QUESTION: You must be used to being outnumbered here by now, but what’s the gameplan going in when it’s 24-1?
ANSWER: Twenty-four to one. Right. It’s the fourth quarter. It’s fourth-and-25. Quarterback sneak! It’s interesting, because I’ve seen some of the stories and some of the blogs where people say, "If you look up the word ‘irrelevant,’ you’ll see Sam Slom’s picture." I’ve heard people say that before. They said it when it was just Fred (Hemmings) and me. They said it when there were five of us. But people who say that miss an important point: Conservatives — and conservative Republicans in particular — have always placed a great deal of emphasis on the individual and what an individual can do … I mean, if you look back in history, all the great movements, whether they were for good or evil, all started with one person. And that person had passion, that person was able to communicate and that person was able to listen. Most importantly, that person had energy and was able to act. So whether it’s five of us or two of us or one of us, it’s not irrelevant to the fact that more than 45 percent of the people chose Republican candidates and they need a voice.
Q: All things considered, you seem to be in remarkably good spirits.
A: Every day you have to smile when you go to work. You put your game face on, because everybody else has enough problems. They don’t want to hear you whining and moaning, "Oh, I’m the only one … oh, I don’t have this and I can’t get that." Well, then don’t take the job. Nobody forced me to do this.
I enjoy the Senate, I gotta tell you. And my colleagues have been very good to me. This will be my fourth president. I started out with Norman Mizuguchi. Then there was Bobby Bunda and Colleen Hanabusa and now Shan (Tsutsui). They’ve all been good and they’ve all been fair. I mean, we’ve certainly disagreed on issues and even on policy and procedure. But I think that I’ve had more than an opportunity — and when I say "me" I’m talking about Fred and our minority also — we’ve had opportunities to express ourselves and to participate and do things.
I met with Shan right after the election and I must say, and I’ve said this a couple of times before, I was very pleasantly surprised that he emerged as the Senate president. I think it’s going to be very beneficial for the Senate, the Legislature and the community.
We met and I asked him, "What do you want me to do about the committees?" I was on seven committees this year. I can handle seven and I gave him a list of priorities of which ones I thought I should be on. And he approved those. But then he said, "By Senate rules, as the only Republican, you’re on every committee." So that’s unwieldy. There’s going to be 14 operating committees, so as I say, I had picked seven and No. 1 was Ways and Means, and No. 2 was Judiciary-Labor, and right down the line. And I was able to cover them and not miss very many hearings. With the 14, I’m going to rely a great deal on volunteers and people who have indicated, "We want to help you. What can we do?" OK, now I have some specific things. I want to make sure that all of the committees are covered to the best of our ability every day.
Those hearings that will be of particular interest, we’ll be using all the social media and technology that we can. I think we’ll be the first — other than Olelo — to broadcast live from hearings and do live streaming. We’re going to use Twitter and Facebook and all of that because while I don’t like it myself — I’m from the old school, where I’ve got one foot in the 19th century and one in the 20th and a hand in the 21st — the fact of the matter is that’s where it is. That’s why newspapers and other traditional media are having a hard time. Because people are getting their news from other sources.
So one of the things I’m going to be doing is holding weekly press conferences. We hope the regular media shows up, but whether they do or don’t we’re going to make sure it gets out to other sources. It will be on Internet, we’ll get it to neighborhood boards, I’m calling on organizations to help — church groups, unions, whoever wants to help is fine with me.
Basically, what we’re going to be doing is saying, "This is what happened in your state Legislature this week and you should be particularly aware of this bill, this committee, this movement."
Q: Again, though, alone, are you going to be able to gather all this information and deliver it accurately and quickly?
A: Yes. Yes, I can. Yes, I can. Because I won’t be by myself. I called everybody (on staff) together right after the elections and I said, "Look, first, I want to find out who wants to stay. And if you stay you’re going to have to have energy, you’re going to have to work harder than before, and you’re probably going to have less compensation and less recognition than before, but you do it because you believe in what we’re doing." Everybody stayed. In fact, I’ve got people I can’t hire who want to join.
So I’ve got the energy, I’ve got the ability, I’ve got the people who want to help. And I haven’t even mentioned the support I’m going to get inside the building. I have been offered a hand of friendship (from Democrats) and I’m going to take them at their word.
Look, there’s a fundamental difference between being in the Senate and being the House. God, I could never be in the House. I mean, they’re crazy over there. You notice they’re still fighting over who’s going to be their speaker. Part of it is logistics — they’ve got 51 people and we’ve got 25 — but we’ve never had a problem where someone wants to speak where they’ve been gaveled out of order or the sergeant of arms has been called down to physically take them off the floor or stuff like that. …
And many of these people (in the Senate), I’ve been with now for a number of years, so we know each other. So if I get up to speak against a bill, I know who’s going to stand up to speak against me. That’s fine. You learn very quickly you can’t take it personally, that’s No. 1. Number 2, the senator who was the biggest pain in your side yesterday is going to be your biggest ally today on a different bill. And you can do that without compromising your principles and that’s very important to me.
