Despite a dispute, the candidate will appear on the ballot for August's primary
POSTED: 7:51 p.m. HST, Jun 22, 2012
State Democrats will not file a legal challenge to block Laura Thielen from running for state Senate as a Democrat, but might attempt to expel her from the party for not following internal rules.
The deadline for the party to object to Thielen's candidacy in court expired Tuesday, so her name will appear on the Aug. 11 primary ballot against state Sen. Pohai Ryan (D, Hawaii Kai-Waimanalo-Kailua).
Dante Carpenter, the party's chairman, said Democrats will instead consider whether to reprimand, censure or expel Thielen.
The party had determined that Thielen, a director of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources under former Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican, was not eligible to run for office as a Democrat because she had not been a member in good standing for at least six months. Thielen asked for an exception — a process allowed by party rules at the time — but she was denied.
"We're going to pursue our own internal cause of action within our rules, from censure to expulsion," Carpenter said.
Any punishment that Democrats choose to take against Thielen will have no impact on her ballot status this year, but would if she wins and campaigns for re-election in four years. Carpenter and other Democrats, however, said punishment could have an influence on voters.
"We think we're obviously right," Carpenter said. "We just want to honor our rules."
Thielen said she hopes passions will cool and no action will be taken against her for filing for office despite the party's ruling that she was ineligible. "It's great that the voters in Kailua, Waimanalo and Hawaii Kai are the ones who will choose their next state senator," she said in a statement. "As I've been going door to door campaigning, voters have told me in no uncertain terms that they don't want anyone interfering with their right to choose."
Tony Gill, chairman of the Oahu Democrats, said the Thielen dispute has raised an important legal issue that should eventually be tested in court. State elections law requires candidates to take oaths swearing that they are members of the parties they seek to represent. While Thielen is a member of the Democratic Party, she is not considered a member in good standing eligible to run for office.
"She thinks she has a right to run as a Democrat simply because she is a member, even though there are additional rules that say she cannot yet," Gill said. "So the legal question ultimately is whether the state of Hawaii has the authority to tell the Democratic Party that it cannot have such additional internal qualifications."
Gill said Democrats will have to decide whether Thielen should be able to defy the party's rules. "The party has the option to say, ‘That's very interesting. Guess what? You are no longer a member,'" he said.
Bart Dame, a progressive activist, had predicted that Democrats would have lost had they gone to court to object to Thielen's candidacy. Democrats agreed at their state convention in May to modify the eligibility rules for candidates — establishing criteria to judge potential candidates who have been party members for less than six months, a change Dame believes was an acknowledgement that the old rules were flawed.
"The party had a weak case. Had it gone to a neutral body like a court, we probably would have lost," Dame said. "And so rather than pursue that route, they are going to still try to persecute her, but using a very un-neutral body, their own internal deliberations, their own process where they think they can win."
Many Democrats had privately urged party leaders not to challenge Thielen's candidacy in court, warning that the entire episode has undermined the majority party's big-tent image. While the legal option is closed, the prospect that the party might now expel Thielen has alienated some influential activists.
Chuck Freedman, a veteran strategist who was brought in to help shape the party's message before the elections, was so disappointed over the Thielen dispute that he resigned as communications director. He said he had never even had a conversation with Thielen, but believes primary voters should be able to decide who is a worthy Democrat.
"I came in ready to fight Republicans, not fight Democrats," he said.