Hawaii’s Beth Fukumoto is quitting the GOP. Whose defection is it?

Once a rising star in Republican national politics, the Hawaii state representative was asked to resign as state House minority whip in February after criticizing President Trump at a Women's March rally. Now she's trying to join the Democrats.

Courtesy of Hawaii State Capitol/Reuters
US Representative Beth Fukumoto is shown in this undated handout photo in Honolulu, provided March 22, 2017.

A few years ago, a rattled Republican party was convinced it had to remake itself in the image of younger, ethnically diverse voters, and Beth Fukumoto, a representative in Hawaii’s House, emerged as a rising star in the party.

The state’s youngest-ever House minority leader – having ascended to the position before she’d hit 30 – the Republican National Committee tapped Representative Fukumoto to help recruit female candidates. National media hailed her as a centrist, new-American antidote to the GOP’s diversity problem.

Too centrist, and too new-American, maybe.

On Wednesday, Ms. Fukumoto announced she would leave the Republican Party and seek to join the Democrats, citing complacency toward racism and sexism from GOP legislators – in addition to President Trump’s controversial remarks about women and minorities, which she previously denounced in a speech at a February Women’s March demonstration in Honolulu.

“No ethnic group in our state is a majority, and more than 70 percent of the population isn't white. But our Hawaii Republican Party leaders wanted us to adopt ‘middle American’ values instead of holding on to Republican principles that also reflect our own local values, such as responsible stewardship over things like wealth and power,” she wrote in her resignation letter, before going on to recall her Japanese-American grandparents’ internment during World War II.

“I don’t believe that I can make a difference in the Hawaii Republican Party,” she said, adding that if she were to stay, “I would simply become an obstructionist in a political party that doesn’t want to hear my voice or my message.”

Historically, party defections aren't entirely unusual, but Fukumoto's appears to mark the first from Republicans during the Trump era. And given a trend toward polarization that political scientists say is likely to make an already rare move rarer, it turns a spotlight onto who, exactly, has drifted away from whom.

Party defections happen for various reasons, says William Heller, a Binghamton University professor who has studied the phenomenon in other countries.

“Most legislators will point to their party shifting away and use that to justify what they’re doing, whether it’s true or not,” he tells The Christian Science Monitor. “The most basic reason to switch is, you think you’re more likely to hold onto your seat if you’re in a different party.”

In certain multi-party systems, for instance, some legislators leave for similar parties with less rigid rules about voting the party line. But leaps across the ideological gap between left and right, to the extent one exists, is much rarer. Sometimes, as in Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords’ 2001 departure from the GOP, it’s because a nationally prominent member feels out of sync with other members on key issues. 

In some cases, notes M.V. Hood, a University of Georgia political scientist, political party defections reflect a broader, more meaningful shift in a party’s direction, like when conservative Democrats began a post-civil rights era exodus from the party in the South. 

Back then, Dr. Hood tells the Monitor, newly "Republicanized" legislators tended not to go through the usual agonizing over how to preserve credibility among the people who elected them.

“Among Southerners, it wasn’t an ideological switch, so they didn’t have to pretend to be something they weren’t,” he says. “Socially, economically even, these individuals lined up closer to being Republicans.”

But defections can also be major swings in direction. When it’s time to cast final-passage votes on legislation, found a 2009 study by Texas Tech political science professor Timothy Nokken, party-switchers might not swing dramatically toward their new party’s extreme, since they have a reputation to protect among voters. But on procedural and amendment votes, which are often highly partisan and highly consequential for a bill’s shape and chances of passing, political converts are often zealous ones.

For Fukumoto, who says she made her decision after seeking constituents’ input, the GOP’s rightward turn on cultural questions might have indeed left her in the lurch. But in a profoundly ethnically diverse state that turned deep blue during the Obama years, Hawaiian Democrats are wary of Republicans seeking to join their ranks.

That might mean her past votes against same-sex marriage bills, for instance – which she says reflected the will of her constituents rather than her own beliefs – could force her to make a go of it as an independent, rather than a Democrat.

What’s clear, says American University political scientist David Lublin, is that leaving the GOP wouldn’t put a damper on any national ambition.

“Divisions in the Hawaiian legislature will not be along particularly partisan lines. It’ll be poor versus rich areas, or outlying islands and the centers, or who’s friends with the Speaker and who’s not,” he tells the Monitor.

“There’s no future on a national scale for Republicans in Hawaii,” he adds. “Zero.”

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