Beth Fukumoto had writer’s block. “The script isn’t coming,” she texted me on a Friday afternoon in March. She was supposed to shoot a video the next morning announcing her decision to leave the Republican Party, but she postponed the recording three times. “Making the decision was rough,” she wrote, “but it’s turning out that explaining it in 3 mins is damn near impossible.”
Fukumoto, 33, is the state representative for Hawaii’s District 36, which includes the wealthy Honolulu suburb of Mililani. Until recently, she was the leader of Hawaii’s small Republican caucus and a rising star in the national party.
But in January, Fukumoto made a speech at the Women’s March in Oahu criticizing President Donald Trump for his treatment of racial and religious minorities and women — the final straw for three of her hardline Republican colleagues, who were sick of what they saw as her repeated subversion of the party. She was told that if she didn’t stop criticizing Trump, she would be removed from her position as Minority Leader. When she refused, she was ousted in an ugly closed-door vote that reportedly caused one of her colleagues to leave the floor in tears.
Fukumoto had joined the Hawaii GOP thinking it could restyle itself to appeal more to young people and minorities. Instead, she found that the party was only growing more intolerant — and Trump’s divisive rhetoric was making things worse. On the same day she was voted out as Minority Leader, Fukumoto announced she wanted to switch parties and asked her constituents to weigh in.
“I can’t see a way forward anymore,” she told me. “I do think that someday these things might change. But right now, in this America and in this state, my values and what I’m most concerned about are things that Democrats are paying attention to and not things that Republicans are paying attention to.”
The combination of her ouster and potential party switch made national news. Postcards flooded into her office from all over the country. “Dear Rep. Fukumoto,” wrote one 8-year-old from Illinois, “Thank you for marching in the Women’s March and trying to save America.” One person sent an eight-by-ten photo of Fukumoto with a self-addressed envelope so she could sign it and send it back.
“I can’t see a way forward anymore.”
The most important responses, however, were from District 36. Out of the 477 who wrote, called, or emailed, 123 said she should leave, 220 said they didn’t care, 111 said she should stay, and 19 said she should stay but they would still support her if she switched. In other words, 75 percent of her constituents were okay with her leaving.
Fukumoto’s acceptance by the Democrats isn’t certain. She must request membership and answer for her socially conservative record, which includes voting no on same-sex marriage in 2013. She will also be transitioning from a prominent position in a small caucus to a rank-and-file position in a very crowded one. She had been planning to run for higher office as a Republican, but as a Democrat, she will have to line up behind more senior members. “This could be the peak of my political career,” she said.
Before Fukumoto announced her decision, speculation was rampant. Almost everyone I spoke to in Honolulu’s small political circle assumed she would leave. “There is a history of Republicans jumping party and becoming Democrats,” said Chad Blair, a political reporter for the Honolulu Civil Beat. “You don’t see it the other way around.”
In 1988, state legislators Ann Kobayashi and Donna Ikeda switched parties because they felt the GOP had gotten too conservative. In 2005, County Council member Jimmy Tokioka changed parties because, he said, his heart was “more aligned with the Democrats." In 2007, state legislators Mike Gabbard and Karen Awana switched parties because they felt they couldn’t get anything done as Republicans in the Democrat-dominated legislature. In 2013, Gil Riviere joined the Democrats after he lost his House seat to a more conservative Republican in 2012.
In 2014, Aaron Ling Johanson — another young Republican Minority Leader who had been called a “rising star” by local media — defected after clashing with members of the party who felt he wasn’t adversarial enough toward the Democrats. “Many in the local Republican Party are becoming more narrow in their demand for ideological purity,” he said at the time, “as well as in their demand for a combative tone and posture.”
“There is a history of Republicans jumping party and becoming Democrats.”
