HONOLULU >> The clock was ticking and scores of bills hung in the balance, so Hawaii’s Republican Senate caucus descended to the Capitol basement and an austere wood-paneled meeting room, sealing the door to plot strategy.
Peering from behind silver reading glasses, Minority Leader Sam Slom skimmed a summary of each bill, then rendered a verdict. A housing revenue bond: “That’s OK.” Funds to boost Hawaii’s film industry: “We’ll let that one go.” Guaranteed overtime for public works: “More cost to the taxpayer,” Slom said, flagging the bill for dissent on the Senate floor.
The room was filled with a dozen staffers as well as the minority leader, the GOP floor leader and the top-ranking Republican on each of 16 committees, yet in 2 1/2 hours there wasn’t a whisper of dissent as Slom firmly made up his mind.
That’s because Slom holds every one of those leadership positions.
In the 25-member Hawaii Senate there are 24 Democrats and one Republican: Slom, a Pennsylvania-born contrarian with a frugal streak owing to his parents’ Great Depression upbringing and an unyielding capacity to be clobbered – ceaselessly, day in, day out – and gladly return for more.
“Nobody twisted my arm,” he said. “Nobody’s making me stay.”
Other legislatures are lopsided. Until recently, California Democrats held a two-thirds majority in Sacramento. Rhode Island Democrats control the state House 69 to 6, and Wyoming Republicans command the state Senate 26 to 4.
But Slom – the pronunciation rhymes with “home” – is a figure of unique solitude, comprising the only single-member caucus anywhere in the country. Even Hawaii’s House of Representatives has seven Republicans among its 51 members.
The opportunities for futility are never-ending. Forget about passing legislation. Slom’s policy proposals are largely ignored and his amendments rejected. Ideas that gain favor are swiped by Democrats, without giving him credit. He joked about holding “every indoor and outdoor NCAA record in voting no” – usually on the black-and-blue side of a 24-1 thumping.
Yet success, however meager, can be measured in different ways. “Who stands up for free enterprise . for no need for new taxation?” Slom asked as a lunch of pizza and salad sat untouched. “That’s what keeps me here, to make sure that people understand there is a different philosophy, that it’s an important philosophy, that it’s practiced in many states across this country.”
Hawaii is one of the most thoroughly Democratic states in the U.S., a product of its multiracial culture and strong labor influence, but Slom, 72, is surprisingly well-regarded. Part of it may be the indulgence afforded an eccentric, and mostly harmless, uncle. But political opponents praised his principle and consistency, his thorough research and carefully reasoned arguments. (Some Democrats agree with Slom more than they publicly admit.)
“He has an ideology, but he’s not an ideologue,” said Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who has known Slom since they attended the University of Hawaii and stood on opposite sides of the Vietnam War – Slom marching in favor, Abercrombie against. “You can always have a civilized conversation.”
A sense of humor helps. In 2010, Hawaii’s only other Republican senator retired and was replaced by a Democrat. People took to calling Slom “the Lone Ranger.” So on the Legislature’s 2011 opening day, Slom delivered his speech for the minority caucus wearing a black cowboy hat and carrying a little stick pony.
Slom never worried much about standing out.
In the dead of an Allentown, Pa., winter, he’d wear the aloha shirts with little coconut buttons that his Uncle Ray, a sailor, sent from Honolulu. For as long as he can remember, Slom was drawn to the islands. He followed the 1950s debate on statehood and tuned in each Sunday night to the live-music show “Hawaii Calls.” (Abercrombie grew up listening to the radio broadcast in Buffalo, N.Y.)
Slom’s parents expected him to accept a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania; instead he used his savings and bought a ticket to Honolulu, announcing the departure at his Hawaiian-themed high school graduation party. His mother, he said, dropped a tray of hors d’oeuvres.
After college and law school, Slom started a Honolulu economic consulting firm, which he still runs. He became a familiar face during the Legislature’s 60-day sessions, lobbying for small-business interests until he grew convinced he could do more as a lawmaker. In 1996, Slom knocked off a 22-year Democratic incumbent to nab a Senate seat, representing Diamond Head and other affluent parts of east Oahu.
He described his politics this way: “Conservative first. Libertarian second. Republican.” He supports legalized abortion, decriminalizing marijuana and civil unions for gay couples – but not same-sex marriage – and suggests the GOP has better things to do than crusade on social issues.
His main interest is fiscal matters. He has never, he boasted, voted for a tax increase and never will. (He’s personally frugal too, routinely turning back a portion of his office allowance and driving extra blocks to hunt down the cheapest gas for his 2005 Saturn.)
Married and twice divorced, Slom has four grown sons who live on the mainland, which leaves plenty of time for other interests: snorkeling, reading historical and business biographies, and extending a thumb in the eye of the reigning Democratic establishment.