Republican Tide in US Politics Doesn't Reach Hawaii's Shores

In a time when the rest of the country remains in the slipstream of the Republican Revolution, Hawaii stands out as a conspicuous anomaly.

While Republicans last week notched significant victories in traditionally Democratic New York and New Jersey, Hawaii has held out as an unabashedly liberal stronghold. And although a protracted recession has created a few cracks in the state's Democratic fortress, there are no signs that Hawaii is on the verge of the sea change that swept the United States in the mid-1990s.

Indeed, in many ways, it has continued to strengthen its liberal underpinnings.

* Democrats still hold 76 of the 90 seats in the Legislature.

* This summer, Hawaii became the first state to mandate benefits to domestic partners who could not legally marry.

* Recent state Supreme Court decisions have upheld the legal concept of gay marriage and have rolled back privatization, forcing counties to fire private contractors and rehire unionized workers.

The roots of Hawaii's liberal tradition are complex. As an island, survival has always been a communal struggle against the limited resources of a confined environment. "A lot of people think old Hawaii was paradise. It wasn't," says US Rep. Neil Abercrombie, a fourth-term Democrat. "People had to work very hard to survive. It required a lot of cooperation."

Later, thousands of immigrants from China, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines worked together on sugarcane plantations under grueling conditions, forming cross-cultural ties.

"We were multiethnic before any state on the mainland," says Dan Boylan, a political scientist at the University of Hawaii, West Oahu. "That has taught people in Hawaii tolerance."

These same immigrants - most notably the Americans of Japanese ancestry - rose up to grab political power during the 1950s and formed labor unions that became a potent political and economic force.

By contrast, the islands' Polynesians have always been on the fringes of political power. Even during pre-colonial days, a tradition of deference to a strong controlling group led to the monarchy, and later to a merchant class of landed whites who ruled through the Republican Party.

And even though native Hawaiians are now in positions of political power, state politics have had a distinctly Asian flavor since the 1950s: Consensus has been valued over conflict, speaking out has been frowned upon. The government has replaced the plantation boss as caretaker of the common good.

DURING the 1960s, Hawaii enacted generous laws on workers' compensation, strike benefits, and welfare benefits. It was the first state to legalize abortion, and the first state to adopt the Equal Rights Amendment. And as the rest of the nation swung to the right in the 1990s, Hawaii stayed its liberal course, buoyed by an economy that averaged 4.5 percent annual growth between 1960 and 1990.

But the growth has stalled, and Hawaii is in the kind of deep economic slump that preceded the Republican Revolution. The economic crunch is putting Hawaii's liberal mandate to the test.

"We have used Hawaii as a social laboratory for kinds of collectivist programs that are found nowhere else in the US, and they haven't worked here," says Republican state Sen. Sam Slom.

Small gains by the Republican Party in the recent election - and a consensus among labor and business that taxes and government must be cut - have shown that this liberal bastion is not unassailable.

In addition, subtle political undercurrents and public-opinion polls indicate that the state is inching to the right. "The governor is recommending trickle-down economics to solve our problems, and the younger generation of legislators is much more conservative," says Mr. Boylan, who has observed Hawaii politics for 27 years. "I have certainly seen the Democratic Party become less liberal."

Less liberal, however, is a relative comparison. While Republicans like Senator Slom claim the system is broken, Democrats are firmly committed to many of the social benefits and liberal policies other states have so eagerly dismantled.

"They say, 'If we could just get rid of health benefits or workers' benefits, then things would be better,' " says Representative Abercrombie. "Of course it would be better - if you owned the plantation. I think Hawaii has a lot of lessons to bring to the mainland."

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