New Generation Drawn To Politics

Hawaii’s voters honor their kupuna. Come September, our two United States senators will celebrate their 87th birthdays. At 86, the two Dans,Akaka and Inouye, are a full quarter-century older than the median age of the Senate’s membership. Then there’s Gov. Neil Abercrombie. In June, he will blow out 73 candles on his birthday cake.

Yet a youth movement is afoot in Hawaii politics, and it’s beginning to encroach on the centers of Hawaii’s political power. The diamondhead suite of offices on the Capitol’s fifth floor may be occupied by a bearded, elderly gentleman, but the ewa suite is occupied by a mere stripling, 38-year-old Brian Schatz.

Young people are filling Hawaii’s legislative offices as well, including at least one of its leadership positions. Last fall, Senate Democrats chose 39-year-old Shan Tsutsui as that body’s president. In the Senate’s reorganization, 34-year-old Jill Tokuda became chairwoman of the important Senate Education Committee (education currently absorbs close to 50 percent of the state’s budget).

The House of Representatives took until opening day of the Legislature to reorganize. Youth played pivotal roles. Twenty-nine-year-old Windward Rep. Chris Lee was among the dissident faction that held out until the bitter end against the continuation of Calvin Say’s 12-year speakership, while newly elected 24-year-old Linda Ichiyama played a key role in keeping Say at the lectern. House Republicans chose as their assistant minority leader 30-year-old Aaron Johansen.

According to Schatz, today’s youths have been slow to enter politics because of the successes of an earlier generation of youngsters, a generation that included Inouye in its legislative class of 1954: “The Democratic Revolution brought greater fairness, equality and economic viability to Hawaii. But that created a sense of complacency among the children and grandchildren of that generation. Politics wasn’t essential to their making it in this world. It became unfashionable to get involved in politics.

“Now we have our own challenges, chief among them being able to afford to stay in Hawaii and bring up our families here.”

Schatz began working on those challenges at the tender age of 26 as a state representative from McCully. He admits that at that age, “Patience I lacked. Energy and motivation I had. Now I think I have the wisdom of experience.”

Included in that wisdom is advice for the legislative newbies of 2010: “Take some time to figure out what kind of legislator you want to be: the insider, the independent rabble rouser, or something in between.

Which role matches your skills? The Legislature needs both: consummate insiders and independent voices.”

Senate president Tsutsui won his Maui Senate seat in 2002 at the age of 31, and he understands the problems of which Schatz speaks. He and wife Lyndele have three children ages 11, 7, and 3: “My generation understands the problem of raising a family and the trouble of getting that first-time home. Half of my closest dozen friends are still living with their parents. We need to diversify the economy, make home ownership more affordable, and invest in job creation. We can’t just be reactive. We have to be long-term.”

Tsutsui sees marked differences between the generations. “In my parents’ generation, parties were separated by ethnicity; older Japanese-Americans looked at that. When I look at my parents’ family pictures, everybody was Japanese. But when I was growing up, we didn’t think of that stuff. Interracial marriage has become common. My kids are half-Japanese and part-Hawaiian, Chinese and Portuguese. They don’t look like their parents, and our family pictures are very ethnically diverse.”

Tsutsui thinks younger politicians are more accepting of different lifestyles as well. Last spring he voted for the civil unions bill; last week, he presided over a similar bill’s passage in the Senate.

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