U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono is a lifelong Democrat who has achieved her share of political “firsts.” She was the first Asian woman to serve in the U.S. Senate and was also the first Buddhist elected to that body.
She was the first woman elected to the Senate from Hawaii, and is the only immigrant serving in the Senate.
Now Hirono says she wants to see another milestone reached with the nomination and election of Hillary Clinton as the first female president of the United States. That would be historic and important, she said.
Hirono joins the 42-member official delegation from Hawaii at the National Democratic Convention in Philadelphia this week to nominate Clinton. The convention runs from Monday through Thursday, and an estimated 50,000 people are expected to attend.
First lady Michelle Obama and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont are scheduled to speak Monday, and President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will address the convention Wednesday. Clinton will accept the party nomination Thursday.
Political conventions usually strive to project an image of unity, but Hawaii’s rough-and-tumble primary race this year caused a rift in the party that is reflected in the divided Hawaii delegation.
Longtime party leaders and established Democrats traveling to Philadelphia mostly support Clinton, including Hirono, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, Gov. David Ige and former Gov. John Waihee.
But that “establishment” wing of the party was overwhelmed by Sanders supporters during the party’s Hawaii presidential preference polling March 26, when Sanders won 70 percent of the vote.
Based on those vote totals, Sanders secured 17 Hawaii delegates while Clinton won eight. That means most of the Hawaii delegates traveling to Philadelphia prefer Sanders, including newly elected Hawaii Democratic Party Chairman Tim Vandeveer, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Democratic National Committeeman-elect Bart Dame.
There is little doubt about the final outcome of the convention, but Dame said splits within the national party and the Hawaii delegation could surface publicly during the convention.
“Most of our delegates were never involved with the Democratic Party before, were swept up by their passion, by their need that Bernie get the nomination, so it is difficult for them, and also for me, to adjust to the reality of math that tells us Bernie is not going to get the nomination,” Dame said.
“Different people have processed this in different ways, and since they are going to Philadelphia, some of them are probably determined to find some way to express the politics that are in their heart and not just go along with the coronation of Hillary Clinton,” he said.
Exactly how that will play out is unclear, Dame said, because Sanders supporters can be unpredictable.
“You’re familiar with the expression that organizing Democrats is like herding cats? In the case of Bernie’s people, we’re talking about feral cats,” Dame said.
Vandeveer, party chairman and another Sanders supporter, said the Sanders supporters have already had a chance to express their “progressive” beliefs through the party platform, which was negotiated in the weeks before the convention.
The Sanders camp successfully pushed hard for platform provisions calling for a $15-per-hour federal minimum wage and expansion of Social Security.
The convention “is an opportunity for us to elevate what became the most progressive platform that’s ever come out of the Democratic National Committee,” Vandeveer said. “That, first and foremost, is a way for us to express ourselves, by discussing that.”
The delegates also have opportunities to show their support for Sanders and his agenda in a roll-call vote, and through their efforts to press a resolution that was approved at the Hawaii State Democratic Convention in May calling on the party to abolish superdelegates, Vandeveer said.
Clinton secured the party nomination with the critical support of superdelegates, who are often elected officials or party insiders. Superdelegates can vote for any candidate they choose regardless of the outcome of party primaries, caucuses or preference polls, and Dame describes their use as “a mechanism that frustrates actual democracy.”
Another subject for discussion will be proposals to modify or abolish closed primaries in states such as New York that require primary voters to declare their party affiliations weeks or months in advance if they want to participate in the primary, a practice that Dame said tends to suppress turnout by independents.
Vandeveer said he is not worried that the party will appear divided as those issues play out in committee meetings or on the convention floor.
Those kinds of disagreements are “reflective of what our party is, and that is a diverse and dynamic group of Democrats who come under a very big tent and do what is typically done at a convention, which is debate, which is argue, which is advocate, which is respectfully engage in discourse in order to make our party stronger,” he said.
“The debate is good. As long as we conduct ourselves civilly and, being from Hawaii, with aloha, in my opinion we’re going to be stronger coming out the other side,” Vandeveer said. “That’s not something you can say for the other party. The other party, as you saw at their convention, was very divided, very divisive … and they’re not able to have that debate. They’ve had, I think, a crisis of confidence, and that’s how you ended up with Donald Trump at the top of the ticket.”
Of all of the Sanders supporters, it might be most uncomfortable for Gabbard to politely fall in line behind Clinton. Gabbard, who represents rural Oahu and the neighbor islands in the U.S. House, essentially framed her opposition to Clinton and her support for Sanders as a fundamental issue of war and peace.
Gabbard is a veteran of the Iraq War and says Clinton has repeatedly shown she is all too willing to use military force to achieve her objectives in international relations.
Gabbard announced it was Clinton’s record of “interventionist, regime change policies” that prompted Gabbard to resign as vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee in February to endorse Sanders.
In a February interview on CNN, Gabbard described Clinton as a champion of the Iraq War, and “the architect” of the effort to overthrow the government in Libya that resulted in “tremendous loss of life and chaos” in that country. Clinton supports a similar escalation of U.S. involvement in the conflict in Syria, Gabbard said, including establishing a no-fly zone in that country.
At the Hawaii Democratic Convention in Honolulu in May, Gabbard sparked raucous cheering from some delegates by calling for an end to the “counterproductive regime-change war to overthrow the Syrian government of Assad.”
She told the crowd that said while the U.S. must fight terrorists in Syria, the regime-change effort in Syria is fueling a brutal civil war and strengthening the enemies of the United States. Gabbard did not mention Clinton by name in that convention speech, but listeners obligingly shouted out “Hillary!” to fill in the blank for her.
Even when it was clear in June that Clinton had clinched the Democratic nomination, Gabbard told CNN she was still not ready to endorse the former secretary of state.
Specifically, Gabbard cited Clinton’s “commitment to continue this interventionist regime change policy in Syria that is proving so disastrous.”
Gabbard was unavailable to discuss her views on Clinton and the convention despite repeated requests for comment last week.
Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui was selected as a convention superdelegate by virtue of his status as chairman of the Lieutenant Governors Association, but Ige’s office announced Saturday Tsutsui would instead remain behind to serve as acting governor while Ige attends the convention.
Tsutsui had been looking forward to the national gathering of fellow Democrats at the convention, and issued a statement in March announcing he was “truly honored to have this unique opportunity to help make a difference in the future of our nation” as a superdelegate.
However, Tsutsui said he decided last week not to go to the convention. It would have been the first time that both Tsutsui and Ige were out of state at the same time, and Tropical Storm Darby was approaching the islands, so Tsutsui opted to remain behind.
Tsutsui said it is up to national party officials to decide what to do with his superdelegate vote. His decision to stay home and the death of U.S. Rep. Mark Takai last week reduced the number of superdelegates allocated to Hawaii to eight from 10.
No matter how events play out in Philadelphia this week, there is little doubt about the outcome of the presidential election in Hawaii.
The Hawaii Poll earlier this month showed Clinton has a large lead in the presidential race among Oahu voters, who make up the bulk of the state’s heavily Democratic voting population.
Forty-nine percent of likely voters said they would vote for Clinton if the election for president were held that day, while Republican nominee Donald Trump was the top choice of 25 percent of Oahu voters. The poll found that 6 percent of those surveyed said they did not plan to vote in the presidential race this year.
That means Hawaii will be supporting “the most competent, experienced person,” Hirono said.
“It’s not only that Hillary is a woman, but as President Obama has said, she’s probably the most qualified person running for president in anybody’s memory,” Hirono said. “Here she is, a former first lady, secretary of state, senator. Lets’s face it, that is a lot of experience.”