Without Fukumoto, the Republicans are down to five members out of 76 in the state legislature. That’s a poor showing even for Hawaii, which has been deep blue since 1962. “Fukumoto is latest casualty of local Republican Party’s small tent that's steadily shrinking,” wrote the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
Still, some Republicans feel the party’s problem is that it isn’t rigid enough. Sam Slom, the lone Republican state senator who lost his seat in November to a progressive Democrat, believes that Republicans can’t attract new members by moving away from the brand. “We are not ‘Democrat lite,’” he said in a rousing speech at the party’s state convention. “We are Republicans!”
Fukumoto grew up in Mililani when the area was still pineapple fields. Her mother is of Irish descent, her father Japanese. Her father described her as a good student who grew out of her shyness. She majored in American Studies at the University of Hawaii, then went to Georgetown for her master’s in English. When she returned to Hawaii in 2008, the only place hiring was the legislature.
Fukumoto became a file clerk in the Minority Research office and eventually its director. When she first ran for state legislature in 2010, her father made a sign that read “Beth’s at work. I’m her dad” and stood waving it by the side of the road, as is traditional in local politics. She lost but ran again in 2012, beating a Democrat who had been in office for 16 years. It was an auspicious start to her political career in a state where Republicans rarely win. In 2014, she took over the minority leadership from Johanson.
Around the time that it started to seem like Trump would win the presidential nomination, Fukumoto went to Washington, D.C., for a three-day, non-partisan policy discussion. She was in a bar with a group of Republicans when Trump’s “Muslim ban” came up. Her companions dismissed it as campaign rhetoric. It would never happen, they said, and he was just saying it to attract a certain group of voters.
Fukumoto, shaken, reminded them about Japanese internment during World War II — a mass human rights violation for which Ronald Reagan apologized and issued reparations in 1988. Her grandfather had escaped suspicion by gathering up all the Japanese artifacts in the house, burying them, and replacing them with an American flag and a Bible. As she spoke, she noticed a headline on the TV in the bar about how Trump had said he might have supported Japanese internment.
“It made it so real,” she said. “I couldn’t not say something. I had to say something.”
She called the Republican National Committee, urging them to condemn Trump’s remarks on behalf of Republicans. They brushed her off, so she called the local media in Hawaii and got on the radio. “That was the first time that I openly spoke out against Trump,” she said.
Even though most Hawaii GOP officials privately disliked Trump, they thought it was wrong for Fukumoto to criticize him so relentlessly — especially when he was doing so well in the polls. Shortly before the Hawaii Republican Presidential Caucus in March, a GOP district leader filed a complaint with the party against Fukumoto and a former Republican congresswoman, Pat Saiki, who had said Trump made a “mockery of the presidency.” “I would have much rather them not say anything," said the district leader, Brett Kulbis, who was working on the Ted Cruz campaign, “or at least be a positive message that can resonate with the rest of the Republicans.”
Trump also seemed to invigorate Hawaii Republican voters. The Republican Presidential Caucus was overwhelmed with people trying to register. According to Jack James, the executive director of the Hawaii GOP, the caucus brought in 10,000 new Republicans, bringing the party’s membership to 32,344. Trump won a 42 percent plurality, giving him 11 of Hawaii's 19 delegates.
Once Trump became the Republican nominee, the pressure to fall in line intensified. At the party’s state convention in May, Fukumoto took questions from the 300 or so attendees. She expected them to be angry that she wasn’t supporting Trump, but she didn’t expect them to boo and yell at her to resign. “We grew the party 50 percent off of this man,” one delegate said, pointing to his “Make America Great Again” hat. “Why would anybody go against him?”
By July, the Hawaii GOP had completely circled the wagons. Even Saiki relented, saying, “I am going to have to support him.”
Despite what felt like a groundswell, Trump’s numbers in Hawaii are hardly unprecedented. Trump got 30 percent of the vote in Hawaii in the general election; by comparison, George W. Bush got 37 percent in 2000 and 45 percent in 2004. Nor did the local GOP see any immediate benefit from Trump’s surge in the legislature — instead, it lost two seats.