Q: Let’s go back for a minute to the idea of a weekly press conference. Down 24-1, have you decided that you’re now going to be the watchdog of the Senate and maybe not spend so much time introducing legislation that’s unlikely to pass?
A: I don’t know if I’d call it being a watchdog, other than to point out things that maybe have not been pointed out. And I will give my colleagues the benefit of the doubt. Certainly when you come at this thing ideologically you’re going to look at things differently.
This is really going to be a tough year. Those people who have been writing that we’ve turned the corner … not true. Certain segments of certain industries have turned the corner. I applaud the visitor industry because it is our primary industry and we want them to be as healthy as possible. But a lot of that is coming from rate cutting, and a lot is coming from improvements in other economies that allow people to come here. That’s great. But I deal with small businesses, which are 98 percent of the businesses in this community, and they haven’t turned the corner. They’re suffering. There are a lot of them who are holding on by their fingernails.
Most people in this building have never had any small business experience. Most do not reach into their own pocket to balance the budget. Those of us who do — not to say we’re better because we’re not, but we have a different set of experiences and we’re going to be more cautious. You’re going to accept risk, but you’re going to accept it on your own terms and understand what happens if it doesn’t work out. It’ a lot easier to work with someone else’s money. It’s a lot easier if you pass a bill where the full ramifications won’t be seen for two years or four years and you may be gone by then.
So to a certain degree, I see that as my role. I’ve always seen that as my role –to try to carefully explain, not to talk down to anybody, not to cajole or anything else, but to say, "Hey, look, have you considered what this means?"
Lots of times, these bills — sometimes by accident, sometimes by design — are a little slippery in terms of what they say. And again, to my colleagues’ credit, I can recall several instances where I said something, or Fred said something, and they killed the bill, amended the bill, withheld the bill or did something with it. And that’s a credit to them. And I think even more so now with this group, we’ve got some new senators coming in, we’ve got some old-timers, and with the focus on a neighbor island president, which I think is a good thing, because I think we had become too Oahu-centric, I think all of these things together will allow to work together better.
Q: So instead of doom and gloom you’re actually optimistic about the session?
A: To the extent that we can work together on certain things, I’m willing. I’ll sit down and talk with anyone. I’ll talk to the governor; we go all the way back to 1960. I know he’s going to have a hard job.
Some of you in the media have called me The Lone Ranger. Well, the way I remember it, The Lone Ranger was the good guy. I’m not sure if I’ll have to wear a mask or not. But he had his faithful companion and he also had a lot of people who helped and they were glad to see him come to town. And I think that, if anything, my colleagues will bend over backward to help me out because they don’t want to be seen as stomping on the poor minority guy. … And so, to the extent that I can work with them and help them, I think it can be very positive. I think people may be very pleasantly surprised.
Q: Do you have any specific legislation that you plan to push this session?
A: Yes, I do. First of all, I’m going to be back with the term limits, initiative referendum and recall. Everybody points to California and says, "Oh, my God, look at all the things they’re doing." Well, we’ve got to be the complete opposite. We’re the only state in the union that has neither statewide unlimited initiative referendum or recall. The only recall we’ve really seen was when Patsy Mink did it for the council members at the city council. The initiative on the rail was very limited in what it could do. I think that’s part of the reason people are so frustrated. You elect 99 percent Democrats to do it, but they still don’t do what you want done, so what do you do? The stock answer is, "Well, every two years or every four years, you can elect someone else." But it doesn’t work that way and people have come to that conclusion. The fact that, hurray, we’re up to 56 percent in the vote totals? I remember when it was in the high 80s and that’s what we should be shooting for. But people have to have something to vote for. Fiscal notes. This is the idea … that oftentimes a bill will be introduced by someone and there will be a nominal amount given — say, $50,000 — that they know full well that that’s just what it takes to get the program started. And three years, four years, five years down the road you’ve parlayed that $50,000 into $2 million or $5 million of $10 million. A fiscal note requires that you put the total fiscal impact on that bill when you sign that bill. That’s part of the transparency and disclosure that we need.
Q: What’s your take on the elections, from the Republican point of view?
A: One thing was that the unions and other special interests said, "We’re going to get Linda Lingle … we’re going to pay her back for what she’s done." It was not to the same level as the hatred for George Bush, but there was some real hatred out there. You know, I’ve had my differences with Linda but I think she was a good governor. I think she stood firmer than most men under the financial constraints. (But) they really disliked her, and they waited for the payback. I think that was the No. 1 thing. It was the driving force: "We’re going to get Lingle."
