rules….
Jim Shon (Former head of Charter School Administrative Office) disagrees with much of what Gill wrote but includes this: (What D means) is determined by who is nominated in the primary election. It is determined by who supports them. Who endorses. Who campaigns and who waves signs. We do not presume to predetermine who is qualified to be nominated by our party in the primary.
Doug Pyle: I’ve read Jim Shon’s and Tony Gill’s arguments and I actually think their positions are compatible. I agree with most of what both wrote….
I do agree with Jim when he said, ‘some believe that there is an unsavory motivation of would-be Democrats.’ Among those who believe there is ‘unsavory motivation’ is the editorial board of the Star-Advertiser. In the Friday April 6 editorial, they wrote Democrats earned a ‘black eye’ because, in their view, we don’t let Republicans run as Democrats. They argue that because we are the Party voters trust most, and we are ‘overwhelmingly dominant in the state,’ that the 2-party system is failing to give voters a viable choice, and so the Democratic party should serve by being all things to all people, and serve voters by nominating candidates who do NOT support our own platform. I think most Democrats disagree, and want the party to stand for something. But, this is the same paper that invited Republicans to vote in our primary to defeat Senator Akaka. That caused the Republican Party to respond in a letter, pleading for Republicans to vote in their own primary.
The conservative, anti-labor, sometimes libertarian (on social issues) media in Hawaii are frustrated that they can’t elect Republicans and they want Democrats to do it for them.
I also agree with Jim that executive session restrictions need not hamper our ability to discuss the public record.
For example, it is not a matter of executive session to point out:
1) Our Party’s position stated in our Constitution, Article 1, is that we believe the Party has the right to a primary that ensures Democrats can nominate Democrats, and that we expect nominated Democrats will give their general support to our platform and resolutions….
…I can support Tony’s formula, or some other workable formula, provided it is clear, fair and well-understood by candidates. Some may prefer a more flexible formula and, as long as it remains clear and easy to understand, I can support that too. Bit I am fairly sure, most Democrats do not want our Democratic Party to be what the Star-Advertiser wants us to be: an opportunity for frustrated Republicans to pose as Democrats because they can’t win as Republicans. No rule can protect this 100%, but having no rule gives us 100% inability to address even the most blatant disregard for what voters believe it means to be a candidate of the Democratic Party.
Lynne: The legislators are in a self-constructed bubble, some are only Dems because they would not be electable without the D, and we really do need to move on.
Chuck Prentiss: …we need to address…what we have been calling the ‘disconnect.’ It primarily relates to the difference between our Platform and Resolutions and the Bills introduced and decisions made by Democrat members of the Legislature. The ‘disconnect’ seems to relate closely to the ease with which we allow people to use our good name D to run for office, and to serve without challenge.
Full Text: Email Exchange
Dec 28, 2012: Island Democrats prepare to challenge “open primary” election law
March 2009: Hawaii Democrats debate closed primary (backgrounder)
March 2009: Hawaii Republicans challenge state's open primary system