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Editorial | On Politics

In Hawaii, ethnicity plays unspoken role in politics

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In Hawaii’s chop suey politics no successful office holder ignores ethnic voting.

Politicians will stew over the "Japanese vote" and wonder "where the Filipinos will go." There are appeals to ethnic identity and there are campaigns based on how many bon dances you can make, but what is to be made of candidate for governor Mufi Hannemann’s recent pitch?

As he stood asking for votes and an endorsement at the Hawaii Carpenters Union last week, Hannemann gave his own ethnic background as a reason to vote for him.

"I can identify with you," Hannemann said. "When I look in the audience, I look like you, you look like me. Is that a right thing to say? And even for our Caucasian brothers in the audience, I’m local to the max. My last name is Hannemann. That’s German. My middle name is Francis. English. So I’m Samoan-German-English, born and raised in Hawaii, and married to a katonk, a Japanese-American woman.

"So I’ve got it all in my household, baby, I can relate to each and every one of you."

Hannemann’s opponent in the Democratic primary, Neil Abercrombie, said he was saddened that the former Honolulu mayor was "trying to separate people, not unite them."

Politics and race are always one careless word away from disaster, so I asked several community leaders and akamai politicians what they thought.

Sandra Simms, a respected former state judge, hadn’t heard Hannemann’s comments.

"Wow, he really said that. It is kind of pushing it a bit," Simms said.

"I’m not taking away from the value of having racial and ethnic diversity in public office … but it comes along with being able to address the issues of a particular group.

"It would be like me saying ‘Vote for me because I am black.’ That’s not enough of a reason," Simms said.

A LONGTIME legislative leader, who asked not to be quoted by name, explained: "In Hawaii, all voting comes down to ethnicity.

"We always think about, but I don’t think we should say it. Publicly saying it can be construed in a negative way," the veteran politician said.

Asked to clarify his statement later this week, Hannemann said he was saying that "I relate to everyone in the room. I was just talking about myself."

A neighbor island politician, who also asked not to be named so as not to alienate Hannemann voters, was more critical, saying that pitches such as Hannemann’s divide the community.

"It is important that leaders understand people they represent, but not just because they look like them—you are supposed to bring people together. This is a divisive statement."

More than 100 years ago, the political party started by native Hawaiians to restore the nation of Hawaii formed the Home Rule Party with the rallying cry "Nana i ka ili" (Look to the skin).

The Home Rule Party is only remembered with a street named for it in Kalihi, but the peril of basing a campaign around "us" versus "them" remains.

Richard Borreca writes on politics on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Reach him at


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