I don’t want to criticize, but if I’m asked, I’m going to say it straight up. Duke, he’s a nice guy. And he’s accomplished a great deal. But I thought the campaign was very weak. The Republicans I spoke with — except the ones who were working for him, and those people worked very hard for him, 24-7 — there was no fire. There was no passion.
The Democrats always talk about diversity, but what did they have for their team? They had a short, old white man and a taller, younger white man. What did Republicans have? A Hawaiian man and a Filipino woman! And it was never used. Nothing positive came out of it. And those "Rise and Shine" commercials? I talked to Republicans and no one liked them. You know, his plastic face coming around the corner … and that woman, whoever did the voiceover … jeez.
The thing that disappointed me the most, though, were the attacks on the Lingle-Aiona administration. And he backed away. He neither defended nor explained the administration. There were two times when Linda came out — and quite frankly she showed more cojones than most male Republicans — because of that commercial with the empty seat. She did it. Where was he?
And Charles Djou … listen, I would have given up my seat to return Charles Djou to Congress because I thought it was important that we have a Republican in Congress and he was excellent. But those commercials? They did him in, there’s no question in my mind. Not only were they mean-spirited, but they were just plain flat-out wrong. OK, the unflattering picture of Colleen, that was just juvenile. But when they hit her for the $75 million tax credit for Jeff Stone and Ko Olina … hey, Charles voted for that. I voted for that. I spoke in favor of that. I thought it was a good idea. I said, "Hey, we’re not going to lose anything because if the aquarium doesn’t get built, the money goes back," which it did. In the meantime, they established work for the Leeward side, scholarships, all that. That was all positive.
And the 36 percent pay raise? Well, everybody got that because of the salary commission. I railed against that years ago when it was on the ballot. I said, "You vote for that you’re going to see salaries zoom up and nobody is going to have any public hearings on it and nobody is going to be able to vote on it." And of course that’s what happened. So we took a 5 percent pay cut. But to single her out and to say, "She took this while you suffered," that was baloney. And I said, "Look, I understand that it came from a separate committee. But Charles, you could have said, ‘No, I want to fight fair on the issues,’ " because I thought he did well in the debates on the issues.
Q: What’s the state of the Republican Party in Hawaii right now?
I think there are some people who are angry, who are calling for resignations. People calling for this and that. I would look at it this way: If you were to go back and look at newspaper headlines and magazine covers in January 2009 and you get an expert like James Carville — who I happen to like, although I like his wife better — and what did James say? He said, unequivocally, "The Republican Party is dead." Politics is definitely cyclical.
Look, the new Republicans in Washington could fall on their faces. But these Democrats here are going to have a difficult time, and if they continue with the old ways of tax and spend and more debt, we’re running out of options here. And we’re following in exactly the footsteps of California. I mean, exactly. They elect Jerry Brown, we elect Neil Abercrombie. "A New Beginning"? C’mon. But I am willing to give him time. And this Legislature has shown time and again that it’s not willing to march in lockstep simply because the governor is a Democrat.
But the party … what’s the party going to do? I don’t know. If Linda Lingle steps back in, I’m afraid the party becomes the focal point for a Senate race in 2012. It’s gotta continue doing what it did this year. It did a really good job of recruiting candidates and helping candidates. …
Another thing was the number of blank ballots … 13,000 in the Djou-Hanabusa race. I had 9 percent in mine. Right down the line there were more blank ballots than ever before in candidate races. … I looked at all the precincts and I talked to people and what they said was they didn’t like the negative ads … so some of them said, "A pox on Colleen," and some said, "A pox on Charles," and some said, "A pox on both of you," and they didn’t vote that race because of that. And because they didn’t vote at the top after governor, it trickled down to every other race.
I would say our party has an excellent chance of rebuilding because we have a number of good candidates. But there have been problems within the party about stifling open speech and free speech and not wanting to, you know, "Oh, we don’t want to step on this group or say something over here that might be taken the wrong way." The Democrats don’t have any problems like that. I mean, look at what they’re doing to poor (Gary) Okino. He quits the party but they’re still going after him. And Mike Gabbard, two years later, they’re going to go after him because he didn’t follow the party line.
So the Republican Party in my humble estimation should be showing the real difference. I don’t go along with this big-tent theory to the extent that anybody and everybody is welcome and that you can make policy, because then you trample on those that have been there and really have a belief in the ideology, and they’ve been there for years and years and years and then find out their roles are marginalized.
Q: How did you come to endorse John Carroll and Adrienne King?
