The GOP’s Local Youth Movement

Republican state Reps. Richard Fale, Beth Fukumoto, Aaron Ling Johanson and Lauren Cheape | Photo courtesy House Minority Caucus

Republican state Reps. Richard Fale, Beth Fukumoto, Aaron Ling Johanson and Lauren Cheape | Photo courtesy House Minority Caucus

Finding signs of life in Hawaii’s Republican Party can be frustrating – almost as frustrating as being a Republican in Hawaii. Hawaii’s congressional delegation belongs to the Democrats – so, too, the governorship and both houses of the state Legislature.

Republican numbers are near record lows. They own but one seat in the 25-member state Senate, seven in the 51-member House of Representatives – and the latter number has changed little in recent years. The promise of Republican Linda Lingle’s eight years as governor did not translate to legislative victories.

Yet there’s hope. It’s to be found in four young Republicans, three of whom are freshmen and the fourth in his second term in the state House. Aaron Ling Johanson, the Republican minority leader and vice chairman of the House Finance Committee, is 33 years old. First-year members Richard Fale, Beth Fukumoto and Lauren Cheape are 31, 28 and 25, respectively.

All claim Democrats in their closets. Johanson’s grandmother was a Democrat. Fukumoto’s mother came to Hawaii to help with the unions. Cheape’s grandmother, Suzanne Peterson, served in Democrat Gov. John Waihee’s agriculture department.

Says Fale, “I grew up in Tonga thinking the Democrats in Hawaii were for the little guy, but when I got here and experienced the education system, I said, ‘If this is how Democrats govern, I’m not one.'”

All hold firmly to the need for a strong two-party system. “Democracy means strong debates, and that requires a strong Republican Party,” says Cheape.

But they also seek, as Johanson puts it, “to be strategically relevant.”

Thus the Republicans’ coalition with Democrats supporting Joe Souki for the speakership.

Has the coalition with Democrats worked?

All smile.

“None of us were overly idealistic about what it would bring,” says Fukumoto.

Adds Johanson: “But is there progress? Yes. This is the most efficacy we’ve had in the House in a long time.”

Where do young elected Republicans look for models?

Fukumoto worked the session for veteran Republican legislator Gene Ward; Fale and Johanson did the same for former Republican minority leader Lynn Finnegan. Fale and Cheape both mention Democrat Roy Takumi. “He’s always willing to discuss issues,” says Cheape. “He takes time for a freshman.”

Fukumoto looks to Democrat Della Au Belatti: “She’s conscientious and inclusive.”

The young Republicans admit their party faces an uphill climb to majority status.

“We’re trying to work as a team rather than for ourselves,” says Fukumoto. “We’re trying to create a better Republican brand. Democrats are good at working as one. Not the GOP. ”

Johanson agrees: “The individual path as a contrarian doesn’t work. You can’t build something bigger if nobody wants to work with you.”

Fale thinks the stuff of a Republican resurgence lies near the surface of the electorate. “It’s a movement,” he says. “People know some-thing’s wrong. They can’t always articulate it, but they know it’s wrong.”

In 2012, Fale articulated it in his North Shore district, edging out a Republican incumbent in the primary and trouncing the Democrat in the general.

“Last year, at the door and in the district, our three Republican freshmen bucked a Democratic trend,” says Johanson. “Voters understood where they were coming from and trusted them as arbiters who cared about the quality of their lives.”

But where do you find the attractive, young candidates who “at the door and in the district” can become the GOP frosh class of 2014 and beyond?

“We have to build a network of camaraderie and friendship among people our own age,” says Fukumoto.

“And,” adds Cheape, “they have to be invested in their communities, in their schools, their problems, their daily lives.”