Something new is afoot in state politics. No, we don't have a sudden and strong Republican response to years of Democratic dominance in the islands. Far from it. The Hawaii Democratic Party seems stronger than ever.
The state Senate has only one Republican in it; the House has seven. That makes us one of the most lopsided legislatures in the country. But don't be fooled by that. A subtle change is taking shape.
For nearly 40 years, the Democratic Party could be divided into two distinct camps that have battled each other in bitter and ferocious primary elections. The first symbolic clash came during the 1970 gubernatorial primary between the incumbent, now-mythic John A. Burns, and his former lieutenant governor, Thomas Gill, equally legendary.
The governor had the support of the first generation of Democrats who took control from Republicans in the later years of the territory and led the Democrats throughout the 1950s and '60s. These were prosperous years for Hawaii, and Gov. Burns had support from land developers, hotels, the military and builders who saw the state as an excellent investment. This included the big labor unions. Burns and his supporters fought the good fight together. They had a common experience through the "plantation days," a world war, and the economic boom that followed statehood.
Gill played the part of the upstart. He was younger, more charismatic, and a better speaker than the incumbent. He captured the vote of Democrats who were not part of the inner circle of power. Gill supporters tended to be students, environmentalists, activists, the first wave of migrants from the Mainland, and the burgeoning Native Hawaiian movement. They were Democrats too. Gill lost the primary, and Burns comfortably won the general election and started his third term as governor.
But ever since that Burns-Gill primary, the roles for Democrats were clearly defined. After his death, Burns' lieutenant governor, George Ariyoshi, took up the banner as the candidate for the established big business and big labor. Tom Gill ran again, but the opposition vote was split between him and Frank Fasi, a very different kind of upstart.
The Burns-Gill divide has manifested itself in all kinds of races throughout the state for decades. At Democratic rallies and events, you can still hear candidates talk about how their ancestors were hardworking plantation laborers. The takeover from the Republicans is still a rallying cry 60 years after the fact.
In the other camp, the Gill candidates - whether they know it or not - promise to buck the status quo and create a more responsive and encompassing government for those who may not have been part of the establishment from the get-go. And that's how it went. Sometimes, the establishment candidate won, other times the upstart would win. Either way, the Republican lost.
But something happened in 2006 when Ed Case challenged incumbent Daniel Akaka in a race for the U.S. Senate. At first glance it didn't seem all that different. Clearly, the incumbent was an establishment candidate. And Case was certainly an upstart.
However, Case was a moderate Blue Dog Democrat. This did not fit the classic Tom Gill candidate. Ironically, the activists, environmentalists and the others in the party who would normally support the upstart joined up with Akaka's backers.
The old dividing line within the party got blurrier when Neil Abercrombie squared off against Mufi Hannemann in the gubernatorial race. Could you call Abercrombie an upstart Gill candidate? Not in 2010. He was definitely an outsider liberal from New York in the 1970s when he ran for office. He has long been a proponent of green industry, gay rights and other progressive causes. But when he ran for governor, he had already served for many years on U.S. House committees overseeing the armed forces and was a quiet supporter of the military presence in the islands. Was Hannemann the establishment candidate? Not really. He may have had the support of big business and developers, but he was not a fixture in Hawaii politics like Abercrombie.
Now it seems that the next big primary is for the U.S. Senate, and again the lines are blurry for now. Sen. Brian Schatz is no upstart. Big labor and the establishment supported him in his race for the lieutenant governor in 2010. U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa is the challenger and is also supported by labor unions. In fact, like Gill, she was a labor lawyer. But unlike Gill, she's part of the New Democrat Coalition, a group of moderate Democrats that advocate free trade and are pro-business.
These candidates are harder to pin down. Perhaps the Burns-Gill model is breaking down for good. The recent primaries have forged new alliances, new power brokers, and, hopefully, new ideas. It could be a healthy sign that as a state, our politics are moving in a different direction.