Local Republican officials hope, however, that some influence will trickle down from Washington, D.C., to Hawaii. “We have a party that’s potentially dying,” said Andria Tupola, the representative who replaced Fukumoto as Minority Leader, “yet we might be the only access that this state has to the federal government.”
Political scientists often draw a line between Hawaii’s politics and its racial makeup. The state is 37 percent Asian, 26 percent white, 23 percent two or more races, 10 percent native Hawaiian, and the rest black, Latino, and American Indian. Those demographics are more favorable for the Democratic Party, which supports policies that tend to benefit people of color.
Given current population trends, the rest of the country is shaping up to look more like Hawaii, at least in the sense that it will be majority nonwhite. In Fukumoto’s mind, this meant that Hawaii could be the test bed for a version of the Republican Party — currently lily white — that could survive the coming demographic changes. “This should have been the place that we could have launched a whole different Republican Party that reflects what America’s going to be,” she said.
Unfortunately, the national party views Hawaii as a lost cause, said Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii.
“I don’t see at the national level any push to really try to understand how shifting demographics are going to affect the future of the party,” he said. “I think they’ve embraced, after Trump, the strategy of attracting more white voters.”
Republicans in Hawaii are also pretty liberal relative to Republicans in the rest of the country. In 2016, the American Conservative Union gave Republicans in the Hawaii House of Representatives a not-so-hot average score of 29 percent, which is supposed to reflect how closely they hewed to conservative ideals. The House Democrats scored 26 percent, and individually, many Democrats scored higher than some Republicans.
Republicans in Hawaii are pretty liberal relative to Republicans in the rest of the country
There is one pitch that seems to work for Republicans in Hawaii: highlighting Democratic incompetence. The state has been under one-party rule for essentially its entire history, and, despite the stereotype, it’s not quite paradise. Taxes are some of the highest in the country, public schools are struggling, and traffic is terrible. Most lawmaking happens behind closed doors within the Democrat caucus, and the ruling party has been plagued by campaign finance violations and corruption. Part of the reason Hawaii’s voter turnout is the lowest out of any state is due to the sense that the Democrats will never change anything.
Linda Lingle, a divorced, Jewish, moderate conservative, was elected governor in 2002 and 2006 by campaigning against the status quo. But Hawaii Republicans were unable to capitalize on her success, even though every Republican and Democrat I spoke to agreed that having a one-party system is not healthy for the state.
I attended one full session of the Hawaii House of Representatives while in Honolulu. Shortly after it opened, the Speaker of the House called a recess. Roughly 45 Democrats adjourned to their caucus room. About 20 minutes later, they came back. Almost immediately, another recess was called. The Democrats left the chamber again. When the session finally restarted, the Democrats introduced a motion to replace a committee chairman with no explanation as to why. The motion passed and the session adjourned.
The whole time, the six members of the Republican caucus remained in the chamber, looking at their phones and reading the news on their laptops, bored and irrelevant, while the Democrats decided what to do.
Fukumoto’s father, who campaigned vigorously for his daughter but described himself as “wishy-washy” on politics, voted for Trump. Her mother, who owns a small realty business, also voted for Trump. They’re church-going Christians, and they vote Republican because of the Supreme Court justice nominations. Her father now watches Trump on CNN and regrets his vote, he said. “You know, everybody makes mistakes,” he said.
Fukumoto's parents both voted for Trump
Fukumoto is a true moderate. She feels in general that there should be more party choices, but in Hawaii politics, it’s almost impossible to get on the ballot unless you’re an R or a D. Her two pet issues are transportation taxes (she opposes them) and affordable housing (she’s in favor of it). She supports same-sex marriage, although she voted against it in 2013 because that’s what she believed her district wanted. She is pro-choice but supports conscience exemptions for religious health care providers who do not want to perform abortions.
She’s not sure she would have come out against Trump four years ago when she first got elected. “I might’ve just said nothing,” she said. “I don’t think I realized until this election how dangerous it is to slowly give in to populism.”