A: Oh, boy, did I get heat for that. But sure, I’ll tell you. First of all, Adrienne King. I’ve known Adrienne for a long time. I’ve known Lynn (Finnegan) from the first time she was courted to become a candidate. And I like her a lot. She’s smart and she’s bright and all that. She wasn’t used in the campaign, which was a big loss. I asked her first of all what her plans were for this year and she said, "Oh, I don’t know yet." And I said, "I would really suggest you run for (Norman) Sakamoto’s Senate seat. It’s a slam dunk. It’s your area, you’re well-liked, you could walk into that." She said, "Well, (husband) Peter (Finnegan) just started a new business … money … this and that. …" I said, "Do you have any other aspirations? Are you planning to run for anything else?" "No." So a couple of months went by … and Adrienne approached me and said she was running for lieutenant governor. That was over a year ago. So I went back to Lynn immediately and I said, "Lynn, Adrienne wants to run for lieutenant governor and she wants my support. Now, any chance of you running for lieutenant governor?" "No. I wouldn’t do that." So I announced my support for Adrienne. … So now months go by and it’s about a week before the Republican convention and I get a call from Mr. (Lenny) Klompus upstairs and he says to me, "How strong is your support for Adrienne King?" And I say "What do you mean, Lenny?" And he says, "Well, we may have another candidate for lieutenant governor." And I say, "Who would that be?" And he says, "I can’t tell you that right now." So I said, "My support is strong. When I give my support to somebody, there it is."
So I hung up and immediately called Lynn and said, "Lynn, any change?" "Well, yeah, they asked me and I’m thinking about it and. …" And a week later she announced. And I told her, "I hope you understand — you and I are still good friends and I’ll help you any way I can and I’m pretty sure you’re going to get the nomination, but I’m sticking with Adrienne." And she was cool about that, although there were some people in the party who were very upset.
The Carroll thing made even more people upset. John Carroll, I’ve known him for 40 years and he’s crazy. But he came to one of our business functions last year and he said, "I’m thinking of running for office." And it was a different John Carroll than I’d seen before and he asked for my help. And I’ve always told any Republican, and I’ve even told Democrats, "If you want me to help you, just let me know and I’ll help you if I can." So he said, "Will you endorse me?" And I said, "Well, you know Linda announced that Duke was running two and a half years ago at the Maui convention. But you’ve asked me. Duke hasn’t asked me for anything. No involvement, no support, nothing. So sure. It’s a primary and you’re not going to win, but I’ll support you." And I did. And everybody thought I was crazy. I never heard a word from Duke. I sponsored a business meeting with Duke right after he had visited those 125 small businesses — which I thought was great. He came to our breakfast meeting and he did really well. But he never asked for anything, never talked to me about anything, so that was that. Right after the primary, we announced our Paychecks Hawaii endorsement for Duke … and we still didn’t hear anything from him.
Q: The party had to be upset by how that played out.
A: Some people. It’s interesting because, like I say, this should be much bigger than a personality thing. But there are some personalities within our party … (who) would rather be a continual part of a minority, thinking they have an important role, rather than doing the things necessary for a majority. When I say "do the things necessary," I think that was demonstrated quite adequately nationally. For us, we’ve got to take a position that’s not Democrat lite or liberal lite. The tea party started here, but the people who started the tea party groups on Maui and the other islands? I didn’t know them — and I know a lot of people. It was truly grass roots. But the party didn’t make any efforts to reach out to them or do anything with them, which again I think was a tactical mistake.
Q: Did you feel the party might have had more success if it focused more on issues like the economy rather than religion and the civil unions bill?
A: I guess the short answer is yes. I don’t want to say we were pressing the religious issue, because I have no problem with that. But like anything else, you have to sit down and say, "From a strategic standpoint what are the issues?" And the issues are jobs and the economy. I’ve voted against every tax increase there was and I’ve tried to give reasoned and rational explanations for why. I mean, I’m not doing it just to be contrary or just to establish a record but to explain that this is what I feel will be the harm and this is what I feel will not turn things around. That message was not there.
Q: So what does the message have to be going from here if the Republican Party is going to be relevant again in Hawaii?
A: Well, first of all, when you say ‘relevant,’ I take issue with that, remember? We’re not irrelevant.
Q: Let me rephrase that. What is the Republican Party going to have to do to gain more representation?
A: OK. Well, what’s the purpose of a political party? To elect candidates of your party, of course. And clearly we haven’t done that. But like I said, we have a running start because we have really good people. But the message has got to be clear, it has to be focused, it has to be easily understandable and it has to be well-communicated. And that was not done this year.
So to the extent that I can do it, to the extent that I can work with (minority leader) Gene Ward and the eight Republicans in the House, to the extent that we can work with the party and others, we’ll do it. We’re going to do that. I’m ready. Let’s go.