Fukumoto’s Republican colleagues had encouraged her to remain in the party, although somewhat passive-aggressively. “I’d love for her to stay,” Rep. Bob McDermott, a conservative ex-Marine with whom Fukumoto had frequently clashed in the legislature, told The Outline. “But some people aren’t fit for certain jobs.” Fritz Rohlfing, chairman of the Hawaii Republican Party, said he hoped she would stay in the party but that if she became a Democrat, she should resign her seat in the legislature and allow the Republicans to appoint a replacement. Tupola, her replacement as Minority Leader, was even more tepid. “I’m somebody that believes strongly in being as much of who you are as you can,” she said. “And if that means perhaps that, within a group situation, you don’t match, then that’s fine too.”
Tupola, McDermott, and Gene Ward — a Vietnam veteran and former Peace Corps member who wrote his PhD dissertation on the “values and attitudes” of successful businesspeople in Hawaii — make up the House’s trio of hardliners. Lauren Matsumoto, a former Miss Hawaii, is more liberal but abstained from the vote over Fukumoto’s leadership. Cynthia Thielen, a fiscal conservative and environmental attorney who has served in the legislature since 1990, is now the only outspoken advocate for change in the Hawaii GOP.
“They took away the face of moderate Republicanism when they removed Beth as our minority leader,” Thielen said. “It signals the end of our Republican Party. Hawaii is a very tolerant, diverse society. And when you come in with a hard right-wing social conservatism, it’s just not going to be accepted by the people.”
Other local GOP officials maintain that Fukumoto was removed as leader not only because she spoke out against the president but because she failed to lead the struggling party. Tupola said she hopes to take the party in a new direction by focusing on recruiting new candidates, “rallying the troops,” and “keeping the group together.”
McDermott seemed most irked by the attention Fukumoto had gotten since her comments at the Women’s March.
“She’s not a victim, and she hasn’t done anything as a legislator in her four years here aside from criticize Trump,” McDermott told The Outline. “She hasn’t done jack squat, and she’s milking this. She’s in Elle magazine, you guys are coming out to cover her. She is playing you guys like a fiddle.”
Fukumoto and her sister Sarah, 29, who serves as her chief of staff, finally finished the announcement script after a late night at Fukumoto’s apartment. They caught a few hours of sleep, picked up breakfast from McDonald’s, and headed to the state legislature — a symmetrical, airy building that is designed to resemble a volcano. There they met up with Fukumoto’s communications director and childhood friend, Chelsea Roy, set up a camera on the lawn, and loaded the speech into a teleprompter. Fukumoto, dressed in a dark blue suit, started working her way through the announcement.
“Are you sure you want to keep this part?” Sarah asked, referring to a section about how Fukumoto’s Republican friends had already quit the party. “You’re definitely going to get criticism for that line.”
“I’m going to get criticism for this whole speech,” Fukumoto said.
Sarah and the rest of Fukumoto’s staff have no qualms with following their representative to the other side. They share her disgust with Trump, and most of them already lean liberal. Marlo Ting, Fukumoto’s wonky legislative aide, told me he stopped identifying as a Republican when he saw the way the party reacted to Barack Obama. “They started to glorify ignorance,” he said.
Like Fukumoto, he believes the Hawaii GOP doesn’t want to save itself from ruin. “As crazy as it sounds, they seem to be convinced that the best way to grow their party is to kick out everyone that doesn't think like certain people in that party,” he said. “It’s sort of a ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacy.”
“It signals the end of our Republican Party.”
In all likelihood, the Democrats will accept Fukumoto. It will no longer be considered blasphemous for her to say she thinks Trump is a dangerous bully. Unfortunately, fewer people will pay attention if it’s just another Democrat criticizing the president — and Fukumoto doubts that any Republicans will break ranks any time soon.
“I’m not optimistic that more people are going to start speaking out,” she said. “That people within the party haven’t been willing to stand with me is probably the most disappointing thing of all.”